Meet Sam Simon, The Dog Nut

Morley Safer meets one of the unusual co-creators of "The Simpsons"

This segment was originally broadcast on March 4, 2007. It was updated on July 15, 2007.

This story is a goofy stew of big money, abandoned dogs, professional boxing, fine art, poker, and America's favorite dysfunctional family, the Simpsons. Those various elements are embodied in the personality of a 52-year-old Californian named Sam Simon, a veteran television producer who is perhaps the Renaissance man of the baffling, uncertain age we live in.

As correspondent Morley Safer reports, Simon is a man of many and diverse passions, but mostly a self-confessed dog nut.



"I used to deny that I was a dog nut and people would ask me, 'Well, what is a dog nut?' And I would say, 'Well, to me the line was when you start dressing up your dogs.' And then I had to qualify that I don't do that except on, you know, Halloween or special occasions," Simon tells Safer.

Sam Simon's Halloween costume party for dogs is something to bark about. There's Harvey, his gigantic Irish wolfhound, and Casey, 16, deaf as a stone and of dubious provenance. Sam got Casey from an old girlfriend's pot dealer. For his guests, Sam organized dog games and prizes for the best costume. Remember, this is Hollywood.

And Simon is not just any dog nut. This one runs the grandest dog shelter in the country, a five star, six acre spread in Malibu, perhaps the most desirable real estate on the planet. Here, among the waterfalls and the manicured grounds, the Sam Simon Foundation gives stray and abandoned dogs a new lease on life, literally.

"We rescue dogs and we train them to be service dogs, which helps people with disabilities," he explains.

The dogs all come from southern California animal shelters, where many of them would otherwise be put down, a euphemism for killed. A fate that the ASPCA says befalls as many as nine million lost and unwanted dogs and cats each year in this country.

On one day at the pound, Barb Velasquez, Sam's chief dog trainer, was scouting for a lucky candidate or two. It's a tough job. "The hardest part of all this is looking at a dog that you know is not at all suitable for our program. And just having to walk away," she admits.

A potential trainee can't be too big, too shy or too aggressive. One stray finally made the cut during her visit. She's quickly given a new name - Amber - and a ticket out, to Sam's dog paradise in Malibu.

There, Amber and the others go through six months of training as companions for deaf people, alerting them that the phone is ringing, the doorbell, and the smoke alarm. There's a staff of trainers and vets; some of them live at the shelter full time.

The vets also travel around Los Angeles in Sam's spay and neuter-mobile, so people in low-income neighborhoods can get their pets fixed for free. The mobile is a state-of-the-art operating room on wheels, snipping away at 30 dogs a day.

Add in the visits the dogs make to lonely seniors, and it's quite an empire. The Sam Simon Foundation does not accept donations; he foots the entire bill.

Simon doesn't even know how much these programs cost him every year, except that it's in the millions of dollars. "It's well spent just for the pleasure it gives me, honestly," he says.

A major source of that money is Bart and family, a.k.a. the Simpsons, the iconic show Sam Simon helped create 17 years ago.

At the beginning, Simon admits he was skeptical the show was going anywhere. "I thought it was an idea that would go absolutely nowhere. I used to say, 'We're thirteen and out,'" he says, meaning thirteen episodes and the program would get canceled.

But the show kept on going, casting a brutally cynical eye on every aspect of American culture. "It turns out that people just accepted it, went along for the ride," Simon tells Safer.

But with the relentless complexities of grinding out a cartoon series - and the inevitable ego clashes - after four seasons, Sam and his partners split.

Why the break?

"I wasn't enjoying it anymore. Not just talking about the Simpsons, I would say that any show I've ever worked on, it turns me into a monster. I go crazy. I hate myself," he explains.

So 13 years ago, he negotiated a goodbye deal that set some sort of Hollywood record. He still gets paid any time the show airs around the world - even the hundreds of episodes made since he left. He gets a cut of DVD sales and licensing fees for the Simpsons characters. He estimates he makes well over $10 million a year from a show he hasn't worked on since 1993.

