Later, he used a "mercitron," or mercy machine, after his medical license was revoked after the first two deaths and he could no longer get the substances required for the thanatron.
The film's producer, Steve Jones, who is also making a documentary of Kevorkian's failed 2008 bid for Congress, said the HBO project is not about euthanasia but "a look at a passionate man who spent his entire life fighting for rights he believes that every human should have."
Kevorkian was born in Pontiac, Mich., the son of working-class parents who left Armenia after the genocide of 1915. He was trained as a pathologist and first got his name, Dr. Death, because of a 1956 paper he wrote about photographing the eyes of dying patients.
He was dismissed from his residency at the University of Michigan for advocating experimentation on consenting convicts during execution. Other medical projects included experiments on transfusing blood from cadavers into living patients.
Kevorkian also created music and art with ghoulish themes. Those who worked closely with him said he "freaked them out," according to Caplan.
By 1987, Kervorkian began advertising in newspapers as a "physician consultant" for "death counseling," and in 1989 he built his suicide machine on his kitchen table.
The first assisted death was that of Janet Adkins, a 54 year old from Oregon with Alzheimer's disease. It took place in Kervorkian's parked Volkswagen van.
By the 1990s, Kevorkian was charged and acquitted in numerous other assisted deaths, and his medical license was revoked. By 1992, Michigan passed a ban on the procedure.
In one contentious case, he helped Hugh Gale, a 70-year-old with emphysema and congestive heart disease, to die, but investigators reportedly found papers that showed Kevorkian altered the account of the death, deleting Gale's request to halt the procedure.
But it was a 1998 episode of CBS's "60 Minutes," showing Kevorkian giving a lethal injection to Thomas Youk, 52, who suffered from Lou Gehrig's disease, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, that led to Kevorkian's conviction on second degree murder charges.
"He was a complex man, the smartest man I ever met," said Geoffrey Fieger, the lawyer who got Kevorkian acquitted eight times.
Fieger was also a consultant on the HBO film and called it "a masterpiece and a tour de force."
"We had a love-hate relationship," said Fieger. "It was a father-son relationship -- me being the father and he being the son. I was up against the governor, politicians, police and the prosecutors, but the biggest problem was Jack Kevorkian. He was headstrong."
Even Hemlock Society founder Derek Humphry, now 79 and the self-described "grand old man" of the assisted death movement, said Kevorkian's methods were "too perilous and risky."
Humphry wrote "Last Exit," a how-to guide for people wishing to end their lives, after helping his terminally ill wife, Jean, end her life with an overdose of medication.
In 1989, when Kevorkian was still practicing medicine in Los Angeles, he and Humphry "quarreled right on the spot."
"He came to me hoping that I, as head of Hemlock, would send him the patients," Humphry told ABCNews.com. "I said, 'No,' I don't believe there should be a clinic for assisted suicide. It should be done at home or in a hospital."
"He stormed out of the room and has never spoken to me since," Humphry said.