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.

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.

Death-Themed Art Freaked Out Colleagues

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.

Film Is 'Tour de Force'

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 "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.

Kevorkian Had Big Ego

After that, Kevorkian reportedly opposed Humphry's approach, saying assisted suicides should be done in a medical setting.

"People are aware of euthanasia because of him," he said. "But I think he ruined it in the eyes of the medical profession."

"I credit him and criticize him," said Humphry. "The American public and the media gave him so much attention. He had lot of ego. He was not a team player at all."

But Kevorkian's lawyer said the HBO movie will reveal that the public face of Dr. Death "is not him at all."

"Jack is a very private guy," said Morganroth. "He never charged anyone for his services, he lives off very little and he was never interested in dollars. He's somewhat of a loner."

The enigmatic doctor has been parodied in numerous television and movie scripts: In an episode of the "Simpsons," a depressed grandpa considers the "diepod."

In the pilot of "Grey's Anatomy," Meredith says, "If I hadn't taken the Hippocratic oath, I would Kevorkian her with my bare hands."

But both friends and enemies can see why powerhouse actor Al Pacino might relish the role of Dr. Death.

"He reminds me of John Brown, who invaded Harper's Ferry in the Civil War," said bioethicist Caplan. "He was completely nuts. He inspired attention to slavery and abolition, but he was completely wacky."