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Dentist Had Hankering for Show Business

Irving Sorkin with wife, Joyce, not long after they were married in 1947. He wrote plays and film treatments and enjoyed pitching ideas to Hollywood.
Irving Sorkin with wife, Joyce, not long after they were married in 1947. He wrote plays and film treatments and enjoyed pitching ideas to Hollywood. (Family Photo)

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In 1944, Blalock performed the first operation to correct the defective heart arteries of so-called blue babies, who often died because they could not get enough oxygen in their blood. Thomas stood on a platform over Blalock's shoulder during that operation and the thousands more that came later, offering advice on the delicate surgery.

Thomas, who had never been to college or medical school, developed his remarkable surgical skills by performing similar procedures on dogs. A generation of prominent heart surgeons, including Denton Cooley and the chief surgeons at Johns Hopkins and Duke University, would study with Blalock -- which meant they were actually trained by Thomas.

"Blalock became world famous," McCabe said. "Vivien basically got no recognition."

The article won a National Magazine Award. Dr. Sorkin, who had retired from dentistry in 1987, was determined to have the story of Vivien Thomas made into a film. The first person he called was his daughter, Arleen Sorkin, a Hollywood actress and producer.

"His motivation was that people should know about this man," she said. "He wanted the world to know about Vivien Thomas."

It took 15 years of collapsed deals and broken promises before HBO produced "Something the Lord Made," with Alan Rickman playing Blalock and rapper Mos Def portraying Thomas, in 2004. Dr. Sorkin's name appeared in the credits as co-producer.

The film won three Emmy Awards, including best made-for-TV movie. At the awards ceremony, 85-year-old Irving Sorkin was helped onstage by actor Kelsey Grammer as he claimed his long-awaited moment in the spotlight.

"I felt that HBO did an incredible job with a very difficult and nuanced racial story," writer McCabe said, "and it all goes back to Dr. Sorkin, who saw its possibilities as a movie and never gave up."

Dr. Sorkin died of lymphoma Oct. 18 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles at age 88. He had spent most of the past year in Hollywood, pitching ideas to the end.


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