Terminally Ill 'Simpsons' Co-Creator Vows to Give Away Fortune
Sam Simon faces down his terminal cancer diagnosis by spending his vast fortune (how much? "I don't know") on animal rights and feeding the hungry: "I get pleasure from it. I love it."
This story first appeared in the Aug. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Called both "brilliantly funny" and "mentally unbalanced" by Simpsons co-creator Matt Groening, television writer-producer Sam Simon, 58, has become known throughout Hollywood for his philanthropy since leaving the iconic animated series in 1993 (he retained a highly lucrative executive producer title). A Stanford grad who grew up in Beverly Hills and Malibu -- and rose in the industry at a young age to become the showrunner of Taxi at 24 -- Simon confesses, "I don't know," when it comes to estimating his charitable donations to date.
His contributions include founding the Malibu-based Sam Simon Foundation (worth nearly $23 million as of 2011) that rescues the hungry (humans -- but with vegan foods only) and strays (dogs, of any variety). His other pet charities include PETA, which in February thanked him for his support by naming its Norfolk, Va., headquarters the Sam Simon Center; international nonprofit Save the Children; and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a global marine conservation organization. His contributions led it to name one of the four ships in its fleet of vessels, used to hinder whaling and illegal fishing, the M/Y Simon in 2012. He also turned a Malibu spread into a canine haven that rescues dogs from kill shelters and trains them as companions for the deaf.
Five months ago, the nine-time Emmy winner -- whose post-Simpsons projects have included directing (The Drew Carey Show), hosting (the short-lived poker reality series Sam's Game for Playboy TV) and consulting (currently on FX's Anger Management) -- was diagnosed with terminal colon cancer. He confirmed during a May 16 WTF With Marc Maron podcast that he was given the prognosis of three to six months to live and that he will donate nearly all of his sizable Simpsons royalties -- which he has said earn him "tens of millions" annually -- to charity. (Simon's marriages to Jennifer Tilly and Playboy Playmate Jami Ferrell were childless, or child-free, depending on your point of view.) "I think it's really nice for him that he's doing it now and he gets to see the results of his philanthropy," says Tilly. "He really does have a passion to survive, and the longer he's on the earth, the more good work he can do." On July 1, Simon spoke frankly to THR about what goes on in the mind of someone who has much to give but not a lot of time to give it.
The Hollywood Reporter: How are you feeling these days?
Sam Simon: It's basically one week of chemotherapy on, one week off. It used to be that when I was off, I would bounce back and start feeling good. But I get every possible side effect -- fatigue, nausea -- and the chemo accumulates in your body, so today and tomorrow are, like, my two good days for the month. So I'm feeling pretty good today, and, you know, we shall see.
THR: What is your work schedule like?
Simon: I do half a day a week on Anger Management on FX. Whatever they're doing, I just sit in with the writing that day. And I do my radio show [on Radioio.com]. That's a good workload for me. I'm not supposed to drive anymore, but I do. I got into three accidents on my way home between Wilshire and 16th to here. I think they give me too much Ativan. That's the way it is now.
THR: How active can you be with your charitable work right now?
Simon: I was never that hands-on with any of it. I've just been fortunate to find great people to run things. Frankly, one of the pleasures of the foundation is hanging out with the people because they are some of the nicest people in my life.
THR: How did you get involved in animal rights?
Simon: I was just an animal lover. Everything that the Sam Simon Foundation does is supposed to help dogs and people -- that's our mission. I like dogs and meeting people whose dogs we've saved with our free-surgery day. When The Drew Carey Show did a show about greyhound racing, I was on the show and asked the writer for a script change. I didn't think it affected the story at all, but they didn't want to do it. I didn't want to take any money from this episode and [wanted] to make a statement about dog racing, so I donated my money from this episode to PETA. So PETA set up this photo shoot and were supposed to get these six dogs from this California greyhound rescue on this [race] track. I got up there, and there were no dogs. They said that the greyhound track found out about the PETA shoot, so if they put their dogs in the shoot, they were going to kill the six dogs that the rescue was going to get the next month. I just thought that was pretty startling. Then I started hanging around with those PETA maniacs, and it's a slippery slope, and I just slipped all the way down to the bottom.
