In 1977, the year of Elvis Presley’s death, Dr. George Nichopoulos, his primary physician, prescribed the legendary artist thousands of doses of various drugs. In Elvis, a new 2022 film that theatrically follows Presley’s complicated rise to fame, “Dr. Nick,” as he was known, appears a totally willing participant in Presley’s spiraling physical condition.
In the movie, Dr. Nick (Tony Nixon) is shown to be happy to help in any way possible, even as his patient’s evident struggles with addiction grow worse through the 1970s. At one point, Presley (Austin Butler), fed up with it all, fires his manipulative manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), who reminds him that he still owes him millions of dollars, essentially trapping Presley in the arrangement. His next phone call is to Dr. Nick, looking to numb the pain. Presley’s untimely death at the age of 42 is depicted next.
But to deem the real life Nichopoulos, who died in 2016, nothing but a “Dr. Feelgood,” isn’t exactly accurate. The real life relationship he had with Presley was more nuanced than that.
Born in 1927, Nichopoulos, who grew up in Anniston, Ala., enlisted in the Army immediately after high school and served in Germany in the Army Medical Corps. He received his bachelor’s from the University of the South in 1951, and, eight years later, his M.D. at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. In 1967, Nichopoulos was working with several other doctors at a group practice in Memphis when he was first called upon by Presley to treat saddle sores (the result of too much horseback riding).
Nichopoulos treated Presley a handful of times over the next few years, but it wasn’t until 1970 that he was offered the position of Presley’s full-time doctor and became a near-constant figure in Presley’s life. “At times I was his father, his best friend, his doctor,” Nichopoulos said to The Daily Beast in 2009. “Whatever role I needed to play at the time, I did.”
This did, in fact, mean prescribing large quantities of medications ranging from sleeping pills to painkillers and a lot in between. Nichopoulos was also tasked with prescribing medications for various members of Presley’s entourage and band, which meant, of course, that medications were being distributed in more directions than just Presley’s. This during an era in which the deeper dangers of opioid drugs was not nearly as widely acknowledged as it is today.
Yet, Nichopoulos could hardly be considered the sole cause of Presley’s demise. Even if the doctor resisted Presley’s demands, the singer would often seek out another source to obtain the drugs. Addiction took a grueling toll on Presley as it would have anyone else, blinding him to the realities of what was happening to himself physically and emotionally.
“It’s hard to convince somebody what’s right and wrong or what they need to do,” Nichopoulos said to The Guardian in 2002. “It’s hard when you’ve got somebody that thinks they have all the answers and no matter what you throw at ’em, they’ve got answers for you.”
On Aug. 16, 1977, the toxic tale came to something of an end when Presley was found dead at his Graceland home. A toxicology report revealed a myriad of potentially lethal substances in the singer’s system, but given the uncertain circumstances of Presley’s death, Nichopoulos was not charged with any wrongdoing. Doctors at the time deemed the cause of his death to be natural, a heart attack likely brought on by the copious amount of drugs.
Three years later, though, Nichopoulos was indicted on 14 counts of overprescribing stimulants, depressants and painkillers for not only Presley, but also the singer Jerry Lee Lewis and 12 other patients. Nichopoulos was accused of “unlawfully, willfully and feloniously” prescribing the medications in the period leading up to Presley’s death, though Nichopoulos would later say in a 1981 interview with American Medical News that he had only been responsible for prescribing two of the drugs found in Presley’s system. (Shockingly, it was discovered that between 1975 and 1977, he had prescribed 19,000 doses of drugs, 10,000 of which were in 1977 alone.) Nichopoulos was ultimately acquitted, but that same year, the Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners found him guilty of overprescribing and suspended his medical license for three months. The board permanently revoked his license 15 years later, citing his years-long practice of overprescribing. Nichopoulos appealed the ruling several times, even admitting that he had overprescribed in the past. “I cared too much,” he said before one of the appeal boards.
“I don’t regret any of the medications I gave him. They were necessities,” Nichopoulos said to The Daily Beast. (In his 2010 memoir, he noted that he even gave placebos to Presley in an effort to curb his drug habit.) “Later, everyone attacked me, saying all I was interested in was making money from Elvis. That’s just not true. I never charged him for a house call, and I’d make those four or five times a week to Graceland.”
When his medical career effectively ended in 1995, Nichopoulos took on various jobs. For a time, he found work in the disability claims department at a FedEx office and also, for a short period, served as Lewis’ road manager.
Nichopoulos’ history was often questioned and sometimes mocked. A memorable character on The Simpsons first appeared in season two of the show in 1991, in which a quack doctor excessively treats Bart’s minor injuries after a car accident and at one point ends up before a malpractice committee. Some fans drew a parallel to Nichopoulos, and understandably so. The character’s name in the show? “Dr. Nick.”
Through it all, and up until his death in 2016 at age 88, Nichopoulos maintained that he’d done the best he could to treat Presley’s ailments and keep him out of harm’s way. “No one understands that Elvis was so complicated,” he said in 2009. “I worked so hard just to keep things together and then they turned the tables on me after he died and decided I was to blame.”