"When I was there I thought I was underpaid. I thought I wasn't getting enough credit for it. Now, I think it's completely the opposite. I get too much credit for it. And the money is ridiculous," Simon admits.

Over the years, he put some of the money into an eye popping art collection. In his living room is a Thomas Hart Benton painting of a boy and his dog, which has become the logo for Sam's foundation. On the staircase, a there's a John Singer Sargent. And in the back yard, Rodin's "The Thinker" can be found - it's not a copy, but one of the originals struck by the artist.

"I had a party and I heard someone say 'the cell phone reception is much better over by the Rodin,'" Simon says, laughing.

Simon is no stranger to wealth, having grown up in that famous zip code, Beverly Hills 90210. Even so, Simon says, "There are certain times you realize you've got too much money. One was when I started getting bills from the Koi hotel. When I was remodeling the Koi pond, the Koi had to go to the Koi hotel. They ended up staying there for 13 months and I never asked what the bill was."

Over the mantel, there's a shrine of sorts to the first dog Sam really fell in love with. Lono was actually part dog, part wolf - and all trouble.

"Here's the picture of Lono. He's just torn apart a down pillow. It looks like a snow scene," Simon says, pointing out a photo of Lono surrounded by feathers.

It got worse. There was the time Lono went to the back yard and tried to bury Sam's computer. "And I could see the corner of my laptop sticking out of the ground," he remembers.

Maybe Lono was jealous of the computer.

And there was the time when his other dog Casey got sick, that Sam took Lono to pay his respects to the vet. It was a big mistake.

"I guess the dog nut really is coming out in the conversation, because I wanted him to meet the doctor that saved Casey. That that would be a meaningful experience for him. So you know, he bit the doctor that saved Casey," Simon remembers.

Like all dogs, good and bad, Lono finally went to heaven. And Sam kept his earthly remains in an urn.

"I engraved the urn. And it says 'Good friend, Bad dog,'" Simon explains.

In the show biz realm, Sam will take on small projects from time to time: most recently, a radio soap opera with yet another mad dog, Howard Stern.

But invariably he says there's something about the pressure in broadcasting that brings out the worst in him. "Listen, work made me crazy," he admits. "I was tough to get along with. I didn't have the skills to handle something like that. And I still don't."

Trying to find a life outside television, he entered the boxing world. For eight years he managed Lamon Brewster, the one-time world boxing organization heavyweight champion.

"Some of the happiest nights of my life were nights that he gave somebody else a concussion," Simon remembers.

"You have this wonderful feeling about animals, about dogs particularly... and you're perfectly happy to see one man go into a ring and beat somebody unconscious," Safer remarks.

"Yeah. Boxing should probably be banned. But until then, I'm a big fan," Simon says.

He can hold his own at the professional poker table as well. Indulging visitors in a high stakes game that also include comedians Norm MacDonald and Drew Carey, plus world series of poker champion Jamie Gold and actress Jennifer Tilly, Sam's ex-wife, who won the ladies' poker championship in 2005.

They're the best of friends these days. Their divorce settlement gives Jennifer a slice of Sam's slice of the revenue from the Simpsons, a show she tried to talk
him out of.

"'Cause I didn't see the idea of a half hour show of people, you know, with yellow faces. I didn't see where that would be really successful. And it's really good that Sam doesn't listen to me," Tilly tells Safer.

Sam Simon has his art, his house, his own pack that follow him around, nine Emmys and two divorces. He's currently single, and looking to the future.

Asked what he plans to do with the rest of his life, Simon says, "I mean, that's part of the reason for the foundation."

"There's an hour a week when I come here and they bring out some two little dogs that we've adopted from the shelter. It's the best hour of my week. It makes me really happy," Simon says.

One of the dogs is Riley, a stray and recent graduate from Sam's foundation. He started a new life with Barbara Goldman, who's deaf. Barbara gets a friend, protector and shopping companion. Riley gets to lead, well, the life of Riley. For this wonderful union, let the credit read: Produced by Sam Simon.

  • Morley Safer

    Morley Safer’s distinctive style and the broad range of his much-honored work have made him a giant in broadcast journalism and a mainstay of 60 Minutes since 1970.

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