HBO Film Inflames Dr. Death's Critics

Al Pacino will play the role of Jack Kevorkian, the enigmatic pathologist known as "Dr. Death" and "Jack the Dripper," who assisted in more than 130 suicides with his "mercy machine."

The flamboyant doctor, who served eight years in prison on a second-degree murder charge, was released from a Michigan maximum security prison in 2007 with a parole pledge that he never kill again.


The made-for-television movie, "You Don't Know Jack," directed by Barry Levinson ("Rain Main") with a script by Adam Maser ("Breach"), won't air on HBO until the spring of 2010.

But the project -- five years in the making -- is already inflaming leaders in the assisted death community, which for decades has eyed Kevorkian with suspicion and disdain.

They say the doctor was "death obsessed," and his bizarre antics set back the right-to-die movement.

"I am worried that they are going to do the Hollywood take on Kevorkian and turn him into a heroic martyr," said Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. "The temptation is there -- when you see Al Pacino in the role portraying him as the little guy fighting the system, helping people who are miserable and otherwise would be left to die."

Kevorkian was unwilling to talk to, but his longtime lawyer said the 81-year-old doctor was "enthused about helping with the film."

Kevorkian lives in Royal Oaks, Mich., and is writing a book. His artwork is on permanent display in an Armenian museum in Boston.

"He thinks Al Pacino will be great," said Mayer Morganroth, who may be played by Dustin Hoffman or Richard Dreyfuss. "I think it will be realistic. It won't be scathing and critical."

Caplan and others who support assisted dying with strict guidelines have said Kevorkian was "cavalier and insensitive" to the dying who turned to him.

They also have said Kevorkian preyed on the mentally ill, who, with further evaluation, could have been helped.

Caplan said he once asked Kevorkian if he had been aware that one of his victims had a long history of depression. The doctor reputedly responded, "How am I supposed to know the details of her life?"

Assisted Suicide Began in 1930s

Kevorkian became the face of the assisted suicide movement, which had its roots in the United States in the 1930s and gathered steam in the 1990s.

Today, Oregon, Washington and Montana are the only states that allow terminally ill patients to ask a doctor for a lethal amount of medication after a medical and psychological evaluation. Those states rejected Kevorkian's call for "death on demand."

"Strangely, one of the legacies of Kevorkian is that he made clear the kinds of protections that have to be put in place," said Caplan.

Kevorkian, whose tactics have included fasting, appearing at a trial in Puritan-era stocks and protesting in a ball and chain, was seen as "an odd duck," according to Caplan.

"But he brought a lot of relish and enthusiasm to his work," Caplan added.

The doctor's mantra was "dying is not a crime," and he made national headlines with his invention -- the thanatron, Greek for suicide machine -- which gave patients a "dignified, humane and painless" death.

"The patient can do it in the comfort of their own home any time they want," said Kevorkian at the time.

A pull of the trigger released a drug to induce a deep coma. Once asleep, a timer would inject a lethal dose of potassium chloride to stop the heart.

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