Elvis's Doctor Speaks
On the anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death, Dr. George Nichopoulos—The King’s own Dr. Feelgood—talks to Gerald Posner about prescribing drugs to celebrities—and why his doctor’s bag is being put up for auction.
“I was so upset when Elvis died that I couldn’t listen to his music for several years,” 82-year-old Dr. George Nichopoulos, Elvis’s personal physician, told The Daily Beast. “I wouldn’t listen, it just upset me so bad.”
I recently had a rare chance to talk to Dr. Nick, as he was called by Elvis and his friends. He gives few interviews since he’s still angry at the press for feeding the “witch hunt” that portrayed him as the original Dr. Feelgood. Dr. Nick spent a decade with Elvis at Graceland and on the road and 32 years ago this Sunday he was in the ambulance on the King’s last trip to the Baptist Memorial emergency room. After Elvis was pronounced dead, Dr. Nick signed the death certificate. And he maintains, as he did from that day, that the King of Rock died of natural causes: a heart attack.
“No one understands that Elvis was so complicated,” Dr. Nick said. “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.”
Jerry Francisco, Memphis’s medical examiner, surprisingly agreed with the natural death conclusion. Although, the chief pathologist at Baptist who oversaw the autopsy felt Elvis died from a deadly mixture of drugs, he was overruled by Francisco. “The pressure was on in Memphis,” the chief pathology investigator on the case, Dan Warlick, told me, “to make sure the King of Rock and Roll did not die a drug addict.”
Still, there’s no denying that Elvis’s toxicological report was a veritable what’s what of the day’s leading drugs. Four were discovered in “significant” quantities: codeine; Ethinamate, a popular sedative-hypnotic; Quaaludes; and a barbiturate, or depressant, that has never been confirmed but is reported as Phenobarbital. Elvis also had the painkillers morphine and Demerol; tranquilizers Placidyl and Valium; and Chlorpheniramine, an antihistamine.
Once the tox report was public, attention focused on Dr. Nick. On the morning of Elvis’s death, he had told Warlick that Elvis “only used antibiotics.” Later, Dr. Nick admitted he had prescribed in 1977 alone over 10,000 doses of opiates, amphetamines, barbiturates, tranquilizers, hormones, and laxatives for Presley. But he claims that they were meant not only for Elvis, but also for the up to 150 people that used to hang around Graceland and go on tour with the King.
“You have to put yourself back into that time,” Dr. Nick told me. “There were no such things as pain clinics or sleep centers. I needed both. I could not write a prescription in any other state, so when we were on tour, I was like the team physician. I had to treat the team patients. If I didn’t treat them, then they couldn’t do their work. There was no second string for each person, the guy who put on the lights, or the one that laid out the cords. If they couldn’t work, things didn’t get done. “
Dr. Nick maintains he used to check with the health boards for all tour cities to find out if there was a flu outbreak or anything for which he should pack extra drugs. “I had to carry so many drugs because of the things I might come across. And then someone might be allergic to a certain pill, so I had to carry the substitutes. I’d have several bags with the prescriptions with me.”
If they were for so many different people, why were they all dispensed only to Elvis?
“That was for his father. Only if he thought they were all for Elvis would he not complain about how much was spent.”
Dr. Nick contends that he’s unfairly criticized for having written so many prescriptions, but that he was Elvis’s only doctor, whereas most celebrities, like Michael Jackson, have many. “If you added up all their prescriptions, they’d be a lot more than mine,” he says.
"I don't regret any of the medications I gave him. They were necessities.” Dr. Nick says he asked large pharmaceutical companies to make placebos for Elvis for those pills that might be habit forming. After they said no, he claims he tried in vain to develop his own placebos. “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.”
In 1980, three years after Elvis’s death, Dr. Nick was indicted on 14 counts of overprescribing drugs to Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and a dozen other patients. The district attorney ruled out murder because of Francisco’s natural death finding. The jury acquitted Dr. Nick on all counts. But later that same year, the Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners found him guilty of over-prescribing, and gave him a slap on the wrist—suspending his license for three months and putting him on three years' probation.
In 1995, the Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners permanently suspended Dr. Nick’s medical license after it was revealed that he had been overprescribing to numerous patients for years. His appeals were all rejected. “They just never stopped going after me, they always wanted a scapegoat for Elvis’s death,” he told me.
The man who once spent as much time as anyone with Elvis is reduced now to selling personal memorabilia for extra cash. This past June—by coincidence a day after Michael Jackson died—45 items that had belonged to Dr. Nick were sold in Las Vegas by Julien's Auctions. Julien’s is the world’s largest auction house for high-end celebrity estate and entertainment sales. It has sold everything from Jimi Hendrix’s studio guitar ($480,000) to a pair of Bono’s sunglasses ($24,000) to a jacket worn by Kurt Cobain ($87,000) to Marilyn Monroe’s personal phone book ($90,000).
