RIP Kim Peek : the real Rain Man
From Times Online December 22, 2009
Kim Peek, the original Rain Man, dies
by Anne Barrowclough
Kim Peek, the autistic savant who inspired the Oscar-winning film Rain Man, has died, aged 58.
Mr Peek's father Fran said that his son had suffered a major heart attack on Saturday and was pronounced dead at a hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah, the town where he had spent his life.
Mr Peek was probably the world's most famous savant. Described as a confounding mixture of disability and genius, his astonishing ability to retain knowledge inspired the writer Barry Morrow to write Rain Man, the 1988 movie starring Dustin Hoffman that won four Academy Awards.
Born in 1951 in Salt Lake city, Mr Peek was diagnosed as severely mentally retarded and his parents were advised to place him in an institution and forget about him. Thirty years later, he was classified as a "mega-savant," a genius in about 15 different subjects, from history and literature and geography to numbers, sports, music and dates.
By the time of his death he had committed more than 9,000 books to memory and Nasa made him the subject of MRI-based research, hoping that technology used to study the effects of space travel on the brain would help explain his mental capabilities.
He would read eight books a day, taking just ten seconds to read a page. He could read two pages simultaneously, his left eye reading the left page and his right eye reading the right page.
But throughout his life he still needed 24-hour care. Despite his great mental agility, his motor skills remained limited; he could not perform simple tasks such as dressing himself or combing his hair.
His father Fran became his sole carer after Mr Peek's parent divorced in 1975. Fran Peek said that care of his son was a 30-hour-day, 10-day-a-week job but he did it devotedly, encouraging Kim to make the most of his abilities. But Mr Peek remained deeply introverted. It was not until he met Dustin Hoffman, when the Hollywood star was researching his role in Rain Man, that he could look into another person's face. He was 37 at the time.
Dustin Hoffman advised Fran Peek not to hide his son away. Mr Peek said of that meeting: "Dustin Hoffman said to me, you have to promise me one thing about this guy, share him with the world. And pretty soon it got so that nobody was a stranger to him, they were people, and so was he".
He took Hoffman's advice, putting his son on stage in front of thousands of people for whom he answered, almost always correctly, the most obscure questions they could test him with.
He thrived on his new found fame. Mr Morrow said of him: "I love the way he's flowered, it belies the myth that people don't change, especially people with developmental disabilities."
Four years before his death, Mr Peek said: "I wasn't supposed to make it past about 14, and yet here I am at 54, a celebrity!"
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