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HBO film unmasks ‘Dr. Death,’ Jack Kevorkian

Twenty years after becoming one of America's most polarizing figures, Dr. Jack Kevorkian returns to the  limelight  in an HBO film about his crusade to help the terminally ill die.
/ Source: Reuters

Twenty years after becoming one of America's most polarizing figures, Dr. Jack Kevorkian returns to the media limelight on Saturday in an HBO film about his crusade to help the terminally ill die.

But as the title suggests, "You Don't Know Jack" aims to give Americans a very different portrait of the man once vilified in newspapers and television broadcasts as Dr. Death.

Al Pacino plays the former pathologist who helped 130 patients end their lives over a 10-year period before being sent to prison in 1999 for second-degree murder.

"Jack Kevorkian is a person you think you know. But at the end of the story, you find yourself saying 'He's different than I would have thought he would be'," Pacino told reporters recently.

But the Oscar-winning actor never met Kevorkian, now 81 and out of prison, before filming began.

"There are characters you do meet with, and it works and there are some you don't. I don't know why," Pacino told journalists, saying he had simply "absorbed" Kevorkian in preparation for the role.

Kevorkian invented two devices — the Thanatron (death machine) and Mercitron (mercy machine) — to pump lethal drugs or gas to terminally ill individuals, and performed his first assisted suicide in 1990.

After numerous trials, he was eventually convicted in 1999 of second-degree murder after allowing a videotape of one such suicide to be aired on national television.

He was sentenced to 10-25 years in prison, released on parole in 2007 due to good behavior, and now gives occasional public lectures.

Assisted suicide legal in three statesSince 1990, three U.S. states have voted to allow assisted suicide under certain guidelines, but the practice is still a criminal offense in most of the United States.

HBO is using the lingering controversy over Kevorkian and the right to die debate to promote the film.

"Is this the face of a killer?", reads one HBO poster bearing the image of Pacino as Kevorkian. "This man wants you to die...on your own terms," says another.

The filmmakers held numerous meetings with Kevorkian and many of the families of those he treated when putting the script together. "You Don't Know Jack" begins in 1989 as Kevorkian started offering "death counseling" services.

Susan Sarandon, Brenda Vaccaro and Danny Huston play Kevorkian's real-life Hemlock Society activist friend, his sister and his defense attorney, respectively.

"I don't think it's about sympathizing or empathizing with Jack. I think it's about understanding him -- the choices he made, who he was," said writer Adam Mazer.

"I think we show a very honest portrayal of the man -- his foibles, his strengths, weaknesses and flaws," Mazer said.

Pacino finally met Kevorkian at the film's premiere in New York two weeks ago. But he said he hoped the TV movie leaves some questions open as to the true nature of the man.

"He is more than meets the eye...That is part of the appeal (for an actor). It is a portrait of a zealot that we don't see that often," said Pacino, who turns 70 on Sunday (April 25).

Kevorkian says he considers the film an honor. But he added in a statement; "I like the attention and all that, but it's not to the magnitude it would be if I were younger. When you're older, you've seen it all and you take more in stride whatever happens."