These days you’re just as likely to find Jeffrey Krebs, MD, FACP, in front of a camera as behind a stethoscope. And his patients are as likely to see him in a movie theater as they are by their hospital beds.
That’s because the San Diego hospitalist has a schedule that allows him to build an acting career without giving up the patient care he loves. But don’t expect to see him playing a physician. The youthful-looking 46-year-old doesn’t match Hollywood’s “Marcus Welby, MD” image. He’s usually only considered for resident or intern roles despite almost two decades of experience working in medicine. “I’ve been a physician for more than 17 years, and yet I don’t look like a doctor, casting directors tell me,” he says.
From Dabbling to Passion
Dr. Krebs has been dabbling in acting since he was a resident, but it wasn’t until he became a hospitalist last year that made his acting passion a priority. He first became interested in acting in 1989 while he interned at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Frequent contact with celebrity patients led to the offer of a role as an extra in the movie “Heart Condition,” (1990) a comedy starring Denzel Washington and Bob Hoskins.
“I thought it would be fun,” Dr. Krebs says. “Because they were filming in a restaurant a couple of miles from the hospital, it was convenient.”
The day he spent on the set in his non-speaking role taught him how things are done in Hollywood. Even though his efforts ended up on the cutting-room floor, the experience sparked a passion for acting that has grown stronger every year.
After completing his internal medicine residency in Los Angeles in 1989, Dr. Krebs moved to San Diego to become a primary care physician at Kaiser Permanente San Diego Medical Center. He found an acting teacher who held classes in San Diego on Sundays and began developing his craft.
Despite the demands of his work as a busy primary care physician, Dr. Krebs has racked up an impressive list of film and TV credits through the years. He was cast as a softball attendant in the martial arts film “3 Ninjas: High Noon at Mega Mountain,” (1998) the last of the “tween” movie “3 Ninjas” series. He played Agent Hans in “The English Job” (2006), a food critic in “Single White Female 2: The Psycho” (2005), a computer programmer in “Form 3254-A” (2005), and a young doctor in “True Vinyl” (2000), a romantic musical movie.
He has also performed in local theater, appearing in “Intrusion,” “Hypocrisy,” “Prelude to a Kiss,” “Apres Opera,” and “Ignoto’s Farewell” in San Diego, where he was often recognized by patients and colleagues.
Time for a Change
But the last-minute demands of an actor have conflicted frequently with his responsibilities as a physician. “I would be cast in a film and then not hear from the casting director for months,” Dr. Krebs explains. “Then the travel department could call one day and tell me I had to be on the out-of-town set in three days. There were times when I had to turn down a role because I won’t put my patients’ health on hold to do a film. I began to realize that if I really wanted to make a go of my acting, I needed to make some changes in my life.”
An opportunity presented itself last year when Kaiser Permanente in San Diego created two nocturnist positions for hospitalists. When Dr. Krebs heard about the positions, he quickly applied. “I thought that was perfect because all the auditions and filming happen during the day, and I could attend them if I worked at night,” he explains.
Dr. Krebs and another physician work 12-hour shifts beginning at 6 p.m. three times a week. For Dr. Krebs it’s Sunday through Tuesday nights. When his shift ends Wednesday morning, he drives the 125 miles from San Diego to his apartment in Los Angeles, catches some sleep, then assumes the role of Hollywood actor.
From Wednesday through Saturday, you might find him auditioning, taking acting classes, filming on location, doing the behind-the-scenes business of an aspiring actor, or attending a Hollywood party to network. On Sunday afternoon, he returns to the hospital in San Diego to begin another round of night shifts.
“Sometimes I can put in a 31-hour day if I have an audition in Los Angeles on Wednesday afternoon after my shift in San Diego Tuesday night,” he says. “Then I’ll be running on adrenaline, but it’s worth it.”
Balanced from the Beginning
A Southern California native, Dr. Krebs grew up near Disneyland, where he played clarinet during the bicentennial parade there in 1976. He knew he wanted to be a doctor when he was 7 years old. His grandfather was an optometrist, and Dr. Krebs spent many of his school holidays talking happily to his grandfather’s office patients.
Dr. Krebs graduated with honors from the University of California at Davis and received a medical degree from the University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine. He has been honored by Kaiser Permanente Medical Group with its Distinguished Service Award, its Everyday Hero Award, and its Primary Care Leadership Recognition Award.
Dr. Krebs says being a physician and an actor creates the perfect balance between his right and left brains: “The analytical side of my brain is satisfied by medicine, and my creative side is satisfied by being able to immerse myself in acting on my days off. It’s a perfect balance for me.”
Patients benefit from this balance, Dr. Krebs believes, because he brings to his job the increased empathy he’s developed as an actor. “My acting has absolutely enhanced my relationships with patients,” he says. “Acting requires developing intense listening skills. I’ve become a much better listener. Acting also requires you to focus on what the other person is saying, and that has helped me really focus on what patients tell me.”
Conversely, being a physician has helped him with his acting.
“Physicians are trained observers. Medicine has helped me become a better observer of people’s mannerisms and what they say about their character,” he explains. “And that training in observation makes me better able to relate to other actors.”
Two different careers also fulfill two different aspects of his personality.
“I’m a bit of a ham, although I don’t ham it up in my acting,” admits Dr. Krebs. “I like being noticed. In acting, it’s all about me, so I’m on the receiving end. But when I’m a physician, it’s never about me; it’s about the patient. So I’m the giver. I like that because it balances my life.”
