Exactly one week ago, I lost a friend. I lost my buddy Sam.
Yes, I know it’s much bigger than that. I’ve read all the headlines; seen all the tributes. “The comedy world has lost one of its greatest voices.” “The entertainment world has lost an icon.” “The animal rights world has lost a leader.” Yes, Sam was all of those things… and SO much more. Simply the fact that the word “world” is used in most of the headlines is pretty telling. “The poker world…” “The boxing world…” He was truly the world to so many different facets of life. But to me, and to many others like me, he was first and foremost a friend.
After going to Sam’s memorial yesterday, and attending what might have been the single most amazing funeral I’ve ever been to (sounds weird to say, I know), I felt like I needed to write something about him. Some of the greatest comedic minds in the world, like Jay Kogan, George Meyer, Al Jean, and Drew Carey, all gave speeches that blew me away. They were both the funniest I’ve ever heard, and yet the saddest… because we all collectively now know our journey with the amazing Sam Simon is over. In addition to those on the comedy front and in the animal activism universe, were speeches from the amazing women in his life, his ex-wife Jennifer Tilly, current girlfriend Kate Porter, and even fellow activist Pam Anderson. All in all, there were as many laughs as there were tears, exactly as Sam would have wanted it. I kept it together for the most part until it was time for the actual burial. Once it was time for each of us to drop a spade of dirt on the coffin, that’s when I broke apart inside. It was real. And even how that part of the experience happened was a perfect example of this common Utah boy’s insane journey with Sam. The person in front of me was Conan O’Brian (an absolute idol of mine). He threw a spade of dirt on Sam and then handed me the spade. Even in his death, Sam continued to give me these unique gifts. It was a perfect example of my relationship with Sam’s world. I was the normal guy thrown into this insane upper echelon Hollywood fairy tale land that I just didn’t quite belong to. But he didn’t care. Sam loved me all the same. And I loved him all the same. Yet, now that the flashy memorial is over, I wanted to share just a taste of my own personal journey with Sam.
Sam was probably the most unique person I’ve ever known in my life. I’m not going to retell his accomplishments here because that’s already been done to death by 60 Minutes, NBC News, Vanity Fair, etc, etc, etc… Just Google them. He won countless awards, earned countless accolades, blah, blah, blah. We all know that stuff. His Groucho Marx story? Heard it. His Elvis story? Yep. Breakfast with Walt Disney? Know that one too. What I wanted to talk about was the Sam I knew. The Sam I spent time with. The Sam that sometimes took me, this little unknown shit from Utah, and blew my mind pretty much every single time I shared space with him.
The first time I met Sam was well over a decade ago at a simple poker game. My buddy Dave Steinberg met him at a dog park and invited him to come play in our little home game. The second Sam came in with his abnormally large wad of cash for the game, and his constant Groucho cigar in tow (which, if I remember correctly, Dave put a stop to immediately), he was the epitome of larger than life. To all of us guys at the table, most of us screenwriters and Simpsons admirers, the man was a legend. Yeah, try playing poker with a legend sometime. There’s a learning curve. Trust me. But it wasn’t long before that first impression wore off. Soon, Sam just melted into the game and into the group. His contagious smile. His room-encompassing laugh. His ability to argue any point, regardless how trivial. Sam was still a force to be reckoned with—that would never change—but now, he was also just one of the guys. Shooting the shit and playing poker. Little did I know how much this man would give me – this little peon kid from Utah.
Over the years, I got to know Sam a lot better than most of the guys at the table. I’m not trying to compare friendships or anything like that by any means. I’m simply saying that I think our personalities clicked a bit more. I am by nature a goer. I love to dig into everything life has to offer. The younger generations call it the YOLO scenario. **And dear lord, let me just tell you how much it actually, physically PAINED me to write the term, younger generations. Ouch.** Anyway, back to my point, Sam had this same goer, or YOLO, mentality. He loved to take the world by the horns and attack it, something pretty apparent in everything he did. And I think he saw that in me as well, and we got along extremely well where others simply did not.
