The truth: Kevorkian was less than noble
Film producers should resist glorifying his life.
Jack Kevorkian's dream has come true: He will get his much-longed-for treatment on the silver screen.
The flamboyant doctor says he assisted more than 130 people in dying between 1990 and 1998. Aside from this long record of killing, he is also known as the inventor of the "Thanatron," the world's first assisted-suicide machine, and a part-time painter of macabre works involving rotting skulls.
Barry Levinson - the director who brought you the widely praised television series Homicide: Life on the Street and such movies as Diner, Avalon, Rain Man, and Good Morning Vietnam - has reportedly recruited Al Pacino (yes, Al Pacino!) to star in a forthcoming movie about Kevorkian. The flick ought to be titled Homicide: Death in a Van at the Hands of a Nut. Whatever it is called, it will be a test of Hollywood's weakness for a certain kind of narrative.
Kevorkian always presented himself as the underdog hard at work for the little people - the helpless and the hopeless. His admirers bought this line of blarney. And Hollywood loves that kind of story.
It is a good story, but it is not true.
Kevorkian was always about Jack as much as he was about the strangers he briefly met and dispatched. When I asked him once if he were aware that one of his victims had a long history of severe depression and had spent many years in a psychiatric hospital, he snorted and replied, "How am I supposed to know all the details of her life?"
Far be it from the doctor to cloud his assessment of a person's request to die with the details of the person's life.
There is a huge probability that Levinson and Pacino won't be able to resist the story of a principled doctor bucking the establishment to help the dying fulfill their wishes to leave this Earth, and that Kevorkian will find himself beatified on film. That would be most unfortunate.
Despite his skill in administering potassium chloride to the fearful, disabled, lonely, and inadequately treated, Kevorkian was a poor choice to lead the movement to legalize assisted suicide.
His personality and ego kept getting in the way of his heartfelt desire to offer assisted suicide to absolutely anyone who requested it - terminally ill or not, mentally impaired or not. His lack of knowledge about those he assisted in dying or killed outright wound up setting back the legalization of assisted suicide many years. Those who opposed assisted suicide had only to point to what Kevorkian was up to in his van or motel rooms, and the debate was over.
When Oregon and, later, Washington state finally did legalize assisted suicide, they looked closely at what Kevorkian had done. Then they made every effort to ensure that their requirements for legal assisted suicide - diagnoses of terminal illness by two doctors, mandatory waiting periods, competency evaluations, and reports to the police - bore absolutely no resemblance to Kevorkian's 24-hour, meet-greet-and-annihilate service.
Levinson is no slouch when it comes to making movies. And Al Pacino is certainly experienced in portraying killers, having turned Michael Corleone into an American icon. Maybe they can avoid the temptation to canonize Jack. But I wouldn't bet on it.