John Oliver recruited Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston to go “full Walter White” on Sunday’s Last Week Tonight — tapping into the drug lord’s stone-faced menace for the role of Richard Sackler, the former president and chairman of Oxycontin developer Purdue Pharma. Michael Keaton, Michael K. Williams (The Wire) and Richard Kind (Mad About You) also played the billionaire businessman during the segment, an update on the U.S. opioid epidemic that resulted in 47,000 deaths in 2017.
Before the all-star cameos, host John Oliver established some context, focusing on the recklessness of drug distributors like McKesson, who are required to alert authorities if they observe suspicious orders of controlled substances. A recent congressional report found that in 2007, the company shipped a daily average of 9,650 hydrocodone pills to a now-closed pharmacy in Kermit, West Virginia, which has a population of 400.
In 2008, the DEA slapped McKesson with a $13 million fine for failing to control its controlled substances — though the company escaped without having to admit wrongdoing. McKesson also implemented a controlled substances monitoring program, but it failed miserably. In 2017, they wound up paying a $150 million fine — and though that amount sounds massive, it amounts to less than 1/1000th of their annual revenue.
“For companies involved in the opioid crisis, fines just became the cost of doing business,” Oliver said. “And throughout this crisis, it has been difficult to fine any real accountability for the people involved.”
The host then shifted to Purdue, which originally pitched Oxycontin to doctors as a treatment for back aches and knee pain. “It would be like using cocaine for a toothache,” Oliver said. “Which, incidentally, back in the 1800s, people actually did.”
Purdue’s owners, the Sackler family, are collectively worth $13 billion — and Richard Sackler, a former board member and president from 1999 to 2003, was extremely involved in the business, which has faced multiple lawsuits in recent years.
In spite of the company’s visibility, Richard Sackler has remained somewhat anonymous. However, Last Week Tonight were able to utilize a recently leaked transcript from a Sackler testimony, and to make the quotes more compelling, they hired Cranston and company to add a movie villain edginess to his words.
The actor channeled his edgiest Walter White to deliver part of a speech celebrating Purdue’s approval from the DFA. “This didn’t just happen,” he intones, staring into the camera. “It was a deftly 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. 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.”
Elsewhere, Keaton’s Sackler shrugged off the news that Oxycontin caused 59 deaths in one state (“This is not too bad. It could have been far worse”) and called the substance’s “abusers” “culprits of the problem” and “reckless criminals.” In Williams’ take on the businessman, he boasted about how he’s “dedicated [his] life” to the success of Oxycontin. Meanwhile, the less threatening Kind stepped in to balance out some of that eerie “cool” factor by reciting the answering-evading “I don’t know” in a handful of styles.
Last Week Tonight took one final jab at Purdue, uploading clips of the four fake Sacklers to their newly created Sackler Gallery website — a crack at the family’s love of having hitter name plastered on famous art galleries. “Richard Sackler’s deposition should not be something that Purdue gets to bury, like it’s buried so many things over the years,” Oliver said.