Joshua Jackson calls Christopher Duntsch a narcissist. Photo courtesy of Peacock
LOS ANGELES, July 15 (UPI) -- The real-life story of convicted neurosurgeon Christopher Duntsch, first adapted into the Dr. Death podcast, launches Thursday as a TV series on Peacock. Jackson, who plays Duntsch, said the doctor's comforting bedside manner sold his patients on surgeries that left them permanently injured.
"I think Duntsch is very much a narcissist," Jackson told UPI in a recent Zoom interview. "He is playing the character of the good doctor, and the good doctor has good bedside manner."
Based on real-life events, the series begins in 2012, when Dallas Medical Center spinal surgeon Robert Henderson (Alec Baldwin) performs a corrective procedure on one of Duntsch's former patients. Duntsch had been a spinal surgeon at Baylor Plano hospital in Dallas since 2010.
Patients would emerge from Duntsch's operating room permanently maimed or paralyzed. Baylor Plano vascular surgeon Randall Kirby (Christian Slater) teamed up with Henderson to pursue malpractice charges against Duntsch.
"[Kirby's] opinion is that this guy never should have operated on anything other than mice," said Slater, who spoke with Kirby. "For him to have come into the operating theater was a horrible mistake."
Assistant District Attorney Michelle Shughart (AnnaSophia Robb) takes on the case in Episode 4 of the series. Robb said she spoke with the real Shughart prior to filming and learned she maintained a cordial demeanor while prosecuting her cases.
"My favorite thing she told me was, 'I can still be nice to you and put you in jail for life,'" Robb said. "The kindness that she leads with and the sort of empathy are not what you'd expect from a prosecutor."
Another whistleblower was Josh Baker (Hubert Point-Du Jour), an operating room nurse who witnessed Duntsch's surgeries. Point-Du Jour said he did not get to speak to the real Baker, but believes Kirby and Henderson gave Baker the confidence to come forward.
"He's sort of passing the baton on to people in a more powerful position, who can have a greater effect on stopping Dr. Duntsch finally," Point-Du Jour said.
Duntsch is serving life in prison for aggravated assault on a total of 32 patients. Duntsch was not available to Jackson, but Jackson said he would not be interested in meeting Duntsch anyway.
"He's delusional, and his delusion is pretty clear," Jackson said. "I'm not sure that I would have found truth by having access to a liar."
Instead, Jackson relied on the Wonderly podcast, Dr. Death, on which the TV series is based. Series creator Patrick McManus provided Jackson with additional research material.
"There is no simple why for this guy," Jackson said. "It took nature and nurture and interaction with systems and some fluke happenstance."
The series also portrays Duntsch's addictions to drugs like cocaine and LSD. Jackson said he agreed those were contributing factors to Duntsch's negligence, but he did not lay the blame solely on substance abuse.
"I don't want to give Duntsch that out," Jackson said. "It supported him in living inside of his narcissistic fantasy, but I don't think that cocaine is the thing that was wrong with Christopher Duntsch."
In subsequent episodes, Robb said, she studies the cases in question to develop an understanding of her dialogue in the courtroom scenes. Robb said she prepared for scenes similar to the way Shughart prepared for a trial.
"Knowing what I was saying and understanding the biology of all of the cases was important to helping me memorize," Robb said. "I basically just did what you would do in a normal case to understand what I was saying."
The Dr. Death cast members all said they hoped the show makes viewers aware of potentially deadly flaws in the healthcare system. Slater said the series will show how Duntsch manipulated protections his hospitals provided him to continue operating until Kirby and Henderson stepped in.
"We put doctors on such a high pedestal," Slater said. "They're fallible and they make mistakes. They're not gods, so you have to do your research."
From left to right, cast members Joshua Jackson, Grace Gummer, Christian Slater, AnnaSophia Robb, Hubert Point-Du Jour and Patrick Macmanus gather for a photo-op during the premiere of "Dr. Death" at NeueHouse in Los Angeles on Thursday. Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI | License Photo