‘Painkiller’ True Story: What To Know About The Real Richard Sackler (2024)

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Netflix’s new limited series Painkiller is a heartbreaking exploration of the opioid crisis in the United States starring Matthew Broderick as Richard Sackler, the chairman and president of the company Purdue Pharma, which developed OxyContin. While the show takes several creative liberties throughout its six explosive episodes, many of the characters and scenes depicted are derived from real life, including Richard Sackler, who is, unfortunately, a real person.

Each episode of the series starts with a disclaimer stating, “This program is based on real events, however certain characters, names, incidents, locations and dialogue has been fictionalized for dramatic purposes,” read by a family member who has lost a loved one in real life to opioid abuse.

Executive producer Eric Newman, popular for his work on Narcos, commented on how the show blurs the line between fact and fiction in an interview provided by Netflix, which was recorded in 2022 and early 2023, prior to the Writers Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA strikes.

“The show begins with a disclaimer which clearly spells out that, while based on real events, we’ve taken creative license to tell this story. That disclaimer is being read by the loved ones of victims of America’s opioid crisis, which drives home just how real this story is,” he said.

Newman continued, “Some of our characters are clearly versions of real people. Other characters, like Edie Flowers, are composite characters — a fictional amalgamation of a few different people. But even the fictionalized elements of this show are grounded in the knowledge that the painful repercussions of opioid addiction are playing out across America every day.”

Over the course of six episodes, Painkiller shines a light on a variety of stories – one of which being the story of Sackler and his team of businessmen that brought OxyContin to the mainstream.

‘Painkiller’ True Story: What To Know About The Real Richard Sackler (3)

Director Pete Berg, in the same interview, praised Broderick’s portrayal of Sackler, stating that the actor’s kind personality helped humanize the businessman. “He’s found a whole other dimension to what could have been a somewhat one-note character,” said Berg.

Curious to learn more about the reality behind Painkiller? Have questions about the real-life Richard Sackler? Here’s everything you need to know.

Is Painkiller Based on a True Story?

Painkiller is based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Barry Meier and the New Yorker Magazine article “The Family That Built the Empire of Pain” by Patrick Radden Keefe. But, the series takes its fair share of creative liberties by including fictional characters and dream sequences, as well as dramatic interpretations of real events.

Both of the writers served as producers on the show with Meier serving as a consulting producer and Keefe as an executive producer.

Keefe, who also penned the nonfiction novel Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty, opened up about his role on set, saying that he mostly focused on factual storytelling. “I thought of myself as somebody who’s pretty squarely focused on the nonfiction side of things. You know that there were a couple of real people who went into a room, came out of the room, and a decision had been made, and you need somebody to creatively imagine what the conversation was that happened inside that room,” the author explained. “I was able to give some guidance on what we know happened, what the factual record supports, with an understanding that it then became a creative endeavor.”

What To Know About The Real Richard Sackler:

Does the name Richard Sackler ring a bell? Perhaps it’s because he was previously portrayed by Michael Stuhlbarg in the Hulu series Dopesick. Or maybe it’s because of the many lawsuits he was part of for the development of OxyContin.

Born March 10, 1945, Sackler is a billionaire businessman who served as the chairman and president of Purdue Pharma, which is the company that developed OxyContin. The company has faced several lawsuits over the years and pleaded guilty to misleading the public about the drug. In 2019, the company filed for bankruptcy.Since then, the company has rebranded itself to Knoa Pharma and claims to no longer be a pharmaceutical manufacturer.

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As depicted in the series, Sackler was adamant that opioids were not addictive and could be used in the same capacity as other painkillers. He convinced his colleagues and medical professionals that addiction to the drug was an anticipated result of drug addicts chasing a high, rather than an effect caused by the drug. Sackler also encouraged the company to dole out higher dosages in the prescriptions.

In addition to his role as chairman and president of the company, Sackler oversaw the research department, having received his MD degree from the New York University, School of Medicine, and heavily guided the company’s marketing strategy.

Revealed in the end cards of the series, it has been estimated that over 300,000 people have died over the past two decades from overdoses involving prescription painkillers like OxyContin, and no member of the Sackler family – including Richard Sackler’s brothers Arthur Sackler, Mortimer Sackler and Raymond Sackler – have been criminally charged in the mishandling of OxyContin and the overdose deaths caused by the drug.

The series also states that the Sackler family is also thought to be worth over $11 billion. It’s a hard pill to swallow.

Painkiller is currently streaming on Netflix.


  • Based On A True Story
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‘Painkiller’ True Story: What To Know About The Real Richard Sackler (2024)
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