Celebrity Death Doctors: Michael Jackson’s Personal Physician Dr. Conrad Murray and Seven Other Notorious Real-Life Procurers


Just ten days before Michael Jackson’s death, Dr. Conrad Murray sent a letter to patients in his clinics in Houston and Las Vegas, telling them he was leaving his practices to serve as personal physician for Michael Jackson on his 50-date This Is It London run, calling it “a once in a lifetime opportunity.” Less than two weeks later, Murray was the center of a murder investigation. Authorities raided Murray’s clinics. Jackson’s death was ruled a homicide last month from a deadly dose of propofol, a drug Murray admitted administering hours before he Jackson died. Last month, he issued a teary YouTube video to thank supporters. “Because of all that is going on, I am afraid to make phone calls or return my e-mail,” he said. We don’t know what will become of Murray, but this list is a look back on some of pop culture’s other notorious doctors and enablers, and what happened to them.

1. In 1977, Elvis Presley was 42 years old, weighed 250 pounds, and suffered from glaucoma, high blood pressure, liver damage, and an enlarged colon. His body was spent from years of French fries, fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches and a crippling dependence on uppers, downers, and painkillers. No doctor was more willing to fill these prescriptions than Dr. George Nichopoulos, or “Dr. Nick” as Presley called him. Nichopoulos was from Alabama, wore fancy suits, and also treated Jerry Lee Lewis. Presley began seeing him in 1967, when he was hired to treat the star’s insomnia. He was brought on full-time in 1970 as Presley’s private physician on tour. The doctor vowed to improve the King’s health, but in the last seven months of Presley’s life alone, Rolling Stone reported he prescribed Presley at least fifty-three hundred uppers, downers, and painkillers. The Guardian puts that number at 10,000. Elvis’ favorite drugs included Valium, Dexedrine, Ethinamate, Dilaudid, Demerol, Quaaludes, and Ritalin. The doctor rode with Elvis in the ambulance after he was found dead on his toilet on August 16, 1977, a day before beginning a tour in Maine, reportedly screaming, “Breathe, Presley, breathe!”

Dr. Nick was indicted in 1980 on “willingly and feloniously” overprescribing drugs to Presley and two members of his entourage, Jerry Lee Lewis, and five other patients. He was acquitted. Nichopoulos has expressed little regret for his penchant for prescription writing, even saying he “cared too much” for the star. He recently ran a “Memories of Elvis” touring casino show; its centerpiece was an old black bag complete with an empty phial of dilaudid with Elvis’s name on it. The tour was shut down after two stops. Nichopoulos now works at FedEx.

2. By 1982, a bloated, bed-ridden Brian Wilson weighed more than 300 pounds and was snorting up to five grams of cocaine a day. To clean up he employed the services of Eugene Landy, a self-professed “sixth grade drop out.” Landy had treated Wilson before in the mid seventies, but was fired when Wilson’s family feared he was becoming too influential. He was rehired in 1983 and began his trademark “24 hour care,” employing a silent team who watched, took notes on, and tape-recorded Wilson’s every move. Landy told the New York Times in 1991 he received $35,000 a month for his services. He also found a way to insinuate himself into just about every other aspect of the Beach Boy’s life for over a decade. Landy acted as executive producer of Wilson’s 1988 comeback album. He appointed himself and his girlfriend Alexandra Wilson’s lyricists, and became beneficiary of his will.

Naturally, Landy’s involvement caused Wilson to feel a little confined. In Peter Ames Carlin’s Catch a Wave, Wilson collaborator Gary Usher remembers Wilson saying, “I live in a strange hell. I’m a prisoner and I have no hope of escaping.” Usher also said Wilson attempted suicide in 1985 by jumping in the ocean at his California home and swimming against the tide until one of Landy’s minders pulled him to shore. Later, in 1989, after the California Board of Medical Quality Assurance accused Landy of “grossly negligent conduct” with Wilson and others, he willingly surrendered his license. He died in Honolulu, Hawaii of pneumonia in 2006, at age 71.

