This is the first part of a series on how pharmacy professionals have been depicted on TV, both in a positive and negative manner.
This article is the first part of a series on memorable pharmacists in television history.
Pharmacists are generally considered some of the most trusted and highly regarded professionals. In a 2016 Gallup poll, pharmacists were ranked the No. 2 most trusted professionals by American respondents, just below nurses, with 67% rating the honesty and ethical standards of pharmacists “high” or “very high."
Despite this, pharmacists are often portrayed in movies and television in a negative light. In 2015, researchers conducted a study to determine whether pharmacist characters were depicted in a positive, negative, or neutral manner in films and TV shows available in the United States between 1970 and 2013. Their data found that of the 231 pharmacist portrayals identified, 145 (63%) were negative, 56 (24%) were neutral, and 30 (13%) were positive. Additionally, very few pharmacist characters were recurring ones on TV.
Here is a look at six of the most memorable TV characters who are pharmacists:
1. Mort Goldman on Family Guy
Mort, who appears in more than 60 episodes between 2001 to 2017, is the owner of Goldman’s Pharmacy and regularly interacts with the main cast members. Regular viewers of the show know him to be defined as stereotypically Jewish, socially inept, awkward, and a hypochondriac.
Mort's character as the local pharmacy owner has played a role in multiple storylines. For example, in season 3, episode 6, he attends junior high career day and tells the students that he greatly enjoys his job as a pharmacist. Mort explains that many of his customers are parents of the students in class, giving specific examples of one student’s mom taking medication for post-partum depression and another for hemorrhoids.
In season 10, episode 15, Peter and Quagmire learn that Goldman’s Pharmacy has run into financial trouble following the death of Mort’s wife, Muriel, as she was able to successfully overcharge customers. The pair tries to help Mort promote his pharmacy but ultimately end up making things worse. They eventually decide to burn down the pharmacy to collect the insurance money.
Although Mort certainly isn’t representative of the pharmacy profession, his character is funny and helps drive some of the show’s storylines.
2. Russell on Two and a Half Men
In this CBS sitcom, Martin Mull plays Russell, a drug-dealing and abusing pharmacist who appears in 6 episodes. Throughout his appearances, he is either seen or alludes to abusing prescription drugs, including antipsychotics, cough syrup, muscle relaxants, OxyContin, and Viagra. Russell also has financial problems because he pays alimony to his 3 ex-wives, causing him to open a “pre-habitation center” in Malibu, California, for rich celebrities to secretly do drugs in.
In season 7 episode 21, Charlie Harper visits Russell’s pharmacy with a prescription for sleeping pills to help with his insomnia. Russell instead sells Charlie marijuana, causing disturbing hallucinations of women from his past. In season 8, Charlie and his mother visit the pharmacy where Russell tries to sell them a codeine popsicle, which he calls “springtime on a stick.” In yet another instance, Russell is seen counting out a prescription for a muscle relaxant and then takes the last pill off the counting tray and swallows it, reasoning that surely the patient would not miss 1 pill.
He does just about everything wrong that a pharmacist can do, from dealing and abusing prescription medications to giving bad medical advice. But Russell's character fits into the overall theme of the show and makes for a few laughs.
Charlie: "Cough syrup."
Russell: "Regular or codeine?"
Charlie: "Don’t you need a prescription for codeine?"
Russell: "What are you, a cop?"
3. Eldon Stammets on Hannibal
Episode 2, season 1, of this psychological thriller features the hunt for a pharmacist who kidnaps and buries his victims alive.
Early in the episode, Jack and Will, 2 of the series main characters, are called to investigate a series of 9 shallow graves covered in mushrooms using human bodies as fertilizer. An autopsy later reveals that the victims were force-fed sugar water to help better grow the mushrooms and that all victims were diabetics who went into coma after a change in their medication. The next scene shows Eldon at the pharmacy switching out a customer’s insulin before ringing her out and confirming her address.
Jack locates a Baltimore pharmacy chain where 10 diabetic customers had gone missing after filling a prescription for insulin. He starts to narrow in on 1 pharmacist, who floats between various stores in the area, though he is not present at work when the FBI arrives. Will locates Eldon’s car, where he discovers a body covered in dirt inside the trunk.