Before I continue I should briefly elaborate on that last sentence. When I mentioned that a lot of others didn’t get along with Sam, that’s for good reason. Sam, point blank, was not the easiest man in the world for certain personality types to get along with. I would always defend Sam to people that would occasionally badmouth him. They didn’t understand him. Sam wasn’t simply being mean, he was just constantly testing whoever it was he was speaking with. He was testing a person’s threshold, their strength, their ability for comebacks, to take a punch, and to deliver one back. Sam had a boxer’s mentality in his everyday dealings in life. And I got that immediately. I usually laughed at this behavior because I knew what it was. But I’ve watched countless others crumble. I’m not saying it was always the right way of going about this. But it was a fascinating way he would conduct his own experiments in weeding out the weaknesses in people. And I saw that.
But back on point, this goer mentality that I shared with him, opened up numerous doors to me. Yes, many of them may have been borderline debaucherous doors, from amazing Cuban cigars, to rare single malts, to his bizarre chiew that was concocted, and blessed, by a medicine man for good luck (which I swear was slightly hallucinogenic, but did give me one of my biggest wins in poker history at his house after drinking it.) But many of these doors were simply opening my eyes to how a genius mind works. I was fascinated by him every time he spoke. From himself seeing a joke in every single situation, to his interesting (and sometimes completely bizarre) criticisms of everyday life, the man’s mind just worked differently than others. It opened my brain to doors I didn’t know even existed.
Beyond the intangibles, there were countless tangible situations that I have to thank Sam for bringing into my life. He brought me along on so many adventures. I would love to share a taste of a few here because I love to reminisce. In the past week, many of us who were his friends have been sharing Sam stories, and it’s so much damn fun. We all have been realizing how much joy and uniqueness he brought into our lives. So I’ll reminisce a few here with you.
Some of my earliest memories were when we would all go to the Magic Castle together. The very first time we even travelled by limo (my wife and I’s very first limo ride). We would go there and eat (he would complain about the food; I loved it.) We would watch the main stage magicians (he would complain about them; I loved them.) But amongst all of Sam’s complaints, there would be these moments of pure giddiness. Watching Sam deal with the “magic” piano that would play any requested song you spoke was always a delight. He would constantly try to stump it with very specific and rare songs, and every time the piano knew. But the best moment was when he walked up and it started to play The Simpsons theme music before he even said anything. He lit up like a little kid on Christmas. It was simply an amazing thing to see. And speaking of childish astonishment, don’t even get me started on how much he obsessed over the close up magic room. That evening with Johnny Ace Palmer was one of the greatest things I think Sam had ever seen. It was always so much fun to witness him at his happiest. I once again bring up his contagious smile and laugh. They were quite simply, the best.
One of my biggest “Cinderella at the ball” moments with Sam (that’s how I always felt with him, little Cinderella experiencing things I wasn’t ever meant to), was the Lamon Brewster Heavyweight Title fight at Mandalay Bay in Vegas. When Sam was managing Lamon, I remember Sam kept telling us that Lamon wasn’t as good of a technical fighter as Vladamir Klitchko (who he was fighting that night), but that he was a knockout artist. All Lamon needed was one opening and he’d take him down. I’ll never forget when I saw Sam the afternoon of the big fight and he said, “Take everything you have, and bet it on Lamon. Trust me.” Lamon was a 10-1 underdog in the fight, and to most it was a sucker bet. But for some reason the way Sam said it, I simply had to do it. I bet a lot of money (for me) on Lamon and hoped for the best.
