Michael Sheen is pretty clearly channeling Dr. Hannibal Lecter as Dr. Martin Whitly on Prodigal Son, but unlike The Silence of the Lambs villain, Sheen’s serial killer character known as the Surgeon on Prodigal Son doesn’t appear to be based on a real person. Prodigal Son follows a profiler Malcolm Bright (The Walking Dead‘s Tom Payne), who just so happens to be the son of the Surgeon. As The Hollywood Reporter noted in its review, this leads to some tense family drama, given that it was the Malcolm that turned in his father. But some major professional conflicts also arise for Malcolm given that the criminal psychologist controversially consults with his father to help solve his cases.
There’s no denying that Sheen’s the Surgeon gives off some Hannibal Lecter vibes as he imparts advice and barbs to his son when they visit, but the similarities run even deeper than just that.
Hannibal Lecter creator Thomas Harris revealed to UK’s The Times in 2013 that his infamous character was based on Dr. Alfredo Ballí Treviño, who had killed his lover by slitting his throat and then cutting his body into pieces. Harris unveiled this information more than 30 years after his first Hannibal book, Red Dragon, was published.
But, again, the creators of Prodigal Son haven’t cited any real-life murderers as an inspiration for the Surgeon. Instead, Chris Fedak and Sam Sklaver have shared that the show came to be because of their interest in child-parent relationships.
"The show came out of a conversation Sam and I were having where we started to talk about how our parents affect us," Fedak told IGN. "What if you had the worst father in the world? What if your dad was a serial killer? The story kind of exploded from there and we just fell in love with it."
Rather than name real-life murderers, Deadline reported that the creators said at the Television Critics Association summer panel that the show is more inspired by the fictional character Sherlock Holmes and real-life psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud. They also stated they were influenced by Hugh Laurie in House. But at its core, Fedak said Prodigal Son is "about the family."
Although he is a sociopathic murderer, with Sheen in the role, the Surgeon is guaranteed to charm and disarm viewers — much like Brian Cox, Anthony Hopkins, and Mads Mikkelsen did with the Hannibal Lecter role. "He’s warm, he’s likable, he’s funny, he’s interesting and charismatic," Sheen told TheWrap about Dr. Whitley.
"The confusing thing about this man is we know he’s a monster, we know he’s done terrible things and presumably would continue to do those terrible things if anyone let him — but, when you meet him, he seems to be this loving father." Payne told TV Insider that he listened to the podcast Happy Face about a real-life woman whose father Keith Hunter Jesperson was a serial killer, which helped him round out this unique familial relationship.
This loving father being a serial killer is the aspect that Fedak told IGN makes Prodigal Son unique since "charming killers" aren’t really novel to TV shows and movies. So yes, Sheen’s the Surgeon will feel familiar in the "charming" serial killer regard, but the character and his crimes are thankfully all fiction.
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