I do not want to spoil the rest of the episode, but I highly recommend not just this particular episode but the entire series. This portrayal of a pharmacist is obviously negative but far outside the view of pharmacy as a profession.
4. Ms. Sylvia, aka, “Old Pharmacist” on Mad TV
The Old Pharmacist sketch in this TV series is the oldest mention on the list but also perhaps the most well-known. The episode aired May 8, 1999, in season 4 and the pharmacist sketch in particular has amassed tens of thousands of views on YouTube.
The sketch features Debra Wilson as Ms. Sylvia, an elderly pharmacist who embarrasses customers in her pharmacy by reading their prescriptions out loud. When 1 man approaches the pharmacy counter, she loudly explains his prescription is for “crabs and/or lice” and she advices him to shave his pubic hair and boil his clothes and sheets. Next, Ms. Sylvia asks who has the prescription for vaginal dryness, leading 1 patient to reluctantly get her prescription. Her last 2 prescriptions are for scotal acne and explosive diarrhea. The sketch ends with about half a dozen customers running out of the pharmacy when Ms. Sylvia asks who is next in line.
It should go without saying that this sketch does not represent a real pharmacy in the slightest, but it is funny enough so that no further explanation is needed.
5. Frank Buffay Sr. on Friends
This character is Phoebe’s father on the hit NBC sitcom, which aired from 1994 to 2004. In season 2, episode 9, she realizes that her grandmother had previously lied to her about her biological father, so Phoebe goes to visit her to get the real story. Her grandmother gives Phoebe a picture of her father and explains that the last she heard was that he was a pharmacist somewhere in upstate New York.
Wanting to get to know her father better, Phoebe goes with Chandler and Joey to visit Frank. She ultimately tracks Frank down but not wanting to be disappointed goes home after stopping outside his house.
Frank only makes 1 actual appearance in the series which occurs in season 5, episode 13. At her grandmother’s funeral, Phoebe is shocked to meet her father, who initially says that his name is Joe, before rushing out. Phoebe and Frank meet up later in the episode and, though there is still some tension, start to make up.
Phoebe: "All right, so, what, he's not a famous tree surgeon? And then, I guess, OK, he doesn't live in a hut in Burma where there's no phones?"
Grandmother: "Last I heard, he was a pharmacist somewhere upstate."
Phoebe: "OK, that makes no sense. Why would the villagers worship a pharmacist?"
Phoebe: [realizes] Oh.
6. Harold Grossman on Modern Family
This is a brief but still memorable pharmacist appearance.
In season 5, episode 7, of this hit sitcom, Phil and Claire Dunphy celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary by trying to surprise each other with special, personalized gifts. During the episode, they attend the local school fair, where Phil secretly arranges with the band to be called on stage to serenade Claire. At the same time, Claire wants to return home from the fair to give Phil his gift, but he eventually convinces her to stay for just a little longer.
The surprise is ruined, however, when local pharmacist Harold (played by Rick Cowling) takes the stage right before Phil is scheduled to go on. Harold nervously explains that he has never performed in public before but was eventually convinced by his co-workers at the pharmacy. Harold belts out an amazing rendition of "I Want to Know What Love Is" by Foreigner, bringing the crowd to their feet, effectively derailing Phil’s plans.
Phil comically remarks: “Turns out Harold Grossman, our pharmacist, is a rock star. His voice is the drug he should be dispensing, because apparently it’s the cure for everything.”
After Harold leaves the stage, Phil is called up, but he gets cold feet and leaves before singing his own song. Unfortunately, Harold does not make any other appearances on the show.
What TV pharmacists are missing from the list? Tweet them to me at @toshea125.
1. Yanicak A, Mohorn PL, Monterroyo P, Furgiuele G, Waddington L, Bookstaver PB. Public perception of pharmacists: film and television portrayals from 1970 to 2013. J Am Pharm Assoc (2003). 2015;55(6):578-86. doi: 10.1331/JAPhA.2015.15028.
2. The Internet Movie Database. imdb.com. Accessed December 26, 2017.