The Times West Virginian

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August 29, 2013

‘Simpsons’ creator finds funny in cancer fight

LOS ANGELES — Since word got out about Sam Simon’s cancer, this co-creator of “The Simpsons” and fervent philanthropist has heard from many people online asking to help rid him of his sizable wealth.

“Some people just want a million dollars. Or help with college tuition. And the rest have business propositions,” he chortles. “Like that should be my legacy: to lose money on your movie or your moisturizer line.

“I’m bedridden,” says Simon, milking the scenario for all its tragicomic worth, “weighing whether to dole my money to people lined up outside the house!”

He laughs, flashing a piano-keys grin. Then he gets serious.

“I’m supporting the charities that I supported during my lifetime,” he states, “and I want to continue to do that.” With every cent of his fortune.

Simon, 58, isn’t exactly bedridden. For this recent interview he has presented himself, sporty in sweater and slacks, to meet with a reporter in the guest house of his swank estate in Pacific Palisades.

He pads into the kitchen and makes himself a coffee before firing up a robust Cuban cigar, then alternately sits and reclines on a wall-length banquette that looks out on his lawn of statuary, including one of the original casts of Auguste Rodin’s “The Thinker.”

Fitting. Sam Simon has had much to think about since his advanced colon cancer was diagnosed last November after a year of inconclusive tests and mysterious discomfort.

Having defied that diagnosis’ original death sentence — he was given three to six months to live — Simon continues to push ahead with no whiff of “Why me?”

“Instead, I think, ‘This is a really bad situation — and what else can I do to get out of it?”’

What he’s doing right now is mobilizing a dozen lines of attack, some traditional, some wacky. But he says one of his new medications weighs him down with fatigue.

“Is this Monday?” he wonders aloud. “I think I’ve been sleeping since Friday. I’d rather be nauseous than tired, I think.”

Pick your poison. Simon is living the nightmare of anyone who so far has been spared cruel evidence of one’s own mortality. But Simon seems to frame it mostly with a laugh or a shrug.

Maybe that befits a world-class wag who has long thumbed his nose at authority and other human vanities, who has lampooned the human condition with insight and humor for an audience of millions, and been richly rewarded for his labors.

Simon grew up comfortably in Beverly Hills, but his father was in the garment industry, not show biz, which puts him at a loss to account for his comedic gifts (never mind Groucho Marx lived across the street).

After turning his drawing talent into a job at an animation studio that made cartoons for kids, Simon submitted a script, on spec, to the glorious ABC comedy “Taxi.” His script was bought and produced, and Simon, in his 20s, was hired as a staff writer and soon rose to be the showrunner.

From there he joined a new NBC sitcom called “Cheers,” where he was staff writer for its ascendant first three seasons.

In 1987 he became a writer and executive producer on the Fox comedy series “The Tracey Ullman Show,” teamed alongside James L. Brooks, the comedy legend with whom he had worked on “Cheers” and “Taxi,” and, of course, cartoonist Matt Groening. They became the founding fathers of “The Simpsons.”

“The Simpsons” began as interstitial cartoon clips aired during the otherwise live-action “Ullman” show until, in 1989, it was spun off as a Fox half-hour of its own. Simon was named creative supervisor, and he hired the first writing staff as well as creating several Springfield citizens, including Mr. Burns, the cadaverous industrialist, and Dr. Hibbert, the buffoonish physician.

Although Simon remained the least-known of the three creators, by many accounts he was the most hands-on.

“You can’t overstate his contribution to ‘The Simpsons,”’ says talk-show star Conan O’Brien, who was a “Simpsons” writer and producer in the early 1990s. “No one’s smarter than he is.”

The show — TV’s first successful prime-time animated series since “The Flintstones” nearly three decades before — caught the public off-guard with its sly but perceptive look at the culture.

“With ‘The Simpsons,’ people didn’t know what they were gonna see,” says Simon. “They didn’t have a clue.” The show was given time and free reign to flourish by the fledgling Fox network. “I don’t think you get that sort of creative freedom with any broadcast shows today.”

Simon left “The Simpsons” after its fourth season in 1994 owing to a strained relationship with Groening.

But it was a lucrative departure. His exit deal entitled him to royalties from “The Simpsons” that, as it enters its 25th season this fall, annually pad Simon’s wallet by tens of millions of dollars. He has played no role on the show in nearly 20 years (not even watching it, he says), even as his name remains in the weekly credits along with Groening’s and Brooks’ — and his checks roll in.

This sweet annuity has bankrolled the causes and alternative lifestyle he increasingly came to embrace.

Among his charitable efforts, he established the Sam Simon Foundation, which rescues dogs from animal shelters and trains them to assist disabled veterans and the hard-of-hearing. He donated an undisclosed amount of money to the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society in 2012 to purchase a vessel for their fleet, which was unveiled last December and named for him.

In March, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals’ Norfolk, Va., headquarters were christened the Sam Simon Center in recognition of his support for that organization.

Simon’s largesse carries over to humans, too, including a Los Angeles food bank feeding 200 families each day in Simon style: with a vegan menu.

Meanwhile, he keeps his hand in the comedy world, consulting a half-day each week on the FX comedy “Anger Management.”

“Probably the highlight of my week,” he says. “That and my radio show,” which he hosts from his home on the online Radioio site — “one’s on Tuesdays, one’s on Fridays.”

If he sees this as a closeted and tentative existence, Simon doesn’t let on. A man who boxed for several years as a serious amateur, he now finds amusement in his inability to even handle a car.

“Recently I drove home from UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica, probably a four-minute drive,” he reports with a get-a-load-of-this grin, “and I got into three accidents on the way home: I hit a stanchion, a tree and another car. No one was injured. But afterward I thought, ‘Maybe driving’s not a good idea.”’

As with everybody else, time is running out for Simon, who has learned to make no long-term plans, including recognizing any prospective end date. He says death doesn’t scare him, however unpleasant getting there may be.

“I’m not sad,” he declares with a wave of his cigar. “I’m happy. I don’t feel angry and bitter. I want to do whatever I can to survive.”

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