Trying to get to the heart of Jack Kevorkian

At the crux of the lingering debate over Dr. Jack Kevorkian is an unresolved question of character: What kind of guy would devote his life to helping other people die? Was he a compassionate visionary, fighting to end the suffering of the ill, or was there something darkly twisted about a man who defied the law and risked years in prison as he pushed the death toll well beyond 100?

That sort of inscrutable extremism proved irresistible to Al Pacino and Barry Levinson.

"We had talked about doing this kind of story, this kind of person … a true zealot, and what the makeup of that is," said Pacino, who, wearing thick-framed glasses and with his hair cropped short and white, plays Kevorkian in the new HBO film "You Don't Know Jack," airing Saturday. The film, which also stars Susan Sarandon and John Goodman, examines a 10-year span of Kevorkian's life in which he thrust the issue of physician-assisted suicide into the global spotlight.

"There are not many people who would really go the last mile on something — very few throughout history," Pacino said. "A lot of people, I think, aspire to it, but very few actually do it."

Levinson, the Oscar-winning director of "Rain Man," prepared to produce and direct the true-life drama by spending a day with Kevorkian in New York soon after the former pathologist was released from prison in 2006. Levinson recalls being fascinated that Kevorkian, now 81, was such a fearlessly outspoken and unpolished intellectual.

"There was nothing slick about Kevorkian," Levinson said. "He didn't have a way of talking to the media in 30-second sound bites. He was not manicured in any way." And yet, doggedly independent, with no wife or children or rich lifestyle to protect, he focused his energies wherever he chose, regardless of the consequences.

"There are very few people you ever run into who cannot be intimidated," Levinson said. "If they took away his income, it didn't matter. He never had any money. He lived a monk-like existence."

The complexity of the man inspired the film's title. How could anyone know the true heart of Jack? Here was a fanatic who never charged the patients who came to him suffering from cancer, Lou Gehrig's disease, spinal-cord injuries and other grievous problems, seeking his aid in ending it all. Still, he rankled his enemies. His fervor and prolific legacy of death in Michigan, where he practiced, made Kevorkian, as the movie chronicles, the greatest lightning rod of controversy in the euthanasia movement.

Detractors still talk as though he ranks with coldblooded killers such as Dr. Josef Mengele and Jack the Ripper.

"The truth is, Jack Kevorkian's attitudes are neo-Nazi," Paul Longmore, director of the Institute on Disability at San Francisco State University, said in a telephone interview. "I don't use that to be inflammatory. His views of people who are sick and disabled are close to what the Nazis held and tried to implement with their euthanasia laws. One of the alarming things is, so many people in this country ended up regarding him as some kind of folk hero."

Most of the people he helped to die were disabled, not terminally ill, and most were women, Longmore said. Evidence that Kevorkian is "a pretty bizarre character" can be found in one of his passions: art, the scholar said. "He was a painter and used real human blood in his paintings."

In the film, there is a fleeting look at Kevorkian's gruesome art at a gallery show, as well as a moment when the incarcerated doctor appears before a judge who demands a $50,000 bond for his release. Kevorkian vows instead to stop eating, telling the court, "You are assisting in my suicide!"

"And he'll not only make the comment, he will literally starve to death because that [exorbitant bail] is unjust," Levinson said during an interview in Beverly Hills. "You go, 'Wow, what a character!' You can't push him."

Kevorkian, who has shunned the media since his release from prison, is also a flute player and a poet and was a strong proponent of organ transplantation during his medical career. The impetus to tell his story began six years ago when executive producer Steve Lee Jones received an unpublished manuscript that would later become the book "Between the Dying and the Dead: Dr. Jack Kevorkian's Life and the Battle to Legalize Euthanasia," co-written by a couple of Kevorkian's friends.

"I was blown away," Jones said. He immediately set about trying to help the writers get the book published and also to make a movie. The quest led Jones to visit Kevorkian in prison and to spend considerable time with him after his release.

Jones found the physician widely known as "Dr. Death" to be extraordinarily compassionate — a man who lives in a nearly barren apartment outside Detroit and gets around by public bus. "He is concerned about the footprint he leaves on the planet," Jones said. "He doesn't waste anything — I mean, anything. On the other hand, he's a genius. He's probably the most well-read individual I've ever encountered. He can quote Cicero and Socrates and Thoreau. He can quote just about any important book of literature you can name."

Studios found the story amazing — and passed on it. "They were terrified of … a backlash," Jones said.

HBO gladly stepped in to develop the Adam Mazer screenplay, said Len Amato, president of HBO Films.

"Thematically, it was dealing with the last taboo," Amato said. "It was a movie no one else would make. That's a plus for us."

Kevorkian's depth and tenacity were the clinchers, Amato said.

"When you scratch the surface and go down deeper, it's a different person," he said. And, like him or not, consider him as a benevolent crusader or an evil killer, Kevorkian was willing to put his own life on the line and to hold fast to his principles, Amato said. "In that sense, he's a hero — with flaws. There's something classically heroic about that."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World