RIP Archives

Sam Simon (1955 - 2015)

Simpsons executive producer and animal rights activist Sam Simon died Monday at the age of 59 after a two-year battle with cancer.

Simon grew up in Beverly Hills and attended Stanford University, where he drew cartoons for the college newspaper as well as the San Francisco Examiner. He was later hired at Filmation Studios, where he worked on cartoons like Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids (recently, he alleged Bill Cosby "had two of the writers write his phd thesis."). After submitting a Taxi spec script, he was promptly hired as a writer by executive producer James L. Brooks, and soon became showrunner. He later wrote and produced for Cheers, It's Garry Shandling's Show, and The Tracey Ullman Show.

Simon was hired by Brooks to help develop The Simpsons as it transitioned from a series of one-minute shorts to a half-hour series (Simon's then-wife, Jennifer Tilly, had tried to talk him out of it.). As Brooks had his hands full with being a mega-producer and creator Matt Groening had limited television experience, it appears most of the day-to-day responsibilities fell upon Simon, who became the show's first showrunner and head writer. In this role, Simon was a major architect of the show's template and tone, even designing some of the secondary characters. He put together the legendary writing staff of the first few seasons; the show's two most essential writers, George Meyer and John Swartzwelder, were allegedly plucked from Meyer's underground comedy magazine Army Man, which was making the rounds in comedy circles (other Army Men contributors, including Ian Maxtone-Graham, Tom Gammill and Max Pross, would join the show in later years). In some respects, the hugely influential writer's room Simon assembled became what Mad Magazine's "Usual Gang of Idiots" had been to an earlier generation.

During the show's development, Simon and Groening had gotten along just fine; they had even collaborated on one of Groening's Life in Hell comics. Tension soon mounted after the show premiered and became a smash hit out of the gate. Groening had become the public "face" of the show, and seen as the sole auteur by the media and general public. Simon felt he wasn't being given enough credit (in a 1991 interview, writer Jon Vitti theorized it was "because there's no book of Sam Simon cartoons you can read") and wasn't being paid enough, particularly when merchandising took off and made Groening an instant millionaire.

As early as February 1990, reports of a feud between Groening and Simon had become public. In a Los Angeles Times article about the show, Howard Rosenberg noted, "One senses from talking separately to Simon and Groening in their Fox offices that the two are as incompatible and out of tune with each other as the Simpsons." Simon condescendingly characterized Groening's role as the show's "ambassador." The friction between them grew incredibly petty, some of which was detailed in John Ortved's 2009 oral history of the show, The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History. Brian Roberts, a former editor on the show, recounted one instance:

When we'd do a screening, it was Matt, Sam, and I. And they were like two five-year olds not speaking. We'd be watching an episode and Sam would say, "Do this." And Matt would say, "Will you tell Sam Simon I think that's the stupidest idea I've ever heard." Sam would say, "Would you tell Matt Groening that he doesn't know his ass from third grade." We were all sitting shoulder to shoulder! It was extremely uncomfortable for me.

Allegedly, the Season 3 episode "Flaming Moe's," in which Moe takes all the credit for a flaming cocktail invented by Homer, was inspired by the acrimony between Groening and Simon.

One of their major disagreements was over the content and vision of the show. Generally, Simon wanted the show to be grounded and free from sitcom cliches. As Vitti said, "Thanks to Sam, Bart will never be hypnotized, there will never be a show with Bart lying in a hospital bed with cut-in clips from old shows, and nobody will ever get amnesia and have to be reminded of what happened by cutting different episodes together!" (Yes, these all happened later in some form or another.) Matt Groening, on the other hand, had some rather oddball ideas in the initial years. As Simon told Rosenberg:

"What really elevated 'The Simpsons' is that a lot of really talented people have come in from the Tracey show. Matt's (creative) voice is certainly in 'The Simpsons,' but initially he was talking about a show where there'd be Martians and a lot of fantasy," said Simon, grimacing. "I'm glad we rejected that."

One of Groening's ideas was that Marge Simpson was secretly a rabbit from Life in Hell, who was hiding her large rabbit ears in her hair. Simon firmly rejected the idea, but it appears Groening snuck the idea into The Simpsons Arcade Game without his awareness.

According to Ortved, Simon became increasingly difficult to work with, and his relationship with Brooks and his studio, Gracie Films, began to disintegrate. Eventually Simon reached a deal to leave The Simpsons, but keep his producer credit and all the money that came with it (an estimated $20-30 million a year). Since then, he made just a handful of contributions to the show: a self-portrait as an elderly recluse with really long fingernails in "The Simpsons 138th Episode Spectacular," and changing his "spooky name" in recent Halloween episodes to "Simonsam@twitTERROR," replacing the usual "Sam 'Sayonara' Simon."