“I want you to know that I had nothing to do with the Julien’s auction,” Dr. Nick told me. Turns out he had previously sold all those items—for an undisclosed price—to a private collector, wealthy Napa-based entrepreneur Richard Long. But Long decided to sell them through Julien’s. As the auction drew near, Long asked Dr. Nick to help out by recording some video promotions. The final product, a DVD titled Dr. Nick's Memories of Elvis, explained the history and events surrounding the gifts in his own words. Nichopoulos wouldn’t disclose how much he was paid for the video endorsements.
“Elvis was impulsive and very generous,” says Dr. Nick, “he’d give away things all the time. One important thing about Elvis is that material things didn’t mean diddly squat to him. He would buy something and wear it one time, or sometimes never even wear it at all, and then give it away. He was crazy about gadgets and got tired of them real fast. He would have been crazy for Sharper Image.”
Elvis gave Dr. Nick, among other items—the auction sales prices are in parentheses—a puka shell necklace he had worn on a Hawaiian movie set ($8,750). “Everyone had gone out shopping,” says Nichopoulos, “and I was in the room with him and couldn’t go. So he said, ‘Here, take this,’ and gave me the necklace.” Some of the other items Dr. Nick says Elvis gave him included a diamond encrusted TCB necklace—Taking Care of Business, the name of Elvis’s band ($117,000); a gold Piaget watch ($8,960); a Mathey-Tissot watch ($23,040); a ring with a large lapis stone ($33,750); a Cat’s Eye ring ($28,125); an Angelus watch ($8,960); a copy of one of Elvis’s favorite books, Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet ($16,640); and even a television set that once supposedly belonged to the King ($1,024).
Dr. Nick sold autographed pictures from Elvis, a tour scarf and jacket, a stuffed dog, one of Elvis’s kitchen bowls, and even the original newspaper with the headline “Nicholopoulos [sic] Found Not Guilty” ($768). Two pistols fetched nearly $10,000, and a display box of assorted security items brought $7,877.50. A single red strobe light went for $1,375. “He gave that to me and told me to put it on top of my car if I ever had to get to Graceland fast. I used it once and my son did once. The police stopped my son, but when he told them that Elvis had deputized us, they just waved him on.”
But every other item put up for auction paled in comparison to one: Nicks’s worn leather doctor’s bag and 9 prescription bottles with Elvis’s name printed on the labels. Julien’s thought the prescription bottles would fetch $800 to $1,200 each. Instead they brought in nearly five times that, a total of $53,000. And the doctor’s bag got a high bid of $16,000. Two items that Nichopoulos thought were virtual throwaways, a glass nasal douche used by Elvis to clean out his nostrils with a saline solution, and a laryngeal scope, used to examine his vocal chords, fetched $2,176 and $1,792, respectively. “My God,” said Dr. Nick, when I told him the final prices. “I can’t believe that.”
Does he consider it unsavory to sell Elvis’s prescription bottles? “Why?” he asked, with seemingly genuine surprise. “The connotation is that the prescription bottle is bad, but the prescriptions are for things like antihistamines, something for diarrhea, nausea, antibiotics. Just because it’s a prescription bottle doesn’t mean it’s a bad drug.”
What about many critics who think he was responsible for feeding Elvis’s addictions and now for profiting from his relationship? “I’m sick of being the whipping boy. No one understands that Elvis was so complicated. 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. That was the worst part.”
As for second thoughts about selling memorabilia that marked their relationship, Dr. Nick says he isn’t finished. “There were several [doctor’s] bags,” he says. “I still have a couple of bags. And I think I may have some other prescription bottles.”
“People say I took advantage of Elvis, or stole those things, it’s all over the Internet,” Dr. Nick said. “That’s all I hear in Memphis. It drives me crazy. You break your balls to help somebody and try to keep him alive and it turns around you were in it for the money. I was one of his closest friends. At times I was his father, his best friend, his doctor. Whatever role I needed to play at the time, I did.”
Other questions? “You’ll have to read my book,” he says. The King and Dr. Nick: What Really Happened to Elvis and Me will be released by the Nashville-based Christian publishing giant Thomas Nelson next February. “I’ll be giving some interviews then.”
Gerald Posner is The Daily Beast's chief investigative reporter. He's the award-winning author of 10 investigative nonfiction bestsellers, ranging from political assassinations, to Nazi war criminals, to 9/11, to terrorism. He lives in Miami Beach with his wife, the author Trisha Posner.