You Don't Know Jack - Al Pacino
Dr Jack Kevorkian (Al Pacino) © HBO

In 1990, Dr Jack Kevorkian (aka Dr Death) astonished the world when he took the end of life debate to new heights with his ‘Mercy Machine’ and performed his first assisted suicide, which led to a media frenzy and epic legal battles.

The legendary Oscar winning actor Al Pacino portrays Dr Kevorkian in HBO’s movie You Don’t Know Jack, directed by Oscar winner Barry Levinson. Pacino spoke with the press recently this fascinating new role and the challenges of doing television.

This is a pretty serious movie, although there is comedy in it. Do you feel this is the proper title for it, as it sounds like a trivia game show?

You Don't Know Jack - Al Pacino
Dr Jack Kevorkian (Al Pacino) © HBO

Well, I don’t think a lot of people can really say that they know Jack Kevorkian. When you see the image that was portrayed of Jack Kevorkian during his time, you get a sense of someone quite different than the personality that I got to know.

Not that I got to know him personally, mind you, but I did research in order to get closer to who I could interpret. I think the title is apt because you don’t know this guy. And, hopefully, in the movie you still don’t.

Did you meet up with Dr Kevorkian? What was the source material for your performance?

I didn’t meet Jack. I hope I will now or in the future. Sometimes, for some reason, I don’t take access to that, and sometimes I do. And I felt with Jack, because the script was so well written, it was complete in its portrait.

It felt as though there was room, and I had so much research. And with the media the way it is, there’s so many things you could see and study, and I read his books to get close to him in that fashion. Also, Jack was about ten years old older (now), because he had gotten out of prison. We don’t do him that age. We’re when he’s younger. I just felt this instinctively,

Do you wish now that you had met with him?

You Don't Know Jack - Al Pacino and Director Barry Levinson
Dr Jack Kevorkian (Al Pacino) and Director Barry Levinson © HBO

There were times when I wish I would have. But in the end, I felt close to him in another kind of way. There are characters you do it with, and it works, and there’s some characters you back away from doing it. I don’t know why. For instance, with Frank Serpico, I studied and went with Serpico everywhere. I got to know this man. Anyone who saw that movie, it was him that I got to know.

With Dog Day Afternoon, I didn’t feel like I wanted to know that guy for that role and my interpretation. Now, I may have made a mistake. I don’t know. I still to this day think I did. And with this, who knows. I probably did here too. But if you have the opportunity to meet someone as an actor, it’s just great fodder for you. It’s wonderful source stuff that we die for. And so that I didn’t take access to it, is a question, and I don’t know why I didn’t.

Dr Kevorkian’s zeal intensified over time as he got closer to his court case and eventually going to prison. What was that like for you internally as his mania grew?

You Don't Know Jack - Al Pacino
Dr Jack Kevorkian (Al Pacino) © HBO

I don’t remember, but I would imagine that it was, off the top of my head, the loss of two of the closest people in his life, his sister Margo, and Janet Good. When Jack lost them, I think it set off something in him, somewhat of a desperation inside, and a need to go further with what he wanted to do and an abandon took over. I think those are the kinds of things that were percolating in my head somewhere.

When you’re offered a television movie is it a positive thing for you because it doesn’t take as long as a feature film to shoot?

There are pros and cons in that. There’s something about going fast that catches you up, and sometimes it creates certain spontaneity. But, you’re going fast with highly tuned people who are there and are with it, and they’re not going so fast that they’re negligent. It’s just the nature of the beast.

Ultimately it’s how much money there is to do these things and put them on. There were so many scenes in this. At one point we did sixteen scenes in two days. But it was exciting because a lot of it lent a kind of energy to the film because you’re in the hands of Barry Levinson. You’re in the hands of a consummate person and filmmaker. If I had to do it over again I would say yeah, sure.

You Don’t Know Jack premiered last Saturday, April 24, 2010 on HBO

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.