When we arrived for the fight, we had no idea what we were in for. We got escorted all the way down to the ring and were sat freaking ringside… at a Heavyweight fight! I had never experienced anything so amazing. We were surrounded by Michael Jordon, Mike Tyson, Don King, Drew Carey, and countless other celebrities and sports figures. I even remember Kato Kaelin hitting on my wife, and I thought it was just downright adorable. Long story short, the fight went exactly how Sam said it would. Klitchko was destroying Brewster from moment one. Three straight rounds of people complaining that Lamon shouldn’t even be in the ring with the likes of Klitchko. And that’s when it happened… The opening Sam talked about. Lamon threw a haymaker right in front of me and pounded Klitchko so hard it was almost cartoonish. A few more punches and Klitchko was knocked out cold. The underdog Lamon won the Heavyweight Championship, and the place erupted in an insanity that was like nothing else on Earth. The rest of that night was a blur. I remember eating dinner across from Don King and Mike Tyson, hoping that neither would actually look at me. I remember taking over the entire VIP area of Rum Jungle and partying with Lamon and his people. He even let me hold the Heavyweight Title belt (and it is HEAVY.) I remember them closing off sections of Mandalay Bay for us to gamble and pretty much getting us whatever we wanted. That night Sam owned that casino. And to even be a tiny part of it, was something I’ll never forget. I went to bed pretty much when others were grabbing lunch the next day. Oh yeah, and I won my bet. Yeah, that night was one for the books…
But that wasn’t my only Vegas experience with Sam. I remember when he invited me out to Vegas because he just got his own poker show (on the Playboy Network of all places) called Sam’s Game. It was supposed to be a rendition of his home game that I also played in. So I travelled to The Palms to play, only to find out that I wasn’t going to be allowed to actually play in the game because they only wanted celebrities. There was a slew of amazing comedians and actors, like Jen Tilly, Drew Carey, Artie Lange, Jeff Ross, Dave Attell, Norm McDonald, and tons of others. But even though I didn’t get to actually play, they didn’t forget about little old me. My “job” was to hang out in the background with all the playmates and just drink and talk, since it was supposed to look like it was taking place in the Hugh Hefner suite at the Palms (which only part of it was actually filmed in, but we got to play there a bunch, that’s for sure.) I was supposed to be one of his friends that just hung out over there and didn’t play. The poker freak inside of me hated it, but the horny 16 year old inside of me was living the dream. Yeah, that was an interesting weekend. Although, I did have way too many conversations with the Playmates about Utah. There were some other stories for sure, but that’s for another day…
I could sit and discuss countless of these larger level experiences for sure – because Sam LIVED on a larger level—but I want to also focus on a few smaller moments that have always stuck with me.
For a while, Sam was engaged to a friend of ours, and I remember one night the four of us went on a double date. At my core, I’m just a middle class kid from Utah. I don’t know luxury. I don’t feel comfortable with lavish things. I even like my restaurants more on the much more “chilled out” level. So I remember we bypassed the more expensive places just down the road from his place, and we went to Marix, this little Tex-Mex place that is much more my speed. I have absolutely no idea why, but I got a sick gratification out of bringing Sam down to my level a bit. Happy hour. Cheap tacos. Screaming kids at the table near us. It delighted me for some completely unknown reason, and that set the tone for the evening.
Later that night after dinner, we were hanging at his house watching Hard Knocks (we were both insane football fans), and I was a little drunk, and continued to dig at him for all these over-the-top lavish things in his life. I started to jokingly make fun of the fact that the engagement ring he bought Jenna was so big it was going to break her wrist. It had the biggest diamond on it that I personally had ever seen. And I remember him finally getting his fill, taking the ring off of Jenna’s hand and jokingly throwing it at me. It hit me in the chest and dropped in my lap. I remember picking up that ring and holding it in my hand. The millions of dollars that ring must have cost didn’t even register to me cognitively. It was worth more money than I could ever dream of even making. I paused and said something to that fact, and that’s when he honestly said it didn’t matter to him. And I believed him… Yes, it was true that money was a huge factor in his life, but it was this slightly drunken moment that we shared where I realized it wasn’t the driving force in his life. It was this moment that made me realize that he didn’t give a shit if I was a poor struggling screenwriter and he was a tycoon of epic proportions. There was a connection that went beyond money. And even though it was a tiny moment, it meant a lot to me.