THR: How did that grow from there? There's no question that you're a major philanthropist.
Simon: The sort of lifetime achievement stuff that I'm getting now is kind of like Tom Sawyer's funeral because they all know I'm sick. I am getting buildings named after me and awards and stuff. The truth is, I have more money than I'm interested in spending. Everyone in my family is taken care of. And I enjoy this.
THR: Were there influences that pushed you in a certain direction?
Simon: Paul Watson [of Sea Shepherd] presented the idea for the ship. Charlie MacCormack at Save the Children is great. And Ingrid [Newkirk, of PETA] -- these are pillars of pure dedication who inspired me. When I was sick, I got to summon people to my hospital room. Ingrid and I got this fun idea. I started to buy these zoos and circuses in December. I just wanted to have some days where I get to see animals walk in grass for the first time. Through PETA, we rescue animals in roadside zoos and circuses. They are some of the most abused animals in the country. Freeing those animals, that's something I'm not sure I would do if it weren't for the cancer.
THR: Do you get frustrated with bad things happening to good people? Like, why didn't someone else get this cancer?
Simon: No. I don't think that's what karma is. It never crossed my mind. But I don't think the spirit of Hollywood is such a spirit of generosity. I think people really begrudge giving. In New York, it's like that. A lot of charities spend a million dollars on a fundraiser to make $15,000. It's a social swirl. They do some great stuff and then -- it's called mission drift. It becomes more about the parties. You know, I'm not married, and I don't have kids. I had an emergency operation when I was septic, and I really did come very close to dying. My colon cancer perforated my colon. When I woke up in the hospital, even though I did have a will, it did become that much more important to me to set this stuff up for the future. And the Rockefeller Foundation has consultants [Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors] who have been amazing. We found fantastic trustees. It's something that will be living after I'm gone.
THR: You said to Marc Maron on his podcast that you've been aggressive about the giving you've done, that you are giving most of all you can give. At what point did you feel morally compelled to go all the way?
Simon: One thing is, I get pleasure from it. I love it. I don't feel like it is an obligation. One of the things about animal rights, which is not the only thing that I care about in this world, is that your money can bring success. I see results. There is stuff happening, really good stuff, every week. I'm not sure you get that with a lot of disease charities. If you were donating to environmental causes for the past 20 years, do you think your money is doing anything? Because I don't, and I used to support some conservationist stuff -- Sierra Club, World Wildlife Fund. They're treading water. Climate change is a big part of their problem. The environment has been destroyed, basically.
THR: What change do you want to see in the world?
Simon: I want medical experiments on animals stopped. They don't do anything, and they don't work. Veganism is an answer for almost every problem facing the world in terms of hunger and climate change. It helps people's health. Meat is the biggest greenhouse gas producer. There's also the cruelty and suffering aspect. When people do meatless Mondays, and when people adopt instead of buying a dog, that's a PETA victory.
THR: Do people ask why you don't give to another cause?
Simon: Of course. The food bank -- we distribute at the Tom Bradley Center on Pico and then further down off of Koreatown south of the 10 -- is the one where we feed 200 families a day, and they go, "That's great!" Then I say that it's cruelty-free vegan food, and they go: "Ohhh. I see. What if the people aren't vegan?" I tell them then they can go eat at your food bank.
THR: So you've decided to scale up the foundation?
Simon: We are going to expand all this stuff. We do a day in our mobile clinic where we do dog and cat surgeries for free except complicated procedures. For the first nine months, we couldn't fill up the truck. But now it's a huge success. It just took a while for the community to find out about it. And now I think we're going to add another day for free surgeries. The Sam Simon Foundation is going to be very well endowed, and there's a lot of stuff I want them to do.
THR: What allows you to do more?
Simon: The Simpsons money got bigger and bigger. When I left The Simpsons, no one thought that this thing was going to still be around. It's the cumulative effect. It's like, "Oh my God, 25 years later, and it's still coming in."
THR: Has having cancer changed your view of humor?
Simon: No. There's some stuff on TV that I'm like, "With the time I have left, do I really want to watch Wipeout?" But I have a problem when it comes to watching Big Brother. I got my shows. TV for a cancer patient.