Podcast Pushes Forward the Strange Saga of Dr. John Brinkley

Gimlet Media episode about infamous "goat-gland doctor" optioned by Robert Downey Jr.

From Gimlet Media in Brooklyn to Robert Downey Jr. in Hollywood.
Headshot of Richard Horgan

How’s this for some impressive podcast traction?

On Jan. 19, Gimlet Media posted Episode #86 of its program Reply All. In “Man of the People,” co-host PJ Vogt retraces the unbelievable story of early 20th century huckster Dr. John Brinkley, with the help of documentary filmmaker Penny Lane and author Pope Brock. (Her film Nuts! debuted at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, while Brock’s book Charlatan was published in 2008.)

Just a few weeks after the sharing of the Reply All investigation, there is news that the episode has been optioned as the basis for a potential Hollywood movie starring Robert Downey Jr. From Hollywood Reporter staff writer Mia Galuppo’s item:

The podcast tells the true story of two doctors: Dr. John Brinkley, who scammed his way to fame and fortune using fake medicine, populism and radio, and Dr. Morris Fishbein, the editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association who goes on a decade-long quest to take Brinkley down.

Megan Ellison will produce for Annapurna, with Robert and Susan Downey both acting as producers under their Team Downey banner.

The smart money is on Downey Jr. playing the “bad” doctor. Adding to the great potential here is that Boyhood’s Richard Linklater is attached to direct.

The many jaw-dropping details shared by Vogt include the fact that Dr. Brinkley took advantage a century ago of his location to set up a radio station south of the U.S.-Mexico border with a reach far beyond what regulations in his home country allowed:

His transmitter is so powerful that locals in Del Rio, Texas report that when it’s powered on, their bedsprings will hum. The headlights of their cars will turn on randomly. And these broadcasts, they’re now so strong that they leave the United States. The rest of the world is hearing John Brinkley’s shows. …

The U.S. State Department tries to negotiate with Mexico to take Brinkley off the air, and Brinkley just gets the Vice President, the Vice President of the United States, to tell the State Department to knock it off. Brinkley cannot be contained by law.

Gimlet Media, founded in 2014, is headquartered in Brooklyn.

@hollywoodspin rhorgan@gmail.com Richard Horgan is co-editor of Fishbowl.