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Fatal Attraction : Obsessions: He was a successful doctor and inventor, but ultimately, he succumbed to the siren song of Hollywood. In the end, Steve Ammerman's dream--and his weakness for drugs--may have killed him.

October 23, 1995|CHUCK PHILIPS and CARLA HALL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Stephen W. Ammerman had already made it. He was a doctor, a person who saved lives in emergency rooms, an inventor, a business owner. But he wanted something else and he would risk his life to get it.

If his dreams had come true, he would have become a successful Hollywood filmmaker--powerful, respected, earning millions. Instead, Steve Ammerman's life and long quest for success as a movie maker came to an abrupt end two months ago in the pool house shower at prominent film producer Don Simpson's Bel-Air home. An assistant to Simpson found Ammerman dead of a drug overdose on the morning of Aug. 15.

Ammerman, who had been a frequent guest at Simpson's home during the last month of his life, had hoped that Simpson, who produced "Top Gun" and "Crimson Tide" among other films, would give him his big break. Ammerman's medical degree became his calling card at the home of the producer. While Simpson advised him about scripts, he gave Simpson medical advice.

Throughout its history Hollywood has intoxicated its pilgrims. A few make it, most don't, and some, like Ammerman, die trying. Even so, the 44-year-old Ammerman stood out among the fallen and the failed.

A doctor and businessman who once ran the emergency room at the Beverly Hills Medical Center among other places, Ammerman was energetic, obsessed and indefatigably ambitious. He took acting classes and screenwriting classes, wrote two scripts and spent thousands of dollars filming parts of the one closest to his heart.

In that movie, which he and his co-writer had tentatively titled "The Legend of Kodiak," the great Kodiak bear is reborn in a man. It somehow brought everything together for Ammerman--his love of the wilderness from his Idaho upbringing, his grand sense of his new vocation, even his own bear-like gregariousness.

As he struggled for recognition, Ammerman brought along his demons--an addiction to prescription drugs and alcohol that dogged him for years. He checked into rehabilitation facilities twice and stayed clean for five years. Confident of his ability to fight his own battle, he even fashioned himself into something of an expert on drugs, friends say.

But in the months before his death, he had begun to slip again. In April, Santa Monica police arrested Ammerman after finding him in a drug-induced trance, standing naked on the ninth-floor ledge of an oceanfront apartment building.

Ammerman's closest friend worried that his drive to succeed in Hollywood would be too much for a man wrestling with drug demons.

"I said, 'This is not a good situation, you're too weak for this,' " Dr. Randy Capri, a dermatologist and medical school classmate of Ammerman's, warned his friend. "He just said, '. . . It's going to work.' "

What happened at Simpson's house in the hours leading up to Ammerman's death remains a mystery. The autopsy found a medicine cabinet of drugs in Ammerman's system--cocaine, morphine, Valium and the antidepressant drug Venlafaxine. Ammerman died of multiple drug intoxication, according to toxicology reports.

The homicide detective who went to the scene determined it wasn't a murder and investigated no further. None of the people at the house the night before Ammerman's body was found--including Simpson, his assistants, another doctor and Ammerman's girlfriend--will talk about what happened in the hours before his death.

Simpson has yet to make any public comment on the man he described to police as his "friend and doctor." Neither did he attend Ammerman's small, private memorial service on a Hidden Valley ranch.

"Mr. Simpson's official statement about Mr. Ammerman's death was that it was a tragedy and he's not going to comment further," Simpson's attorney, Robert Chapman, said. "I wish you would just leave it alone."

*

Steve Ammerman was adept at reinventing himself. At Washington State, when a knee injury sidelined the former high school football star from Sandpoint, Ida., Ammerman said goodby to football dreams and lackluster grades. He transferred to the University of Oregon, turned himself into a high achiever and was admitted to medical school at the Oregon Health Sciences University.

A marriage came and went by the time he graduated from medical school in 1978. His son, John, now 19, lived with his mother in Idaho but sometimes visited his father in Los Angeles.

Ammerman pursued a residency in orthopedics in Washington, but tired of that and moved to Los Angeles 12 years ago to practice emergency medicine. "He liked the challenge of all the different cases," Capri recalled. "He was very good at trauma."

And he was good at business. He started a company that contracted doctors out to emergency rooms and he created a billing service for hospital emergency rooms. Operating out of an office in Paramount, Ammerman's firm provided emergency room services to the Beverly Hills Medical Center, the Santa Ana-based Coastal Community Hospital and the El Monte Community Hospital, among others.

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