Nevertheless, the bitterness between Groening and Simon lingered for years afterward. In a November 2001 article in the New York Times Magazine, Groening called Simon "brilliantly funny and one of the smartest writers I've ever worked with, although unpleasant and mentally unbalanced." Simon was more charitable: "When I see Matt now, I shake hands and say hello. I can't lie and say that Matt did what he didn't do, but I do appreciate him creating that family. Thanks to Bart Simpson I have a pretty good life."

After his departure from The Simpsons, Simon worked on The Drew Carey Show and created a short-lived sitcom starring George Carlin. It appears Simon hadn't become any easier to work with: "Lesson learned: always check mental health of creative partner beforehand," wrote Carlin on his website. "We all knew Sam was crazy," cast member Phil LaMarr confessed to the A.V. Club. "I would say that any show I've ever worked on, it turns me into a monster. I go crazy. I hate myself," Simon explained in a 2007 60 Minutes profile.

Simon had a number of interesting hobbies. He participated in a number of poker tournaments, and for a time had a poker show on Playboy TV called "Sam's Game." He also coached champion boxer Lamon Brewster, and was named World Boxing Organization's Manager of the Year in 2004.

Using the fortune he was earning from The Simpsons, Simon became a philanthropist. In 2002, he founded the Sam Simon Foundation, which rescues dogs and trains them to assist veterans and the disabled, provides spay and neuter services in the Los Angeles area, and provides vegan food for the poor. In 2012, he donated a $2 million ship to the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, for their efforts against Japanese whalers. It was christened the SSS Sam Simon. He also donated to PETA (one of their headquarters buildings bears his name) and Save the Children. According to Inside Philanthropy, Simon wasn't sure how much he had given away to charity.

In March 2013, Simon announced he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and had been given only months to live. For the next two years, Simon provided his Twitter followers with a candid look at his chemotherapy and treatment with good humor, posting pictures of his nurses, the seemingly endless medical procedures he undertook, and the marijuana and paraphernalia friends had given him.

On January 22, he tweeted: "Btw, even if I die tomorrow, Which i wont, i have beaten cancer. The past two years have been the happiest of my life."

Jan Hooks (1957 - 2014)

Jan Hooks, Saturday Night Live alumna and voice of Apu's wife Manjula on The Simpsons, died Thursday at the age of 57. According to news reports, she had been suffering from an unspecified illness.

At HitFix, TV reviewer Alan Sepinwall praises her tenure at Saturday Night Live, characterizing her as a "glue guy" who never got her due:

On a show that so often prizes big performances, preferably in characters that can be repeated over and over and over (like [Rob] Schneider's copy machine guy), the quiet consistency of a Hooks didn't stand out as much... [b]ut like [Phil] Hartman, she gave it her all in every sketch, whether as the straight woman or the comic centerpiece.

For just six episodes of The Simpsons, Hooks played Manjula Nahasapeemapetilon, betrothed wife of Apu and mother of their eight children (Anoop, Gheet, Nabendu, Poonam, Pria, Sandeep, Sashi, and Uma), beginning with 1997's "The Two Mrs. Nahasapeemapetilons" and ending with 2002's "Large Marge." The role was taken over by regular cast member Tress MacNeille, who had originally voiced a younger Manjula in 1996's "Much Apu About Nothing" and filled in whenever Hooks was unavailable. Manjula was not exactly a breakout character, but Hooks imbued in her a sense of quiet dignity that, like her performances on Saturday Night Live, went largely unnoticed.

Marcia Wallace (1942 - 2013)

Marcia Wallace, the voice of Mrs. Krabappel, died of pneumonia complications Friday night at the age of 70.

Once a student teacher in Iowa, Wallace moved to New York in 1964 and got her start in show business typing scripts. She eventually worked her way up to regular appearances on The Merv Griffin Show, which caught the attention of CBS founder Bill Paley, who personally demanded she be given a role on The Bob Newhart Show in 1972. For six seasons (and a 1994 episode of Murphy Brown), Wallace played the smart-mouthed and lovelorn secretary Carol Kester, a role that made her a star. Afterwards, she became a regular on various game shows, including Hollywood Squares. In the late 1980s she became a voice actress for cartoons including Darkwing Duck, Captain Planet, and The Simpsons. She was also a stage actress in a number of regional productions, including a starring role in An Almost Perfect Person.

Diagnosed with breast cancer in 1985, Wallace became an activist for breast cancer awareness and a motivational speaker. She lost her husband of six years, Dennis Hawley, to pancreatic cancer in 1992, leaving her to raise their adopted son alone. She wrote about her ordeals in her 2004 memoir, Don't Look Back, We're Not Going That Way:

Ten years ago, I was a devastated widow with a little kid, a house that was ready to be foreclosed, and a hundred thousand dollars' worth of debts. Now all that's paid off and my house is secure. And I'm opening up to new possibilities. Who knows what's around the corner? I feel ready to find out. You know me, hon, I'm a scrappy gal. And I'm not looking back... 'cause I'm not going that way.

