By Susan Richards
There’s a valuable reflection on the importance of seeing oneself represented in popular culture, which can also refer to professionals. We love to see glimpses of what we do depicted in fiction, no matter how mundane, and even if only to critique the accuracy of the portrayal.
Dental professionals aren’t immune to this phenomenon, although they admittedly don’t always get a great rap on paper or screen. Let’s grab some popcorn and take a peek at some of the more notable characters who may or may not present a positive spin on oral health.
From the affable orthodontist, Jerry Robinson, DDS, who shared office hilarity with the star of The Bob Newhart Show for most of the 1970s, to Val Kilmer’s mesmerizing portrayal of the real-life dentist Doc Holliday in Tombstone, dental professionals in fiction have entertained without eliciting dread. Here are some other notable “good dentist” roles on screen and page:
Pediatric dentists may want to add Doctor De Soto to their waiting rooms. The National Book Award winner for children’s picture books in 1983 was written and illustrated by William Steig, telling the tale of a clever mouse dentist and his fox patient.
The Whole Nine Yards introduced a hapless dentist, played by Matthew Perry, who gets tangled up with the mob after moving next door to a hitman. The 2000 dark comedy included Bruce Willis, Kevin Pollack, and Amanda Peet.
Kirstie Alley starred in the 1997 film Toothless as a selfish dentist whose untimely death allows her to play the Tooth Fairy and make a difference in kids’ lives. It’s a Disney picture, so you know it serves up smiles in the end.
The 2008 movie Ghost Town starred Ricky Gervais as another prickly dentist who finds human connection through a series of ghostly encounters after he suffers a near-death experience.
Heroes of the Frontier is a 2016 novel by Dave Eggers and follows Josie, a failed dentist who flees with her children to Alaska. Goodreads calls it “a captivating, often hilarious novel of family loss, wilderness, and the curse of a violent America” and a “rousing story of adventure.”
And who doesn’t cheer for Hermey in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer as the good-natured elf who just wants to trade in his toy-making tools for a periodontal probe?
Alas, there are those villainous dentists who have surely made readers and viewers shudder at the thought of their next cleaning appointment.
One of the more terrifying characters in the original novel and the 1976 film adaptation is dentist and war criminal Dr. Christian Szell in Marathon Man. Lawrence Olivier’s portrayal was far from painless when he tortured Dustin Hoffman’s character.
Nervous patients’ worst fears are realized in the 1996 horror film The Dentist when the titular doctor, played by Corbin Bernsen, loses his grip on sanity.
Steve Martin showed his wide comedic range as the sadistic dentist and abusive boyfriend in the 1986 film version of the off-Broadway musical Little Shop of Horrors. Bill Murray made a memorable appearance as a masochistic patient seeking a root canal.
While more obnoxious than evil, orthodontist Jeremy Jamm from the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana, was a veritable villain in the sitcom Parks and Recreation.
The lines aren’t always clearly drawn for some of the popular media’s representation of dentists. For instance, in 2001’s Novocaine, Steve Martin revisits the dental profession as a good guy who makes bad decisions. Bryan Cranston ate up the scenery on Seinfeld when playing the recurring character and morally ambiguous dentist, Tim Whatley, DDS.
In Tim Burton’s edgy 2005 version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, we see a glimpse of the root cause of Willy Wonka’s obsession with sweets. His overprotective father and dentist, Dr. Wilbur Wonka, is darkly portrayed by the late Christopher Lee.
And while you may not recognize his name, you could probably recall the address of fish-napper and dentist Dr. Philip Sherman in Finding Nemo. Much of the Disney Pixar film’s action takes place at 42 Wallaby Way in Sydney, Australia.
Did we include your favorite DDS or DMD in this list of famous fictional dentists? For now, we’ll wait for the superhero we deserve – a sedation dentist by day who uses his special powers to fight crime at night. It’s time.
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Author: Susan Richards is a staff writer at DOCS Education. With over 20 years of experience in local journalism and business marketing, Susan’s career includes award-winning feature writing, as well as creating content with context for a wide variety of industries.