SAM SIMON feared only one man in Hollywood. So he turned him into a cartoon.
Simon, the gifted sitcom writer-producer and original showrunner for “The Simpsons,” was known for being, oh, a bit combative. Literally. He reportedly had nine fights as an amateur boxer, winning six. He later managed a world heavyweight boxing champ. He even got his first real big break in TV by writing about a fighter who gets his boxing license revoked over health concerns, on the oft-sublime “Taxi.”
It was that hard-nosed mentality that Simon brought to the sweet science of the entertainment industry — to the ring of the writers’ room, and the squared circle of the producer’s office. Simon led with his heart and had a sharp tongue, but he could also deliver a knockout with a jab of satire.
In late-’80s Tinseltown, Simon — already a veteran of the acclaimed “Taxi” and “Cheers” — only feared the head of the network that employed him. So the former newspaper sports cartoonist hit with a familiar tool: the right-cross of caricature.
“Sam was a tough guy,” says David Silverman, the director who, having been there since the beginning as an animator for “The Tracey Ullman Show,” celebrates his 28th anniversary with “The Simpsons” characters this week.
“But Sam told me,” Silverman continues, “that [Fox Broadcasting chief] Barry Diller was the only guy in Hollywood that scared him. So he got the idea for a character.”
Now, Simon was in his 30s at this point, and Diller hadn’t yet hit 50. But at the beginning, Simon envisioned an aged, wizened and villainous “Simpsons” character as his cartoon take on Diller.
That, of course, would be the bald and boldly conniving wealthy power-plant owner of Springfield, as well as Homer’s boss: Mr. Charles Montgomery Burns.
So much about the primordial TV launch of the “Simpsons” characters was born from the artistic melting-pot tended by creator Matt Groening and executive producer James L. Brooks, in addition to Simon and his legendarily assembled writers’ room. So Mr. Burns as a character may have been a creative conglomerate. But it was Simon who fully imbued him with a Diller-inspired dark side.
“The power plant and Mr. Burns as a villain who was Machiavellian and Keynsian?” Silverman says to The Post’s Comic Riffs. “That was Sam.”
Other characters would be largely due to Simon, including Bleeding Gums Murphy and Herman, the one-armed soldier. And Simon gets much of the credit for helping shape Homer into an identifiable Everyman. But Silverman also bows to Simon for what the showrunner accomplished on the essential level of pure TV adaptation, including giving the show “a sense of taste.”
“He just took what Matt created, which was awesome, and helped create this great family from bare bones,” Silverman says of Simon. “Matt’s observations and point of view were already there, but Sam helped inspire Matt to go off on this point of departure. Sam helped build a whole family, and then a whole universe around them.”
Part of the origin story of “The Simpsons,” of course, is how acrimonious things became between Simon and Groening, and — involving other shared series, too — between Simon and his longtime colleague Brooks. (Simon was no longer show-running after the second season and left the series as creative supervisor after the fourth season, ultimately getting a massive payout.) But Silverman offers a balanced view of Simon.
“He was a hard guy. He was a really tough guy,” Silverman tells Comic Riffs. “He gave me a dismissive hand at first.”
One of the show’s first-season episodes, though, proved a turning point. Silverman — who had also worked on the 1989 TV short, “The Simpsons: Family Therapy” — wanted a prominent onscreen credit for directing the episode “Bart the General.” Simon, ever the writer, told Silverman he would give him that screen credit if Silverman could prove that directors really made a difference.
After Silverman directed the episode, he went to the dubbing session. There, with a credit as prominent as the writer’s, was Silverman’s directing nod.
“The guy in the session said to me: ‘You proved it.’ Sam was tough, but fair.”
Samuel Michael Simon, a nine-time Emmy Award winner and a passionate animal-rights and conservation philanthropist, died of colorectal cancer Sunday at his Los Angeles home. He was 59.