Peacock’s Dr. Death features a high caliber cast and compelling characters based on a true story, prompting many viewers to wonder what the real people look like. The medical drama has been a big hit for Peacock, garnering praise for its taut portrayal of the medical industry safeguard failures and the doctors that fought to correct them. Critics also state that it is the best offering to date from Peacock, making Dr. Death a significant win for the fledgling streaming service.
Dr. Death stars Joshua Jackson, Alec Baldwin, and Christian Slater and is a shocking tale of medical malpractice on multiple levels. Based on the Wondery podcast of the same name, Dr. Death follows the career and crimes of Dr. Christopher Duntsch, a Dallas-based Neurosurgeon who either through ineptitude or callous indifference, maims and kills his patients across a span of 2 years.
The closing scene of Dr. Death drives home that the series is based on real events, with an epilogue confirming Duntsh’s incarceration and commemorating those that gave testimony to put the doctor behind bars. There is also a nod that Duntsch is the first doctor to be successfully convicted of aggravated assault, which serves as a chilling reminder of the human cost of his actions and the true story behind the Dr. Death series. Here’s a look at all the major Dr. Death characters and their real-life counterparts.
Christopher Daniel Duntsch is a former neurosurgeon nicknamed Dr. Death for the murder of two of his patients and the maiming of 30 others while working at hospitals in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. Described as brilliant by those who knew him before his crimes, Duntsch’s medical license was revoked during his two-year reign of terror before his eventual prosecution and sentencing. While Joshua Jackson received high praise for his portrayal of Duntsch as a psychopathic killer, the real Dr. Death has never revealed whether he truly intended to harm his victims or whether a grossly mismanaged medical system inadequately trained him.
The real Dr. Robert Henderson (Alec Baldwin) was first made aware of Duntsch’s appalling surgery attempts after one of his patients, Mrs. Efurd, had had multiple misplaced holes drilled in her spine by Duntsch. After his plea for Dr. Duntsch’s immediate suspension fell on deaf ears, he teamed up with Dr. Randall Kirby to begin recording Duntsch’s surgeries to obtain enough evidence to bring Dr. Dunstch to trial. An accomplished spinal surgeon, Robert Henderson still resides and practices in Dallas, primarily focussed on chronic back and leg pain.
Next to Dr. Henderson, Dr. Randall Kirby was the other primary architect of Christopher Duntsch’s downfall. Portrayed by Christian Slater as a comedic foil to SNL regular Alec Baldwin‘s stoic Dr. Henderson, the real Randall Kirby appears much more reserved. Kirby first became aware of Dr. Duntsch brutalizing his patients after assisting on surgery in which Duntsch misused medical tools to the point of endangering the patient’s life. Like Henderson, Kirby resolved to strip Duntsch of his medical license, and his testimony helped seal an aggravated assault conviction.
One of the most harrowing real-life accounts of this tale, Jerry Summers, was Christopher Duntsch’s childhood friend and a staunch advocate of the doctor to a fault. Played by Dominic Burgess in the Peacock series, Summers allowed Duntsch to perform two cervical fusion surgeries on him, which left Summers paralyzed. Despite being robbed of his mobility, Summers refused to testify against Duntsch in one of the most heartbreaking moments of the Peacock TV show. However, his admission that they took cocaine the night before his surgery was a key factor in stripping Duntsch of his medical license. Summers tragically passed away in early 2021 following an infection connected to his botched surgery.
Michelle Lee Shughart (played in Dr. Death by AnnaSophia Robb) was a young assistant district attorney when she became involved in the Duntsch case. Praised for her handling of an incredibly complex topic, her successful integration of Kirby and Henderson into the prosecution paved the way for the successful conviction of Duntsch. Shughart is now a district attorney and still resides in Dallas county today.