April 26, 2010 1:20 pm

Story of ‘Dr. Death’ brought to life in TV movie

Preview

You Don’t Know Jack airs tonight on HBO Canada.

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You don’t know jack about Jack Kevorkian, but screenwriter Adam Mazer wants to change that.

When he was writing the screenplay for the HBO biographical TV movie You Don’t Know Jack — about the right-to-die activist who famously, and infamously, championed the right of terminal patients to die by physician-assisted suicide — Mazer says the last thing he wanted to do was fall into the old TV trap of cliches.

Mazer wrote his screenplay long before he learned Al Pacino would be cast to play the Michigan pathologist who would earn the nickname “Dr. Death.”

Kevorkian famously served eight years in prison for second-degree murder after video of him administering a lethal injection was shown during a 60 Minutes interview with Mike Wallace in November 1998.

“We didn’t set out to do a movie about assisted suicide,” Mazer explained. “It is a movie about Jack Kevorkian.” And Jack Kevorkian is a much more complicated person than the public picture suggests, Mazer said.

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“What makes him so fascinating is, as flawed as he may have been in some people’s eyes, he was a Renaissance man. He was a painter. He wrote poetry. He was a filmmaker years ago; tried to make a movie 20 some years ago. He composed music, painted, played poker with his buddies once a week. The more we got to sort of understand who the guy was behind the headlines, he became this intriguing figure.”

Mazer based his screenplay in part on the book, Between the Dying and the Dead, by Neal Nicol and Harry Wylie.

The title You Don’t Know Jack is deliberate, but not meant to be facetious, Mazer insisted. He was being literal, not funny.

“It’s in the title, literally. Who is this guy? A pathologist in Detroit. Most of us were familiar with the headlines and the news pieces and the media frenzy surrounding him at the time, but who was he really? He was never married, had no children.”

Mazer, the writer, jumped at the opportunity to meet Kevorkian in person, unlike Pacino, who played Kevorkian in the film and pointedly chose not to meet Kevorkian ahead of time.

“I met him about four days after he was released from prison in June of ’07, and was blown away, beyond everything I thought I knew about him,” Mazer said. “His quirks, his eccentricities, his mannerisms — all that is revealed in the film.”

Kevorkian is 81. He has been out of prison for two and a half years, Mazer noted.

“I think, when he looks back, I don’t believe he regrets what he did on 60 Minutes, and how that led to his conviction,” Mazer said. “I think the only thing he feels regret about is that no one took up the baton. Everything quietened down while he was away.

“You must remember that, in the ’90s, Jack Kevorkian was, arguably, one of the most famous, recognizable people in the country, if not the world, besides maybe the Clintons and Michael Jordan. And, in effect, he was forgotten.”

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