George C. Nichopoulos, a physician who prescribed thousands of doses of various drugs for Elvis Presley during the final years of the singer’s life, and who was acquitted of being criminally responsible for Presley’s 1977 death, died Feb. 24 in Memphis. He was 88.
His death was announced by the Memorial Park Funeral Home in Memphis and reported by the Memphis Commercial Appeal newspaper. The cause was not disclosed.
Among Elvis fans, there is little middle ground concerning Dr. Nichopoulos, who treated Presley for about 10 years. The physician, commonly known as “Dr. Nick,” was vilified by many as the person who supplied Presley with high-powered drugs that took the singer’s life. Others praised him as a sane voice in the singer’s entourage, as someone who attempted to steer him away from assorted bad habits.
Presley, who ushered in the rock-and-roll revolution in the 1950s with his hip-shaking performances and chart-topping records, was 42 when he was found on the floor of a bathroom at his Memphis home, Graceland, on Aug. 16, 1977. Dr. Nichopoulos signed the death certificate.
Traces of more than a dozen drugs were found in Presley’s body, including several barbiturates and other substances in “significant” quantities. The pathologist who conducted the autopsy thought the combination was lethal.
But the medical examiner determined that the drugs were not in concentrations high enough to lead to death. He ruled that Presley died of cardiac arrhythmia, caused by heart disease and hypertension.
Doubts about the case began to swirl at once. A damning report on the ABC news show “20/20” suggested that Dr. Nichopoulos had issued prescriptions for thousands of doses of drugs and that the real cause of Presley’s death had been covered up.
“No one understands that Elvis was so complicated,” Dr. Nichopoulos told investigative reporter Gerald Posner of the Daily Beast website in 2009. “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.”
In 1980, Dr. Nichopoulos was charged with prescribing excessive amounts of drugs to Presley, entertainer Jerry Lee Lewis and other patients. His medical license was temporarily suspended, and a 1981 trial became a national sensation.
Prosecutors showed that in the final seven months of Presley’s life, Dr. Nichopoulos prescribed more than 10,000 pills in the singer’s name, including sedatives, amphetamines and narcotics. Nichopoulos also admitted that he had borrowed nearly $300,000 from Presley, but he denied that the loans had affected his judgment.
When Presley went on tour, Dr. Nichopoulos took along three locked suitcases filled with drugs. He explained that he was the “team physician” for nearly 150 people on Presley’s payroll and that the drugs were not exclusively for the singer’s use. He said the generous amount of pills he dispensed had nothing to do with the $280,000 he had borrowed from Presley to buy a house.
At the trial, Dr. Nichopoulos was defended by a former Watergate prosecutor, James F. Neal, who argued that the doctor was anything but an unscrupulous drug pusher. Instead, he said, Dr. Nichopoulos was attempting to save the singer from himself, often prescribing harmless placebos to keep Presley’s pharmaceutical intake under control.
Among bits of sordid testimony, the trial revealed that the King of Rock-and-Roll used special mirrors to indulge his voyeuristic tendencies. He also had a reckless fascination with firearms. On one occasion, after Dr. Nichopoulos refused to give him drugs, Presley pulled out a handgun and shot at the doctor, wounding him slightly.
In any case, Neal argued in court, the singer had a number of serious maladies that required constant medical attention, including arthritis, migraines, glaucoma and liver problems. Without Dr. Nichopoulos, Neal said, “Elvis would have died 10 years earlier.”
A jury found Dr. Nichopoulos not guilty of all 11 charges. He returned to his medical practice in Memphis, wryly noting, “My patients, the ones I didn’t kill, were very faithful.”
The Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners later charged Dr. Nichopoulos with prescribing too many drugs to those patients and revoked his medical license in 1995.
“They just never stopped going after me,” he told the Daily Beast. “They always wanted a scapegoat for Elvis’s death.”
George Constantine Nichopoulos was born Oct. 29, 1927, in Ridgway, Pa., the son of Greek immigrants. He grew up in Anniston, Ala., where his family ran a restaurant.
He served in the Army Medical Corps in Germany in the 1940s and graduated in 1951 from the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn. He did graduate work in physiology at the University of Tennessee before receiving his medical degree in 1959 from Vanderbilt University in Nashville.
He joined a medical practice in Memphis in 1963. Four years later, he first treated Presley, who came to him for relief from saddle sores: blisters and chafing from horseback riding.
Over time, Dr. Nichopoulos became something of a doctor, brother and father figure to Presley and a central figure in his inner circle. He tried with little success to get the singer to exercise and to adopt a sensible diet.
One of Presley’s most serious medical problems, Dr. Nichopoulos wrote in a 2010 book, “The King and Dr. Nick,” was chronic constipation. He thought the singer’s bloated appearance was the result of a distended colon rather than overeating. Dr. Nichopoulos thought the condition may have contributed to Presley’s death.
After losing his medical license, Dr. Nichopoulos was briefly a road manager for Jerry Lee Lewis. He later worked in the disability benefits office of Federal Express until he was in his 80s.
Survivors include his wife of 62 years, the former Edna Sanidas of Memphis; three children; four grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.
In later years, Dr. Nichopoulos helped organize an exhibit of his Elvis-related memorabilia, including his medical bag, examination instruments, pill bottles containing Presley’s name and several guns that had been gifts from the singer. The venture ended in a welter of legal wrangling.
Even though there was considerable second-guessing from outside observers and many Elvis fans, Dr. Nichopoulos believed to the end that he had given Presley the best medical treatment he could.
“I worked very hard trying to do all the right things with Elvis,” he told the Commercial Appeal in 2009. “I don’t regret any of the medications I gave him. They were necessities.”