Dentists in the Movies: The Characters
It’s pretty hilarious to see Hollywood’s take on jobs and careers: Not all convenience store employees are quick-witted misanthropes as Clerks would have you believe. No electrical engineer is going to build an exoskeleton out of spare parts like Tony Stark in Iron Man and most computer programmers aren’t handsome super-hackers like Hugh Jackman’s character in Swordfish. A lot of these portrayals are flattering, but dentists get the short end of the stick in nearly every movie in which they’re featured.
I decided to do a deep dive and analyze all the different types of dentists you see in the movies. For your reading pleasure, below you will find my top three all-time favorites!
The Evil Mastermind
This is by far the most common portrayal of dentists in films. These professionals invariably use their skills for an evil and often cringe-inducing purpose. They’re often seen trying to extract information out of the good guy with a large drill or using their practice as a cover for murder.
The best example of the evil mastermind is Lawrence Olivier as Dr. Christian Szell in 1976’s Marathon Man. The former Nazi dentist, searching for a fortune in diamonds, gave Dustin Hoffman’s character a ‘checkup’ we’ll never forget. While an amazing villain, Christian Szell is responsible for an entire generation’s fear of going to the dentist’s office for even a simple cleaning, not to mention inspiring countless dentist-themed ‘slasher flicks.’ Does anyone else remember Corbin Bernsen as Dr. Alan Feinstone, the mild-mannered and successful dentist that goes on a killing spree after he catches his wife cheating on him in 1996’s The Dentist? No? I thought so.
The Sadistic ‘Bad Boy’
While evil masterminds use their dental skills as a means to a dastardly end, the sadistic ‘bad boys’ use their knowledge of dentistry as an end in itself: They just love inflicting pain on people! The sadistic bad boy doesn’t outright kill people like the evil mastermind; he maintains a successful practice and keeps a steady roster of patients that he can harm on a regular basis. Sounds like a real nice guy, right? These sadists often take their passion out of the office giving them a ‘tough guy’ persona in the films in which they appear.
Steve Martin’s character in the 1986 version of Little Shop of Horrors, Dr. Orin Scrivello, is the perfect example of our sadistic bad boy. Acting as the main villain for the first half of the movie (Rick Moranis eventually realizes that his Audrey II plant enjoys eating people way too much), Orin steals the show with his over-the-top antics. Orin wears a leather jacket and drives a motorcycle to work, like a true greaser bad boy. He even gets his own song, colorfully explaining his career choice based on his love of causing pain. It’s a lot less dark than Marathon Man or any movies with the evil mastermind dentist, but that “Dentist!” song definitely made another generation of children afraid of the dentist’s office.
The Human Being
It’s a rarity, but you can find a dentist that’s portrayed as an actual human being with no maniacal or sadistic tendencies in a movie. The normal human being is more difficult to write than the evil mastermind or the sadistic bad boy, and the character type doesn’t lend itself well to cheesy, formulaic slasher flicks. However, it’s nice to see a dentist portrayed as someone you don’t need to be terrified of once in a blue moon.
In 2005’s Thumbsucker Keanu Reeves plays the quirky and kind Dr. Perry Lyman. Thumbsucker is about as indie as an indie film can get: it’s all about coming of age, its entire soundtrack was supposed to have cover songs performed by Elliot Smith, and an intentionally low budget. If you can get past that, Reeves gives a great performance and acts as the only real support our thumb-sucking, angst-ridden teen protagonist gets throughout the film, offering up some wise life and orthodontic advice along the way.
Those are some of the more notable dentists on the silver screen. Did I leave some major characters out? Who’s your favorite on screen dental professional? Let us know!
“The Painless Pole” in M*A*S*H
He “committed” suicide due to a fear of impotence. They held a ceremonmial wake, during which they sang the theme song “Suicide is Painless”. The musical part was later used as the opening sequence for the series.
Great article Dylan! You have got me thinking now– will let you know if Ibcan remember one…..loved your 3 choices….
Alan Arkin (as the mild-mannered NY dentist); Peter Falk as his in law to be. movie= The InLaws. A must see for those that appreciate the comedies in the zany style of These two masters. Could have been scripted by the legendary Carl Reiner or Sid Caesar. In one scene, Falk leads Arkin (lab coat and all) running through the streets of NYC dodging bullets….as patient remains in operatory, mouth stuffed w impression material, cotton rolls, and various sets of tubing devices hanging out her mouth. Arkin is a riot, using his understated acting style, playing the dentist to perfection.
I enjoyed Matthew Perry’s character as the paronoid dentist, Dr. Nicholas Oseransky , in The Whole Nine Yards with Bruce Willis.