For 25 seasons, Marcia Wallace played Edna Krabappel, Bart Simpson's acerbic chain-smoking fourth grade teacher. Openly disdainful of her students, Krabappel was a exquisite personification of an uncaring public school system, and her caustic "ha!" became a trademark. She dated Principal Skinner a while, and in recent seasons married Ned Flanders. Wallace won an Emmy in 1992 for her performance in the episode "Bart the Lover."

Technically a recurring guest star, Wallace is the third cast member of the The Simpsons to pass away, following Doris Grau (Lunchlady Doris) in 1995 and Phil Hartman (Lionel Hutz, Troy McClure) in 1998. As with Hartman's characters, Mrs. Krabappel's "irreplaceable character" will be retired, according to showrunner Al Jean:

Before her death Wallace "recorded several lines which will appear in upcoming shows," Jean said. "But I don't intend to have anyone else play Mrs. Krabappel. I think Bart will get a new teacher and Ned Flanders will be a widower again."
Simpsons staffers have been expressing their sympathies. Jean told the Los Angeles Times that she was "sweet, funny, not at all pretentious [...] and just a wonderful person to be around." Co-star Yeardley Smith tweeted "Heaven is now a much funnier place b/c of you, Marcia." Director David Silverman drew a tribute sketch.

Wallace has a small role in the upcoming film Muffin Top: A Love Story, scheduled for release next year.

[Deadline, TMZ, MarciaWallace.com, Entertainment Weekly, Los Angeles Times]

Don Payne (1964 - 2013)

Simpsons writer Don Payne died yesterday at the young age of 48. The cause is unknown at this time, but former writing partner John Frink told the Wilmington Star-News he'd been suffering from bone cancer.

Fellow Simpsons writer Mike Scully broke the news yesterday afternoon on Twitter. Executive producer Al Jean issued a statement saying Payne was "beloved in the 'Simpsons' community and his untimely passing is terrible news to us all."

Back in the 90s, Payne and Frink wrote for sitcoms like Veronica's Closet, Men Behaving Badly and a bunch of unproduced pilots before they were both brought in to The Simpsons in 2000. Together they wrote the Simpsons episodes "Insane Clown Poppy," "Bye Bye Nerdie," "Simpsons Tall Tales," and "The Bart Wants What It Wants." They ended their writing partnership a few years later on amicable terms. Payne's solo Simpsons credits include "Thank God It's Doomsday" and "Fraudcast News," the latter of which earned him a special Paul Selvin Award from the Writers Guild of America. In 2007, he gave the Star-News ten reasons why he loved working on The Simpsons, including "We can do jokes about socialism and Homer's butt catching on fire."

Rather than be constrained to writing television, Payne managed to achieve his childhood dreams of conquering Hollywood and writing boffo blockbusters. A lifelong comics fanboy, his first credited movie was the superhero spoof My Super Ex-Girlfriend, which later led to him co-writing the Marvel films Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, Thor, and its upcoming sequel Thor: The Dark World. According to a 2011 interview, he had an idea for his own comic that he was keen to do if he could ever find the time between his Simpsons and film duties.

He is survived by his wife and three young children. [Wilmington Star-News]

Polly Platt (1939 - 2011)

Polly Platt was an Oscar-nominated production designer, producer, and screenwriter whose career spanned four decades, the first woman in the Art Director's Guild, and a frequent collaborator of James L. Brooks. Her credits include The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News, and Bottle Rocket. But since this is a Simpsons website, I'll just skip to a trivial footnote of her career.

By now, every Simpsons nerd knows the show's origin: Brooks discovered struggling cartoonist Matt Groening, asked him to do some cartoons for the The Tracey Ullman Show; Groening feared the loss of his Life in Hell characters, so instead he designed a cartoon family, named after his own family; three years later The Simpsons was spun-off into its own show. Well, GET THIS: Polly Platt was the person who introduced Brooks to Matt Groening's work. Here's her remembering the story from John Ortved's The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History:

I was nominated for an Academy Award for Terms of Endearment and I wanted to give Jim a thank-you gift. Matt did a cartoon called "Success and Failure in Hollywood." So I called Matt and I bought the original.


[Jim] was thrilled! First of all, he loves to get presents. He really does. He just laughed and laughed and hung it on his wall in his office. It was a brilliant cartoon. Success and failure come out to exactly the same thing in the cartoon [i.e., death].

My suggestion to Jim: I thought it would be great to do a TV special on the characters that he [Matt] had already drawn. I never envisioned anything like The Simpsons.

So, had it not been for Polly Platt and her gift-giving skills, The Simpsons would've never existed. Kinda makes you think. [Los Angeles Times]