Michael Keaton wanted his 'Dopesick' character to be relatable. So he made him a yinzer

By Joshua Axelrod

PITTSBURGH — When you're watching Michael Keaton's Dr. Samuel Finnix in Hulu's "Dopesick," you're seeing one western Pennsylvanian playing another.

While developing the character's backstory, the show's creator Danny Strong and Keaton — a Robinson native who says he grew up "midway between Coraopolis and McKees Rocks" — decided that the doctor had moved from the Pittsburgh area to a tiny Virginia mountain town.

"I'm not really far away from the this world in southwestern Pennsylvania," Keaton told the Post-Gazette in a recent Zoom interview. "When I was a kid, I grew up and could be in West Virginia in 15 minutes. It was just as easy to make him from southwest or central Pennsylvania or that part of the world as anywhere else. It made sense because it made it more realistic that he would immediately relate to the folks he was caring for down there."

The show, which premieres Wednesday on Hulu, is based on Beth Macy's 2018 book "Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors and the Drug Company that Addicted America." The drug company in question is Purdue Pharma, owned by the Sackler family.

In September, a federal bankruptcy judge conditionally approved a settlement that would remove the Sackler family as Purdue's owners and invest its profits and $4.5 billion in family assets into combating the ongoing U.S. opioid crisis, although there has since been resistance to that deal.

"Dopesick" also chronicles the struggles of those who suffered from opioid addictions, like the 689 Allegheny County residents who died of opioid overdoses in 2020 and the nearly 300 who have already died this year as of Aug. 31.

Keaton's Dr. Finnix is coerced by a pushy sales representative to begin prescribing OxyContin, which he genuinely thinks can be a miracle drug for various ailments. Dr. Finnix is a pillar of his community trusted by all who live there, some of whom he has know since they were babies.

When it comes to his roles, Keaton likes to "do the background and backstory and then I let the person be." If you listen carefully to Dr. Finnix, you'll catch the Pittsburgh-learned language ticks in Keaton's performance. It's for the sake of his character, but Keaton said that he still to this day will hear himself involuntarily slip a "crick" or "holla" into casual conversation.

His acting career began with appearances on "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" in the mid-1970s and includes everything from multiple outings as Batman to his recent trifecta: action flick "The Protege," drama "Worth" and now "Dopesick." Keaton agreed with the notion that his upbringing makes him uniquely qualified to play a small-town doctor.

"I really like Pittsburgh, but there are other cities I like, too. If you really break it down, I always talk about how Pittsburgh is a quintessential immigrant city, as is New York and Baltimore. If you really start to think about it, so is San Antonio and Omaha and Detroit. That's what I think is so great. I always marvel at certain people's attitudes about certain ethnic groups, and I'm like, 'We're all immigrants.'

"Pittsburgh has always been a no-nonsense kind of place. I come from a working class background. I grew up with Italian kids and Polish kids and all different backgrounds. People where I come from kind of break things down to their bare essentials. They're very straightforward."

Working in episodic television was new for Keaton, who had never "had the experience of having eight episodes to play out a life of someone." His work on "Dopesick" was condensed because he needed to be in the United Kingdom for another project. The fact he was often jumping between filming scenes from different episodes forced him and his castmates to be "constantly on your toes to keep the character consistent," he said.

But then he added: "Let's face it: How difficult can my job really be?"

Getting to play an enforcer, a high-powered lawyer and a humble doctor in back-to-back-to-back releases helps Keaton stay interested in his craft. "'The Protege' is about as far away from 'Dopesick' as you can get," he said.

Pittsburgh is never far from Keaton's mind. He recently partnered with Canadian technology company Nexii Building Solutions to open a green manufacturing plant in the region, potentially at the former LTV Coke Works site in Hazelwood.

He's also a devout Steelers fan and recently talked on "Late Night with Seth Meyers" about receiving a text from head coach Mike Tomlin after the team's Super Bowl XLIII victory in 2009. During that appearance, Keaton joked that he and Meyers should "do a show from the 'Burgh one day." Meyers, a Steelers fan whose father is from Pittsburgh, countered with the idea of a "'Burgh Week" featuring "the Mount Rushmore of 'Burgh people."

So, who would be on Keaton's Mount Rushmore of prominent local people?

"I think you'd have to get Franco [Harris], because Franco is such a Pittsburgh icon and he's been so good for the city," he said. "If Fred [Rogers] was still around, probably Fred. ... Who we would assemble, I'm not really sure. It would be fun to put them together."

This Pittsburgh native happens to be one of the biggest movie stars on the planet, and he's grateful.

"I'm really fortunate," Keaton said. "I have a job that I get to not only enjoy what I do, but sometimes you have the opportunity to do something that might shift the consciousness a little bit or shine a light on something that you feel like might benefit someone out there. Not a lot of people get to have an occupation like that."

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