Wednesday 17 January 2018

Obituary: George Nichopoulos, Elvis Presley's personal doctor

Born: October 29, 1927; died: February 24, 2016

The King and I: 'Dr Nick' worked with Elvis Presley for 10 years until the star's death in 1977. He was later stripped of his medical licence
The King and I: 'Dr Nick' worked with Elvis Presley for 10 years until the star's death in 1977. He was later stripped of his medical licence

George Nichopoulos, who has died aged 89, was for many years Elvis Presley's personal physician; known as "Dr Nick", he prescribed more than 10,000 doses of sedatives, stimulants and narcotics to Presley in the final eight months of the singer's life, but insisted that his aim had been to restrain his patient's vast appetite for drugs.

Dr Nick, flamboyantly dressed in flared trousers and Hawaiian shirt, with a bouffant head of prematurely white hair, was an indispensable element of the Elvis Presley touring caravan as it criss-crossed the United States during the 1970s. Black Gladstone bag always in hand, Nichopoulos could be seen following dutifully behind his celebrated patient as Elvis climbed the steps to board his private jet, Lisa Marie, ready to fly to the next city.

Nichopoulos resented being portrayed in the media as a "Doctor Feelgood" character who was in thrall to his famous patient. "No one understands that Elvis was so complicated," he insisted. "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."

If he had not supplied the drugs, Nichopoulos argued, Presley would have turned to more compliant doctors. At one point Nichopoulos acquired placebo pills for a opioid painkiller, which he substituted for the real thing in an attempt at harm reduction.

In the view of his critics, however, Nichopoulos was star-struck by his domineering patient and had allowed his objectivity to be compromised. He accepted gifts from Presley and even brought him in as a partner in a deal over the building of a chain of racquetball courts.

Ultimately, the medical authorities did not accept Nichopoulos's version of events, and after a string of legal battles over many years, the Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners stripped him of his licence to practise medicine in 1995.

The son of a Greek restaurateur, George Constantine Nichopoulos was born on October 29, 1927 at Ridgway, Pennsylvania, and brought up in Anniston, Alabama, where the family lived above his father's restaurant, Gus's Sanitary Cafe. George worked in the restaurant "from the time I could see over the counter". After high school, he served in the army medical corps in Germany from 1946-8.

A talented athlete, though no great star academically, George played tailback in the Sewanee American football team at the University of the South, Tennessee.

Returning to Memphis in 1963, Nichopoulos joined the Medical Group, a partnership of physicians. Nichopoulos was on call at the Medical Group on Sunday, February 26, 1967 when he had his first appointment with Elvis Presley. The star was relaxing at his ranch just across the state border in Mississippi, about to start filming Clambake in Hollywood, but was troubled by saddle sores.

Dr Nick, as Presley would always call him (never George), drove out to the ranch, prescribed a topical ointment, and then on Presley's request went to treat Minnie Mae, Presley's grandmother, at Graceland (the singer's house in Memphis). Nichopoulos was then called back to the ranch for a further consultation, during which Presley drove him around his 163 acres in a pick-up truck and chatted. "I got the impression he simply wanted to talk to someone different from the guys in his inner circle," the doctor later recalled. It was the beginning of a relationship that was to last until the star's death on August 16, 1977.

When Elvis returned to live performing in 1969, he took Nichopoulos on the road with him and employed him as his personal physician. His primary task was to keep the singer going through a gruelling schedule of more than 100 dates a year, as well as Christmas and summer Las Vegas residencies. This meant administering powerful stimulants before the concert, followed by equally strong sedatives afterwards, plus painkillers to relieve any mystery aches and pains. Presley liked to interrupt performances to introduce Dr Nick to the audience. By 1973, Presley was dangerously dependent on a daily cocktail of sleeping pills, painkillers and stimulants.

Elvis thought he was simply taking much-needed medicines. "He didn't see the wrong in it," Nichopoulos told the Observer's Adam Higginbotham in 2002. "He felt that by getting it from a doctor, he wasn't the common everyday junkie getting something off the street. He was a person who thought that as far as medications and drugs went, there was something for everything."

Between 1975 and 1977, Nichopoulos prescribed Presley 19,000 doses of drugs; the effects of which became worryingly obvious to concert audiences, many of whom would have noticed the singer's slurred speech, forgetfulness and tendency to babble.

The doctor, however, would later claim that not all the pills and shots he prescribed were for Presley. "There were about 150 people I took care of. You had a couple of bands. You had the songbirds. You had the people that set up the stage… And all these people were night people, too."

Nichopoulos claimed to have been "dumbfounded" when Presley died, despite the singer's array of health problems, among them glaucoma, hypertension, irritable bowel syndrome and chronic constipation.

On January 20, 1980, the Tennessee Medical Board found him guilty of overprescribing but not guilty of having behaved unethically. They gave him three months' suspension of his licence and three years' probation.

Later that year he faced a criminal prosecution; in October 1981 a jury acquitted him on 14 charges of abusing his licence to prescribe controlled drugs to a number of patients.

In 1985, he set up a new single-handed medical practice under the name We Care Inc. The Tennessee Medical Board charged him with overprescription again in 1992 and after three years of wrangling, he was finally stripped of his licence and found guilty of unethical conduct, gross malpractice, prescribing drugs without a legitimate purpose and prescribing them to addicted patients without trying to cure them.

By now, desperately short of money, Nichopoulos worked four years as his former patient Jerry Lee Lewis's road manager and informal medical consultant. After that he spent six years in the disability benefits department of Federal Express in Memphis, examining the insurance claims of FedEx employees injured while working for the company. Nichopoulos also published a memoir, The King and Dr Nick (2010).

He insisted that he always had his patient's best interests at heart: "I cared too much."

George Nichopoulos is survived by his wife Edna, their two daughters and a son.

© Daily Telegraph

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