Al Pacino

Al Pacino portrays Dr. Jack Kevorkian in "You Don't Know Jack" Saturday on HBO.

Usually, Al Pacino means raw emotion, a swagger, and an attitude and accent born from his upbringing in the Bronx. Yet in HBO's compelling "You Don't Know Jack," airing Saturday, April 24, Pacino is restrained, shuffling and sounding as if he's from Michigan. Pacino becomes Jack Kevorkian, known as Dr. Death for assisting terminally ill patients' suicides.

"I think what appealed to me to do it was to see if I could capture where I could go as a zealot just because there are so few who are really the real McCoy," Pacino says. "And that would be Jack. He's the guy that goes out the window."

Though Pacino makes viewers feel as if they know the crusading Michigan pathologist, he never met the man. He did, though, study hours of footage of the doctor and talked to him over the phone. He worked with a dialect coach to nail Kevorkian's accent.

"I just practiced every day," he says. "It is nice to have that advantage to try to learn it as much as you can. It's like practicing anything, like an oboe."

Kevorkian first became the subject of controversy in 1990, when he helped the first of about 130 terminally ill people kill themselves. Though a movie about assisted suicide isn't a day brightener, it is an important, exceptionally well-done film.

Besides Pacino's worthy performance, John Goodman, Brenda Vaccaro and Susan Sarandon as his best friend, sister and an ardent supporter, respectively, all put in excellent turns.

Kevorkian's story is told without sentiment, revealing a stoic man who loves to paint and listen to Bach. He built his life on moderation and doesn't care about superficial trappings.

He does, though, fervently believe that people without hope of recovery should have the right to die. Like all true believers, he's willing to sacrifice himself for that belief.

"What is crucial to the experience with Jack," Pacino says, "is that most patients that left and did not come back were different after they saw Jack. Somehow, that he existed eased their anxiety. They felt they had more control of their lives after meeting Jack, and their relatives would report back to Jack how much easier it was to live with them."

"He's a very, very gentle soul," Goodman says of Kevorkian, "and very, very bright. I never met Kevorkian. I guess I was with the next best thing."

Scenes throughout the movie, especially of Kevorkian interviewing terminal patients about wanting to die, are gut-wrenching. But it's the jailhouse scenes when we're reminded why Pacino has eight Oscar nominations.

Kevorkian was imprisoned several times, once for eight-plus years. During one incarceration, he went on a hunger strike, and it's so believable in the film, viewers can nearly feel the dizziness. Throughout, they feel the compassion of a man determined to do right.