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A New Show About Doctors Of Old


It's hard to imagine today, but before the 20th century, people who needed surgery were more likely to go to their barber than a hospital. Steven Soderbergh's new series on Cinemax called "The Knick" takes us right back to that time. It's set in the fictional New York City hospital, the Knickerbocker, in 1900. It's a dark, dirty, rather frightening place, and the doctors are not afraid to try new procedures.


CLIVE OWEN: (As John Thackery) We now live in a time of endless possibility. More has been learned about the treatment of the human body in the last five years than was learned in the previous 500. Twenty years ago, 39 was the number of years a man could expect from his life. Today, it is more than 47.

RATH: That's Clive Owen as Dr. John Thackery, head surgeon at the Knickerbocker Hospital. You might remember him from the dystopian film "Children Of Men" or the award-winning movie "Closer." Clive Owen takes on yet another complicated character in this new series "The Knick."

OWEN: My character's inspired by a real guy, a doctor called William Halsted. And there was this brilliant book called "Genius On The Edge" written about him. He was a very brilliant doctor and made, you know, a lot of amazing discoveries and was really at the forefront of pushing the whole medical world forward. And they discovered that he was consuming vast amounts of drugs while he was doing that. The first image you see of me in this is injecting myself with liquid cocaine, but at that time, cocaine was totally legal in the states. And they thought it was the new wonder drug. They thought it was a great anesthetic, and they had no idea of the problems that come with it. So there were a number of doctors at that time who were getting addicted to it.

RATH: We see some medical procedures that seem almost incredible for the time - major invasive surgeries. Was that sort of thing really happening like that in 1900?

OWEN: Everything that happens in the whole series is inspired by real events and things that were going on. And the operations - every single operation that we perform - there was a brilliant advisor called Dr. Burns who has this incredible archive. And every single operation - he had historical photographs, often booklets from 1900, when they were performing this operation, about how they were doing it. And he was onset for any of the medical stuff and his mantra would be more claims, more blood.

RATH: What was shocking for you as you're going through with this, in terms of what medicine could accomplish at that time?

OWEN: It was obviously a very scary time to be very ill - is the truth. You know, the very first operation that we perform in this doesn't go too well, and it's a very sort of, you know, brutal way of saying, welcome to 1900.


OWEN: (As John Thackery) It's miraculous it hasn't already ruptured and killed him. It's only a matter of time.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Hunter's ligation, reset the weak spot, try to reconstruct.

OWEN: (As John Thackery) Yeah. With an aneurysm that large, once we resect it, there won't be much tissue left with which to reconstruct the artery.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) We have to try.

OWEN: (As John Thackery) We do indeed.

It was a time of sort of great passion, of trying to push forward. And they were taking risks and trying things out and discovering things at a very quick rate. But it was a little sort of shooting from the hip. They would go into surgeries and just try things out, in the hope that they would learn things to make it better for the next person.

RATH: Now, there's plenty of drama just in the hospital scenario by itself. But there's more dramatic tension from the introduction of an African-American doctor. This is your character - the head surgeon's reaction.


OWEN: (As John Thackery) I am certainly not interested in an integrated hospital staff.

ANDRE HOLLAND: (As Algernon Edward) My skin color shouldn't matter.

OWEN: (As John Thackery) Well, if it doesn't matter, then why was that information held back for me?

HOLLAND: (As Algernon Edward) You'll have to ask Miss Robertson.

OWEN: (As John Thackery) It's also nowhere to be found on your credentials. I grant that your background is impressive, and I'm sure there are many Negro infirmaries that will benefit from your talents, but this hospital...

HOLLAND: (As Algernon Edward) You're here. This is where I'd like to be. In London and in Paris, I was treated as an equal, and I have no doubt...

OWEN: (As John Thackery) This is New York. This is not London or Paris. You can only run away and join the circus if the circus wants you. I don't want you in my circus.

RATH: The attention to historical detail we were just talking about really makes me curious. Were hospital staffs already starting to integrate that time?

OWEN: There was no black doctor working in any hospital in New York in 1900. One of the things that I think is so successful about it is you're constantly going, really? Is this how we were then? Is this how people behaved? Is this - did this really happen? It's shocking, and it should be shocking.


HOLLAND: (As Algernon Edward) Dr. Thackery, I spent some time at Hotel-Dieu Hospital in Paris.

OWEN: (As John Thackery) Scrubbing the floors, were we?

HOLLAND: (As Algernon Edward) Working with Dr. Pierre Dubeau. We experimented using a galvanic procedure on aortic aneurisms and had a fairly good success rate.

OWEN: (As John Thackery) Thank you, Dr. Edwards, but if I want your ideas, I'll ask for them.

RATH: You know, the hospital drama - it's a pretty well-worn TV staple. But this doesn't feel like anything like "Grey's Anatomy." Is it easier to avoid falling into those kind of cliches when you've altered the setting so much?

OWEN: A lot of hospital dramas are based around, you know - the patient comes in. Do they get well? Do they not? But the thing about this is that the hospital is a great way of looking at the period and at the location - New York at this time - what was happening on the streets of New York. It's just a brilliant way in to view, you know, a whole world, really. As I've said before, it was a particularly exciting time in the world of medicine, so there's a reason to set it in 1900. It's not that it could be just any year. It's - this was a particularly intense period.

RATH: I have the impression of you as an actor who's very selective of the type of roles that you take on. I'm curious about this character, in particular. And you do - maybe you seem to have an attraction for complicated characters?

OWEN: You occasionally read these scripts where it reminds you of why you do what you do. And there was something about this character that was so challenging and sort of dangerous and exciting. And, you know, it gets wilder, in many respects. You know, it's a very sort of challenging beginning. You think, my God, who is this guy? I just never read anything set in this time period that felt so edgy and dangerous and - contemporary's the wrong word, but it felt sort of visceral and present. And the one thing often about period things is that we do this kind of this distant, respectful thing, where we look at it period, and then we sort if look at it from afar. And when I read this, I felt that the writers were really putting me into a world. And that's what I found very excited about it.

RATH: Clive Owen - his new television show, "The Knick," starts this Friday on Cinemax. Thank you so much.

OWEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.