You Don’t Know Jack: Al Pacino as Jack Kevorkian

Starring Oscar winner Al Pacino (Emmy winner for HBO’s “Angels in America”) in a film by Oscar winner Barry Levinson (“Rain Man”), HBO Films’ YOU DON’T KNOW JACK is the story of one man’s obsession with challenging the rules by which we live and die – and his stubborn, heartfelt insistence on breaking the law to do so.

 

The film also stars Oscar winner Susan Sarandon (Emmy nominee for HBO’s “Bernard and Doris”), Danny Huston (HBO’s “John Adams”), Emmy winner Brenda Vaccaro (“Once Is Not Enough”) and Emmy winner John Goodman (“The Big Lebowski”).  The film is written by Adam Mazer (“Breach”).  YOU DON’T KNOW JACK debuts SATURDAY, APRIL 24 (9:00-11:15 p.m. ET/PT), exclusively on HBO.

“I think a lot of people have the wrong impression about Jack Kevorkian,” says director Barry Levinson.  “He only exists through little sound bites, so there’s very little known about the man, his private life, his relationships, etc.  We’re not trying to glorify the character, but we’re trying to give a human portrait of the man – what he was about, how he thought, how he viewed the ethics of it all.”

Adds executive producer Lydia Pilcher, “Jack Kevorkian was a lightning rod for an issue that really is universal and more relevant now than ever.  What we’ve tried to do in the story is to show all avenues into the debate.  We have the opposition from the religious right and the disability movement, and the opposition within the medical profession.  We have 70% of the population who supported what Jack was doing, and of course the patients who considered Jack their Angel of Mercy.  For better or for worse, Jack forced the medical establishment and the general public to take a hard look at how end of life issues are managed.”

Adds writer Adam Mazer, “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.  I think we show a very honest portrayal of the man – his foibles, his strengths, his weaknesses and his flaws.”

Great care was taken to treat the subject matter with dignity and truthfulness, backed by extensive research and interviews with the individuals who were involved, and with Jack himself.  The fact that Kevorkian is still very much alive at age 81 made it imperative to the filmmakers that his story be told with a sense of respect and responsibility in an honest, unflinching way.

While Kevorkian was serving his nine-year prison term, executive producer Steve Lee Jones began developing a movie about him and contacted Kevorkian’s longtime attorney, Mayer Morganroth.  “This is a story that no one knows,” says Jones.  “It is a tale that has many layers, many emotions.  It’s controversial, it’s epic in many ways, and it’s something that is gripping this country in terms of the importance of rights.”

Jones enlisted writer Adam Mazer, who had his initial meeting with Jack four days after he was released from prison in June 2007.  Mazer made several trips to Michigan, interviewing Kevorkian over several weeks, as well as interviewing many of the people involved in the story, among them Neal Nicol, one of Jack’s oldest friends, and various family members of the patients that Jack assisted.  “Jack had 130 patients,” explains Mazer.  “That’s 130 really compelling, emotional stories to be told.  Of course, we couldn’t show them all in our film, but we show a few that give us a real sense of who these people were and why they came to Jack for his help.”

One of the people closest to Kevorkian during the ten-year period depicted in the film was attorney Geoffrey Fieger, who provided legal counsel and representation pro bono for years, maintaining that Jack’s legal woes were a civil rights issue and not subject to charge.  It seems unlikely that Jack could have paid legal fees anyway, as he himself never charged a patient for his services and paid for all the materials necessary for the procedures.

When Jones called Fieger to interview him about his experiences with Jack, the attorney hung up on him, just as he had done on the 20 or so previous occasions when “Hollywood types,” as Fieger refers to them, called to solicit his participation in Kevorkian-themed projects.  He hung up on Jones several more times until the filmmaker assured him he was the real deal.  Notes Fieger, “I was very rude to him until he convinced me that he had a sensitivity to the story, that he understood, that he cared and that he wasn’t going to portray Jack’s story in an exaggerated, phony manner.”

Fieger credits writer Mazer with synthesizing a lot of the information and details that Fieger shared with him into an accurate and effective script that was very close to the issues.  “I thought the script was magnificent, and I knew in the hands of good actors and a good director, you could do some amazing things with it,” he says.

Al Pacino, who portrays Kevorkian, finds the title of the film appropriate, observing, “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.’  And that’s what I found out as an actor throughout all my research – that this guy is much different than his image.  Hopefully, this comes across in the movie, because this acknowledgment is really overdue for Jack.”

Danny Huston, like Pacino, portrayed a character who is still very much alive.  “I felt somewhat duty-bound towards Geoffrey Fieger,” he admits.  “He’s still an attorney, he’s still running a business and he may go back into politics at some point.  So I didn’t want to do him an injustice.  He’s a larger-than-life character with a wonderfully large sense of self that you can’t help but explore.  But my translation of his character was done with the best of intentions.”

Brenda Vaccaro, who plays Margo, Kevorkian’s beloved sister and emotional rock, credits her Italian heritage and sense of family as a helpful tool in understanding the influence of the Armenian matriarch.  “Here was this woman who was completely devoted and saw the genius in her brother,” explains Vaccaro.  “She spent her life – every waking moment – taking care of him and making life easier, helping him find the direction and keeping him calm and on the straight line.”

Kevorkian also came to share an unlikely bond with Janet Good, head of the Hemlock Society in Michigan, who is portrayed in the film by Susan Sarandon. Says Sarandon, “She was interested in this issue because she had a mother that suffered for a long, long time in a nursing home.  But she was Catholic, and that was really interesting; she was Catholic, but she was pro-choice.  She stood up for women’s rights and employees’ rights and was married and had a bunch of kids – not at all what you think of as your urban guerilla activist kind of person.”

Completing the circle of friends was Neal Nicol, who was a medical technician when he met the doctor and became a devoted follower and trusted friend.  Says John Goodman, who portrays Nicol, “Neal served as a support for Kevorkian as Jack tried to help these dying people shift to another dimension.  He videotaped the pre-procedure interviews, set up the equipment for Jack and helped him get supplies, which Jack paid for out of his own pocket.”

Says the real-life Neal Nicol, “I think Jack Kevorkian was a gift to people.  I think he offered a service.  He saw a need.  The government ignored it.  Medical society ignored it.  The church ignored it.  He saw the need, and he filled the need.  And once he filled the need, they all got their hackles up and said, ‘You’re a bad man.’  I can tell you 130-plus people who’d say he’s not a bad man.”

Despite the seriousness of the subject matter of euthanasia, director Levinson was determined not to present a maudlin, issue-oriented film and credits the actual Kevorkian’s quick wit and dry sense of humor with the levity that found its way into the script.

“There’s nothing worse than just making a movie that’s just issues,” explains Levinson.  “At some point we have to relate to and connect with the characters.  We have to take the journey with them.  And that means – in almost every situation I’ve ever been involved with in life – in serious times there is humor.  We are seeing very strong-headed characters with strong personalities interacting with one another dramatically and humorously.  I think that’s an essential part of what this piece is about.”

Commenting on the film, Jack Kevorkian says, “I consider it an honor, of course.  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.”