Dr. Krebs isn’t the only one satisfied with his nocturnist position. It’s also “a win, win, win situation for the hospital,” says Ted Geer, MD, chief of internal medicine at Kaiser Permanente San Diego Medical Center.
“Administratively it’s great because there aren’t as many shifts that have to be covered by other physicians,” Dr. Geer explains. “It’s win-win for patients and the emergency room because we have more physicians who are up all night to help.”
While many hospitalists use their off hours to pursue hobbies, it’s unusual for them to have another profession. “It’s a credit to him that he’s able to have a second career,” says Dr. Geer.
Dr. Krebs is a well-respected clinician and a good internist, according to Dr. Geer. “His skills as an internist make him fit into this role very well,” says Dr. Geer. “He takes very good care of his patients.”
Dr. Krebs says his medical colleagues get a kick out of his acting career. “Many of their children own the “3 Ninjas” movie. They tell me they have spotted me in the film while watching it with their kids,” he says.
Actors are surprised when they find out about his medical career. Although Dr. Krebs doesn’t volunteer the information that he’s a physician, he’ll tell others in the film industry when asked. “I want to keep my two worlds separate, but I am proud of who I am and what I do as a physician.”
Sometimes those two worlds overlap. When Dr. Krebs was cast in “True Vinyl,” “The casting director asked me what I did in my off hours and, when I said I was a physician, he said, ‘OK, so you’re the doctor in the film.’ ”
For that movie, Dr. Krebs also served as the medical consultant, ensuring the medical scenes were accurate.
Even though he enjoyed the experience, Dr. Krebs doesn’t want to pursue more medical consultant opportunities; acting is his passion. “When I’m on the set, I’m an actor and that’s what I want to be,” he says.
It takes a focused, high-energy person to succeed as a physician and an actor. Dr. Krebs keeps his stamina high by making his health a priority. He exercises almost every day, eats right, and surrounds himself with positive people. “I have always been a high-energy person; I’m never depressed and always look at the positive side of any situation,” he says.
He credits his parents with instilling in him an optimistic view of life. “They told us we could be anybody and do anything we wanted,” he recalls. “When I was told that I couldn’t compete at a high level in figure skating and go to medical school, I thought, ‘My parents said I could do anything I wanted and I want to do this,’ so I did.”
It may have been his figure-skating background that gave Dr. Krebs the fearlessness required of a successful actor, according to his manager, Fritz Friedman.
“He’s willing to take chances,” notes Friedman. “It’s a fearsome thing to take those leaps in skating that seem so effortless. The risk he takes, as all actors do, is that he will look foolish. But actors don’t care. They try and hope their bodies will listen to their brains.”
Friedman says Dr. Krebs’ acting style is dramatic and intense: “I think he has capabilities of comedic roles but they haven’t been offered to him yet,” he says. “I think, given the right opportunity, he’d be terrific at that. Jeff has a very strong on-screen presence. When he’s on screen, people focus on him. He’s charismatic.”
And That’s Not All He Does …
In his free time, Dr. Krebs loves to cook, travel, and take photographs. He entertains his friends with a meal made from scratch at least once a month and has hired chefs from local restaurants to teach him advanced cooking techniques. In October, he’s going to Tuscany to indulge all three passions with Italian culinary classes, travel, and photography.
With two careers and many interests, Dr. Krebs sometimes finds it hard to get enough sleep. Although he would like to take singing lessons and French classes, that’s more than he can handle right now. “Sleep has to be a priority so I can continue to make good medical decisions,” he says. And he admits that getting his laundry done “is one of my biggest challenges in life.”
Dr. Krebs recently focused his acting career on film and television, giving up theater. “Acting in plays is harder—if not impossible—with my new life as a nocturnist,” he says. Theater requires months of rehearsals, held in the daytime during the week. But choosing film was an easy choice. “I like watching myself on film so that I can learn from it,” he says.
Dr. Krebs says his favorite roles have been “any in which I can learn something new or develop a new aspect of myself.” In a film to be released this spring, “Half Past Dead II: Justified,” he plays an inmate at a maximum-security prison. “That was a stretch because I had to tap into my inner serial killer. Sometimes the roles that I play are in conflict with who I am,” he explains. “You learn that everyone has every possibility inside of them, and you have to tap into that.”
He does this by developing the back story, which in this case meant creating a character who had done something bad enough to be in Alcatraz. The film’s director called Dr. Krebs recently to praise his efforts.
In March, Dr. Krebs was in Dallas filming “Missionary Man,” starring Dolph Lundgren. It is a Western-style movie involving “revenge and redemption at the end of a gun barrel.” In the film, Dr. Krebs plays Lundgren’s brother; the character’s name was changed to Jeff. “Imagine having a character named after me,” Dr. Krebs exclaims.
The Perfect Combination
What would happen if Dr. Krebs landed a major film role or a long-term television series? Would he give up medicine to become star of the next “ER” or “Grey’s Anatomy”? Not if it meant giving up his medical career, he says.
“It would be very difficult for me to give up medicine completely because I really love being a physician,” Dr. Krebs admits. “I might take a leave for a month or two if a big film opportunity came along. But right now I’m happy with the roles I’m getting that allow me to continue my medical career.”
Dr. Krebs says he could not have been the kind of actor he is and practice the kind of medicine he wants to practice without being a hospitalist, and he’s grateful for the opportunity.
“I’m so happy the hospitalist movement has taken off in the last several years,” he says. “My life is much, much better since I became a hospitalist. I feel like I have it all.” TH
Barbara Dillard is a medical journalist based in Chicago.