In the new series “Dopesick,” which premieres on Hulu on October 13, Michael Keaton plays Samuel Finnix, a salt-of-the-earth country doctor in Appalachia. He’s initially skeptical when Billy, a sales rep for Purdue Pharma, offers samples of a new painkiller called OxyContin. Dr. Finnix is worried about pill abuse, but Billy, played by Will Poulter, assures him the drug is not addictive, and points out that the FDA even made a special label saying so.
Turns out Purdue Pharma had a hand in writing that FDA label. OxyContin was wildly addictive and through aggressive sales and shameless deception, the now-infamous Sackler family and their company started an epidemic that has killed 500,000 people since 1999, according to the CDC.
“Dopesick” was created by Danny Strong, an actor, writer and producer who wrote the screenplays for the HBO movies “Recount” and “Game Change,” as well as “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.” He also co-created the Fox hit series “Empire.”
In “Dopesick,” Strong weaves together multiple storylines to show how the Sacklers made billions by promoting death. And he follows the federal officials who worked for years to expose Purdue Pharma’s lies and deceptions.
Strong eventually teamed up with investigative journalist Beth Macy, who wrote the 2018 bestselling book “Dopesick.” Strong had gotten interested in the subject matter earlier that year, in a meeting with producer John Goldwyn.
“When you start reading about Purdue’s crimes and the extent of their lies and how they misbranded and manipulated, peddled influence, you just can’t believe it. You just can’t believe what they did,” Strong says.
“The whole story is so shocking, I just had to figure out how to get this told in a mainstream way.”
That part took some doing.
Given his past work, Strong figured his idea for a series would be met with open arms, especially once he partnered with “Dopesick” author Beth Macy.
Strong says, “I was going around to these pitches like, ‘I’m coming back to my nonfiction roots! Like ‘Recount’ and ‘Game Change!’ And I’ve got a bestselling book!’”
But the reaction? “No one cares. ‘Oh, ‘Recount?’ Cute. That was 14 years ago, you know?’”
Hollywood can be cold, though Strong did eventually get an offer from FX. Though in the end, it was Hulu who made the series. After the streamer said yes, the pieces started to fall into place. They cast Michael Keaton and got director Barry Levinson on board for the “Dopesick” pilot.
Strong tells KCRW about attempting to find the humanity in Richard Sackler, the person behind Purdue’s relentless OxyContin strategy, and racing to beat Netflix, which also has an opioid epidemic project in the works.