3. Dr. Larry Badgley toured with the Rolling Stones on their notorious 1972 American tour. In a 1973 in Rolling Stone interview, Truman Capote told Andy Warhol, “He would pass through the plane with a big plate of pills, every kind you could imagine, everything from vitamin C to coke.” In Dave Lewis’ Led Zeppelin: The ‘Tight But Loose’ Files we are told Badgley, a Harvard grad from San Francisco, joined Led Zeppelin for the third time on their erratic 1977 tour. The book details a scene in Chicago in which Jimmy Page becomes furious with Badgley after the doctor questions him about some missing Quaaludes. Page’s response provides perhaps the best example of why having an around-the-clock doctor is unethical. “Accusing me!” Page says. “Who the fuck does he think is paying his salary?”

4. The Beatles‘ “Dr. Robert,” sung by John Lennon on 1966’s UK version of Revolver, is about a magical can-do-all physician and contains many possible drug references (“If you’re down he’ll pick you up / Dr. Robert / Take a drink from his special cup, Dr. Robert.”) According to Barry Miles’ Paul McCartney: Many Years from Now, the song was about Dr. Robert Freymann, a tall, white-haired German-born physician nicknamed “The Great White Father.” Freymann had a practice on New York’s East 78th Street. His clinic catered to the wealthy, providing vitamin b-12 shots and amphetamines. According Here, There and Everywhere: The 100 Best Beatles Songs, Freymann once boasted that he could name in 10 minutes 100 famous people who had used his services. Freymann reportedly lost his license in 1968, and was removed from the New York State Medical Society in 1975. He died in 1987. Perhaps out of loyalty, Lennon shot down rumors that the song was about Freymann. “I was the one who carried all the pills on tour … in the early days,” he said.

5. Max Jacobson is known as the original Dr. Feelgood, a nickname he earned in the late 1930s after establishing a clinic that catered to writers and entertainers. Jacobson’s often speed-fueled 24-hour-a-day work ethic earned him many fans, among them Truman Capote, Andy Warhol, Tennessee Williams and John F. Kennedy. Jacobson’s “vitamin injections,” were “speed – mixed with multivitamins, steroids, enzymes, hormones, and solubilized placenta, bone marrow, and animal organ cells,” according to the New York Sun. Kennedy reportedly began receiving these injections on the presidential campaign trail, and was shot up by Jacobson before his famous 1960 debates with Richard Nixon. By May 1962, the doctor had visited the White House to treat Kennedy at least 34 times. Bobby Kennedy apparently told his brother to lay off the dangerous concoctions, but Kennedy allegedly shrugged off the suggestion, saying, “I don’t care if it’s horse piss. It works.” Kennedy photographer Mark Shaw, another of Jacobson’s regulars, died in 1969 at 47. The cause of death was “acute and chronic intravenous amphetamine poisoning.” In 1972, Jacobson was charged with 48 counts of unprofessional conduct. In 1975, the State Department of Education revoked his license and he died in 1979 at age 79.

6. A cloud of mystery has always surrounded Janis Joplin‘s death, some even believing it was a CIA hit job. Joplin’s sister Laura promoted a more believable scenario in her book, Love, Janis. Laura writes of “George,” Janis’ regular heroin dealer. Around the time of her death at age 27 on October 4th, 1970, George failed to have his chemist check the potency of the drug. He allegedly sold Janis a dose that was 40 percent pure cut–“four to ten times stronger than normal street heroin.” According to Janis’ sister, several other customers of George’s died the same weekend after they injected heroin from the same toxic batch.

7. Howard K. Stern was hired as Anna Nicole Smith‘s lawyer in the mid nineties, but he soon became both romantically and reality show-involved with the former Playboy centerfold. The two unofficially married in 2006, causing some of Smith’s friends to worry. “He was like her butler,” Smith’s designer and flamboyant friend Bobby Trendy told ABC News. “And as the years went on, it seemed he had her under control.” Shortly before her death, Stern infamously filmed Smith in full-on face paint, giggling while asking Smith, “Is this a mushroom trip?” Smith died February 8, 2007 at the Hard Rock Casino in Florida of an apparent accidental overdose. She had at least nine drugs in her system. Stern was charged this March along with doctors Sandeep Kapoor, 40, and Khristine Eroshevich, 61, of “prescribing, administering and dispensing controlled substances to an addict.” According to the Los Angeles Times, these drugs included “opiates, benzodiazepines, and other controlled and non-controlled substances.” Stern and the doctors are awaiting trial, and each face five years and eight months in prison if convicted.