'Dr. Death': The True Crime Behind the Peacock Series Starring Joshua Jackson
By Stacy Lambe
Dallas County Jail via AP / Peacock
Dr. Death, starring Joshua Jackson, Christian Slater and Alec Baldwin, is the latest scripted drama based on a true crime. This time, the terrifying real story is centered around a neurosurgeon in the Dallas medical community whose patients end up permanently maimed or dead. With the series now streaming on Peacock, here’s everything you need to know about the Dr. Christopher Duntsch aka Dr. Death.
A rising star in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas area, it was at the Baylor Regional Medical Center where issues with his surgeries started. Several patients came out worse than when they first went in for surgery.
Duntsch reportedly placed a screw in the wrong location on medical investigator Lee Passmore’s spine, and since it was stripped, it couldn’t be moved. Another patient, Barry Mongoloff, was allegedly left with bone fragments in his spinal canal that eventually caused him lost function of the left side of his body. Meanwhile, a longtime friend, Jerry Summers, was rendered quadriplegic after Duntsch removed too much muscle tissue.
Kellie Martin was reportedly Duntsch’s first death after he severed a major artery during a back operation leading her to bleed out. Rather than be terminated, he resigned, which allowed him to continue to practice elsewhere.
Soon after, Duntsch started working at the Dallas Medical Center, but only lasted a week. And during such time, his surgeries resulted in the death of Floella Brown and the maiming of Mary Efurd, whose never roots were severed during spinal fusion surgery.
At both places, Duntsch was believed to be under the influence while working, including the alleged use of cocaine prior to Summers’ surgery and accusations of being under the influence while operating on Efurd.
From there, the bodies continued to pile up as he jumped from one hospital to the next as two surgeons, Dr. Randall Kirby and Dr. Robert Henderson, began to put the pieces together and lobbied that Duntsch’s medical license be revoked.
In total, Duntsch has been accused of injuring 33 patients. And in 2013, the Texas Medical Board suspended his license and the following year, Efurd, Kenneth Fennel, and Lee Passmore filed federal lawsuits against Baylor Plano for malpractice for allowing Duntsch to conduct surgeries.
In 2015, Duntsch was arrested and charged with six felony counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, five counts of aggravated assault causing serious bodily injury, and one count of injury to an elderly person. Eventually, he was convicted of maiming one of his patients and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Based on the Wondery podcast of the same name, the story was adapted for the screen by Patrick Macmanus, with Jackson taking on the daunting task of portraying Duntsch.
“I think if he knew he was evil in some ways, it would be an easier character to play because you can kind of separate yourself out from it,” Jackson says, not realizing just how heavy the experience would be. “But because he thought he was the hero of this story, he thought -- still to this day -- that he is the victim of other people’s bad behavior.”
In fact, Jackson thinks Duntsch may have “genius level” intelligence, and that he was just “a bad surgeon” who should have never entered the operating room. “He had a conceptual understanding of what he did,” he adds.
But after a long day of portraying Duntsch on set, Jackson says, “You have to take a second out the front door to catch your breath because you have just put something awful into the world.”
Echoing that sentiment is AnnaSophia Robb, who portrays Shughart. “Watching Josh become this guy… [you start to see] how this sort of multi-faceted monster comes to be,” she says.
Meanwhile, getting to portray Kirby was a nice change for Slater, who most recently was seen on screen as the gaslighting ex-husband Dan Broderick (“A horrible horrible husband who was manipulating his wife all the way through”) in Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story.
“Dr. Death would typically be the type of character you see me playing and this was an opportunity to try something else,” Slater says, adding that it was “fun” to play “someone heroic and on the right side of the law.”
When it comes to both Dr. Kirby and Dr. Henderson, Slater notes they “are genuine heroes. They were really willing to put their careers on the line to do the right thing and stop a psychopath from operating on human beings.”
And while the series tells the same story as the podcast, “it delves deeper and I think it goes more into Duntsch’s personal life,” Robb says, adding it also offers “a deeper look into each of the players, Henderson, Kirby, Shughart, and the nurses.”