I’d be remised if I didn’t talk about some of the parties Sam threw at his house. I’m sure many of you have heard the stories. He had some pretty epic ones. But I want to mention one in particular that was a showcase for his generosity. I had a few of my dearest friends Silvio and Heidi visiting me from Utah. When he heard they were in town, he told me to invite them along for sure. So Amy and I, and Silvio and Heidi, all went to Sam’s for his engagement party that was truly one for the ages. Same was in the best spirits. Silvio and Heidi kept thanking him and Sam treated them just like he always treated me – he delighted in showing us Utah kids a damn good time, Southern California style. And beside all the nice expensive wine that we’d never be able to afford, or the lavish experiences of the party, it was what he told Silvio about me that night that always melted me to my core. Sitting at his bar, he told Silvio that I was “truly the nicest guy he’d ever met”.
And he meant it.
I was blown away by that. It was then that I realized that even though he’d been showing me all these amazing experiences, I had actually been showing him something too. It warms me to this day knowing that even though he had such an effect on me, that maybe this little middle America nice Utah boy had an effect on him as well. It may have been small, but it was huge to me.
**On a side note, he also introduced me to Jamie Gold that night as “the best poker player he knows.” Um, Jamie Gold had just recently WON the Worlds Series of Poker, and that’s how Sam introduced me to Jamie. God, it was so awesome.
As the years went on, Sam left our little home game that Dave hosted. Most of the guys didn’t see Sam anymore. But I still did. I’d play at Sam’s house with some of his friends. There would be the occasional sports night, or certain other occasions. But after a while I didn’t see him as much. There was a spell where he disappeared and I didn’t know why. I remember reaching out to him and asking why I hadn’t seen him in so long. That’s when he broke the news to me about his cancer and that his doctor gave him 3-6 months to live. It was a punch in the gut. I remember having to go back to Dave’s game and break the news to everyone over there as well. It just sucked in every way. Little did I know what happened AFTER that diagnosis would go on to be the greatest two and half YEARS of Sam’s life. GodDAMMIT that man was a fighter. I loved seeing how he took on cancer with his boxing gloves on.
Sam’s final years became the subject of a documentary. I don’t need to tell you about them here, just watch the documentary that premieres tonight on the FUSION network. It’s called Rebel With A Cause: The Sam Simon Story. It definitely focuses mostly on his animal crusades, which needless to say are astounding.
The one thing that meant the world to me was when Sam said he wanted to have one last poker game for the cameras, he wanted me there. The seven people in the room were me, Sam, Jen Tilly, Phil Laak, Mark Thompson, Drew Carey, and Jeff Madson. To be included in that mix of friends, poker players, and celebrities, made this kid feel like a million bucks. It was an amazing night of cards and laughs. Yes, we were miked, and being filmed, but after a few moments we all forgot and just had fun. We played all night, far longer than the cameras rolled. And at the end of the day, I actually don’t know what footage even made it into the final product, but I don’t even care. That night alone was worth it for me.
Last time I saw Sam was just a few weeks ago. He was full of life and you’d never know he was on the final lap. Hours went by and the laughs kept coming. It was a magical afternoon of just hanging out and being friends. The fact that my last experience with Sam wasn’t a larger than life experience, but rather a nice, quiet, hangout session, was exactly what I will always remember. Friends hanging out. Laughing. Drinking. Laughing. Smoking. Laughing. Criticizing. And laughing. It was a good night.
Look, I know this has gone on for a long winded amount of time. But to be honest, I could go on for hours and days longer. Sam deserves all the tributes he’s been given on the larger lever. But Sam the man was truly a force in my individual life. Someone that made me think differently. Someone that introduced me to some incredible people. Someone that gave me experiences that I’d never have been able to have in my lifetime. Someone that changed my life.
I know he’s known as a comedic genius, an entertainment icon, an animal savior, and a philanthropist beyond the world over. But to me, this little kid from Utah, he was Sam, my friend.
I miss him so much. And he will continue to be missed. I love you Sam.
Thank you one last time.