John Oliver Recruits Michael Keaton, Bryan Cranston to Dramatize Opioid Epidemic

The 'Batman' and 'Breaking Bad' stars joined Michael K. Williams and Richard Kind in portraying Purdue exec Richard Sackler during Sunday's episode of 'Last Week Tonight.'
Courtesy of HBO

John Oliver took a deep dive into the opioid crisis with the help of some famous actors on Sunday's episode of Last Week Tonight.

The host explained that Purdue Pharma exec Richard Sackler and his family have been accused of playing a major part in the epidemic. Some members of the family "were very hands-on," including Richard and seven others that served on the board at Purdue. A number of lawsuits now give the public glimpses of how involved the family is in the crisis.

Oliver said that Sackler was pushing addictive pain medications like OxyContin and continued to advocate for the drugs even after the company learned about the danger they posed.

The host added that Sackler rarely makes public comments and only a few photos of him are available to the public. "Think about how remarkable that is in and of itself. He's an incredibly rich man, and it's genuinely easy to find multiple image options of birds standing on turtles or babies that look like Wallace Shawn," Oliver joked. "This invisibility feels deliberate."

After Oliver said that he's "painfully aware" of how difficult it is to tell Sackler's story without any video clips of the businessman, he shared that he recruited Michael Keaton, Bryan Cranston and more actors to read off Sackler's rare comments about the epidemic.

The host addressed the camera and asked the stand-in Sackler how he felt that OxyContin had killed 59 people in one state. Keaton then appeared onscreen and quoted, "That's not too bad. It could've been far worse."

"As evidence mounted that Oxy was causing widespread addiction, Sackler urged the company to publicly blame those who were addicted," continued Oliver. "Michael Keaton, what did he actually write?"

"We have to hammer on the abusers in every way possible. They are the culprits and the problem," Keaton directly quoted as he leaned forward and pointed at the camera. "They are reckless criminals."

Oliver noted that the quote not only came off as "malicious and hardened," but "it also doesn't even make any sense."

"He's furious at the people who are part of the problem," continued Oliver, "but the people he's angry at helped make him incredibly rich."

The host added that he legally had to mention that the Sackler family and Purdue insist that they did not start the opioid crisis and that Sackler's comments have been taken out of context.

But Oliver pointed out, "Whenever they've added context, it hasn't really helped much. For instance, their explanation for Sackler saying the news of 59 deaths was 'not too bad' was that 'he was merely commenting about the nature of recent press coverage,' which is not better in any meaningful way whatsoever."

Oliver next criticized the family for their habit of settling cases under the condition that all evidence is sealed and unavailable to the public. Regardless of the unavailable information, many businesses have recently cut ties with the family.

But a transcript from a video deposition Sackler gave for a Kentucky-based case where 17 million documents were destroyed recently leaked to ProPublica and Stat News.

And that's when Oliver really demonstrated the star power of this week's episode.

"You should know Michael Keaton is not the only actor we got to play Richard Sackler," he said before he introduced the actor "responsible for playing one of the greatest drug dealers in the history of television."

Cranston then appeared onscreen as he wrote on a legal pad. An investigator asked if he was the director of Purdue Pharma Inc. in 2014. "Not that I'm aware," he answered.

The investigator then showed Cranston an affidavit that confirmed Sackler's position at the company during that time. Cranston shrugged and said, "If that's what it says, then that's what it says."

"Wow. Richard Sackler came off as a real dick there, right?" said Oliver. He then explained that he had Cranston go "full Walter White" in another clip that showed Sackler bragging about how quickly Purdue got the FDA to approve OxyContin.

"This didn't just happen. It was a deathly coordinated, planned event that took dozens of workers years of effort to succeed. The most demanding new drug approval package for any analgesic product ever submitted didn't languish at the agency," Cranston dramatically said as the camera slowly zoomed in. "Unlike the years that other filings linger at FDA, this product was approved in 11 months, 14 days. Our previous best approval time for other products was measured in years, not months."

Last Week Tonight also recruited The Wire actor Michael K. Williams to read more quotes from Sackler. "You won't believe how committed I am to make OxyContin a huge success," he slowly said. "It is almost that I've dedicated my life to it."

Following Williams' portrayal of Sackler, Oliver noted that all of those actors are "pretty cool," while Sackler "decidedly is not."  In order to fully represent Sackler, Oliver said that he asked Richard Kind to participate in the final reading.

Kind responded "I don't know" to a number of questions Sackler was asked. The reenactment referenced the time Sackler used the response over 100 times during a deposition.

Because there are no video clips from Sackler's deposition, Oliver said that they imagined different scenarios of how he could have acted while being interrogated. Clips of Keaton eating a turkey sandwich as he answered questions followed.

"Why would he eat a sandwich during such a serious deposition? I mean yes, maybe he didn't, but it would be so easy for Richard Sackler to prove that he didn't," said Oliver.

"The point is, until he does that, we uploaded a bunch of videos of four different Richard Sacklers reading excerpts from his emails and deposition to SacklerGallery.com, which I'm sure they'll enjoy. They love having their names on fucking galleries," he continued. The website references the real Sackler Gallery, which is located at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.

Watch the full segment below.