The Tragic Question Over 'Dr. Nick': Did He Fuel Elvis' Pill Habit, or Try to Help Him Kick It?

updated 10/08/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/08/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT

It was a rigorous job, being court physician to the "King of Rock'n'Roll." The hours were irregular and the patient demanding. During the 11 years he treated Elvis Presley, Dr. George Nichopoulos had to interrupt his busy Memphis practice for days at a time to tour with the entertainer. When Elvis was in residence at Graceland, Nichopoulos—"Dr. Nick" to Presley's retinue—was on call all night (the insomniac star bedded down at 8 a.m.). By many accounts, there was a constant and increasingly futile struggle with the singer over the use of prescription drugs. "I think all of Elvis' friends will agree that Dr. Nichopoulos loved Elvis like a son," says Presley's longtime broadcaster buddy George Klein. But two years after Presley's death at 42, critics are asking: Was Elvis' physician careful enough?

Last month the Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners, citing a 15-month audit of Memphis drugstores, accused Nichopoulos of "indiscriminately prescribing" for his famous patient. During the last seven months of Elvis' life, it charged that the M.D. wrote the singer prescriptions for some 5,300 doses of Quaalude, Valium, Demerol, codeine, Percodan and other drugs. The board, which can suspend or revoke a doctor's license, has scheduled hearings for November. To make sure an irate fan doesn't take matters into his own hands, Memphis police placed the doctor under guard.

After Elvis died on Aug. 16, 1977, the county coroner stated that cause of death was heart failure. At the time, Nichopoulos declared the singer sometimes "abused drugs accidentally" but did not have a drug problem. Later the coroner said there had been traces of 10 different drugs in Presley's bloodstream but none of them a lethal dose.

Nichopoulos, under orders by his lawyer, will not comment on the new allegations, but supporters—many of them close friends of Elvis—have leaped to his defense. "At different times on tour I heard Dr. Nick tell Elvis that he didn't need the medication he thought he needed," recalls Presley's last girlfriend, Ginger Alden. "A lot of the shots given to Elvis by his nurse were just saline solution, on Dr. Nick's orders." Marty Lacker, a high school friend and best man at Presley's 1967 wedding, often saw Dr. Nick substitute sugar or vitamins as placebos, and emphasizes: "You've got to realize you were dealing with a very strong personality in Elvis Presley. I heard Dr. Nichopoulos telling Elvis to stop taking drugs. Elvis got upset with him and told him to 'get the hell out of here and don't come back.' The problem was Elvis would see other doctors." There are reports that he would fly his private jet to Las Vegas when his medicine chest was empty in Memphis.

Many of the secrets of Elvis' death may be hidden in the autopsy report, sealed at his family's request, and now object of a subpoena. Both the Memphis district attorney and the state attorney general are considering criminal charges against Nichopoulos, and their investigations may flush out new information. There has been speculation that Presley's remains may be exhumed for a second autopsy, a prospect the family estate lawyer called "appalling." Indeed, many of those closest to Elvis seem to want the case closed. Says Linda Thompson, Presley's girlfriend from 1972 through 1976: "Drug taking was the primary reason I left. It's no big surprise to any of us that this has come up." But she adds: "It's a little late to worry about Elvis."

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