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Scott D. Pierce: Al Pacino guides through 'You Don't Know Jack: The Life and Deaths of Jack Kevorkian'

Al Pacino stars as Dr. Jack Kevorkian in the HBO film "You Don't Know Jack."
Al Pacino stars as Dr. Jack Kevorkian in the HBO film "You Don't Know Jack."
Abbot Genser, HBO

PASADENA, Calif. — Throughout the 1990s, Jack Kevorkian was one of the most recognizable men in America.

Both hailed as an angel of mercy and demonized as Dr. Death, Kevorkian pushed forward the debate on end-of-life issues and assisted suicide. Despite the fact that he was almost constantly in the news, neither his supporters nor his detractors knew much about Kevorkian himself.

Which is one reason the HBO film "You Don't Know Jack: The Life and Deaths of Jack Kevorkian" is so fascinating.

"Well, I don't think a lot of people can really say that they know Jack Kevorkian. ... And really you don't know jack," said Al Pacino, who's performance in the title role is another reason to watch the telefilm. "When you see the image that was portrayed of Jack Kevorkian during his time, and you get a sense of someone quite different than the personality that I got to know."

Pacino did a lot of research, but scriptwriter Adam Mazar actually spent time interviewing Kevorkian.

"I met Jack originally about four days after he was released from prison in June of '07 and was blown away by the man again, beyond everything I thought I knew about him," Mazar said. "But his quirks, his eccentricities and all those are, I think, very revealed in the film.

"We didn't set out to do a movie about assisted suicide. It was a movie about Jack Kevorkian. And what makes him so fascinating is this guy was, as flawed as he may have been in some people's eyes, a Renaissance man."

A Detroit pathologist, Kevorkian is a lifelong bachelor who is a painter, a poet and a filmmaker and a regular guy who plays poker with his buddies.

"These were the kinds of things that the more we got to sort of understand who the guy was behind the headlines. (He) just became such an intriguing figure and one that Al completely embodied and embraced," Mazar said.

"Jack" focuses on Kevorkian and his small group of friends and supporters throughout the 1990s. It explores the reasons why he became such an advocate for what he called death with dignity and his opponents called murder.

Masterfully directed by Barry Levinson, the telefilm also stars Brenda Vacarro as Kevorkian's sister, Margo Janus; John Goodman as his friend and supporter, Neal Nicol; Susan Sarandon as Hemlock Society activist Janet Good; and Danny Huston as his attorney, Geoffrey Fieger.

"You Don't Know Jack" is sympathetic to Kevorkian and his efforts, but it by no means portrays him as an altogether heroic figure. His flaws are on display, and even his closest allies express reservations.

Utterly convinced that he was doing the right thing and determined to drive the right-to-die movement forward, Kevorkian and Fieger thwarted the authorities for a decade. But, after daring them to arrest him when he administered a lethal injection to an immobile patient and provided the video to "60 Minutes," Kevorkian was convicted of second-degree murder and spent 81/2 years in prison.

"You Don't Know Jack" deftly mixes drama with humor, drawing portraits of unforgettable people.

It mixes actual footage of interviews that Kevorkian conducted with some of the 130 people whose suicides he assisted. This could have gone horribly wrong, and yet it works.

And Pacino's portrayal is, as Sarandon put it, "just mesmerizing."

"His character ... is so complex and so unexpected," she said. "People who dedicate their lives to anything are really fascinating people. And wherever you stand on an issue, just that character study to see what it takes to make a point, and which he did so brilliantly, and all the flaws that go into somebody, as Al said, that really is a zealot is just an amazing story."

Mazar, who spent weeks interviewing Kevorkian, said the 81-year-old doesn't have any regrets about the actions that sent him to prison.

"I think the only thing he feels slightly uneasy about is that no one sort of took on the baton. He wasn't able to pass that on to anyone and sort of got quieted while he was away," Mazar said. "Because in the '90s, Jack Kevorkian was arguably one of the most recognizable people in the country, if not the planet, besides maybe the Clintons and Michael Jordan or something.

"But he was forgotten, in effect."

Another reason to watch "You Don't Know Jack."

If you watch...

What: "You Don't Know Jack: The Life and Deaths of Jack Kevorkian"

When: Premieres Saturday, April 24, at 10 p.m.

Channel: HBO

Other dates: April 25 and 27 and May 2, 5, 10, 13 and 16

Bottom line: A biography of "Dr. Death" may seem like an odd choice for a TV movie, but this is a very good, thought-provoking film. And Pacino and the rest of the cast are great.

e-mail: pierce@desnews.com