Kim Peek, inspiration for Rain Man, RIP

Kim Peek, the savant who inspired the film Rain Man, died from a heart attack on December 19. He was 58. From the New York Times (image from Wikimedia Commons):
 Wikipedia Commons 3 34 Peek1 "He was the Mount Everest of memory," Dr. Darold A. Treffert, an expert on savants who knew Mr. Peek for 20 years, said in an interview.

Mr. Peek had memorized so many Shakespearean plays and musical compositions and was such a stickler for accuracy, his father said, that they had to stop attending performances because he would stand up and correct the actors or the musicians.

"He'd stand up and say: 'Wait a minute! The trombone is two notes off,' " (his father) Fran Peek said.

Mr. Peek had an uncanny facility with the calendar.

"When an interviewer offered that he had been born on March 31, 1956, Peek noted, in less than a second, that it was a Saturday on Easter weekend," Dr. Treffert and Dr. Daniel D. Christensen wrote about Mr. Peek in Scientific American in 2006.

They added: "He knows all the area codes and ZIP codes in the U.S., together with the television stations serving those locales. He learns the maps in the front of phone books and can provide MapQuest-like travel directions within any major U.S. city or between any pair of them. He can identify hundreds of classical compositions, tell when and where each was composed and first performed, give the name of the composer and many biographical details, and even discuss the formal and tonal components of the music. Most intriguing of all, he appears to be developing a new skill in middle life. Whereas before he could merely talk about music, for the past two years he has been learning to play it."

"Kim Peek, Inspiration for 'Rain Man,' Dies at 58" (Thanks, Bob Pescovitz!)


  1. i was under the apparently mistaken impression that the gentleman upon whom the ‘rain man’ character was based resided in iowa city and made coffee at wild bill’s cafe

  2. ah, nope, nevermind, i’m misinformed…
    “the Coffeeshop was made famous when its first proprietor, Bill Sackter, was featured in a television movie and a sequel about his life. The first movie, which won Emmy awards for cowriter Barry Morrow and actor Mickey Rooney (as Bill), was called Bill(1981); the sequel was entitled Bill on His Own(1983). Years later, Morrow would win an Oscar for his script of Rain Man.” sry copypasta

  3. What an amazing person. I saw a television special about him and it was overwhelming in its awesomeness. He will be missed.

  4. I cannot imagine having a mind like this. What an amazing person. I would have loved to attend a play with him.

    1. In heaven’s name, why? Because he can check the technical accuracy of a performance? That’s entirely a secondary quality – actors and performers aren’t automatons who are supposed to simply reproduce what the writer or composer put on paper.

      If someone disturbs a performance, that someone usually gets kicked out for being an asshole. Rightfully. Usually, because he apparently can’t help it due to his deficiencies. (He might still be one, though.)

      If I want a zip code, i look it up. If I want a route, I look it up on a map myself or use a gps. Yes, It’s somewhat interesting that brains can get so messed up that they excel in a small set of task, outperforming other human brains, but that’s it. Just because it’s mental, its not intellectual.

      I bet if his limitations were the same and the only outstanding traist he had were physical – like being able to run 100 meter in 7 seconds or just being strong as a chimp, not one would give a damn.

      1. I have to sort of agree with peter and mishnayic. While I know the new trend is to look at autism (and asperger’s) as a gift or an ability, I have to think that if you had been able to ask Kim if he’d like to have this ability to memorize everything (it sounds like a curse from Greek mythology to me) or to live a functional and independent life, I bet I know which he’d choose. Keep in mind, Kim’s abilities were exceptional. Not all people with autism can do these mind-boggling things.

        1. Indeed, only around 10% of those with Aspergers/Autism have savant abilities. Well over half of people with Autism are intellectually disabled.

      2. “I bet if his limitations were the same and the only outstanding traist he had were physical – like being able to run 100 meter in 7 seconds or just being strong as a chimp, not one would give a damn.”

        Are you serious? Do you have any idea what people are interested in? Because he would be an international superstar, and not just a beloved curiosity, if what you mentioned was true. For example, tell me how capable Usain Bolt is on an interpersonal level. Oh, no idea? But he’s a household name in hundreds of millions of households because he can run the 100 meter dash in a few ticks shy of 10 seconds.

  5. I saw a TV show about him – pretty tremendous guy – couldn’t perform many simple tasks of living, however. Most interestingly he was born with agenesis of the corpus callosum and could read the left and right pages of a book at the same time! More info on Wiki :)

  6. What most people don’t know about the movie Rain Man is that the main character, Raymond, who is played by Dustin Hoffman, was modeled around Joseph Sullivan who lives in Huntington, WV. Peek was the inspiration, but as the script changed from a mentally retarded savant to an autistic savant, Joseph turned in to the main character.

    Huntington was also the scene of the pre-premiere of Rain Man in 1988. Hoffman and the crew came to town as what seemed like the entire city of Huntington showed up to watch the movie.

    My Hometown – Huntington, West Virginia. I used to see Joseph in the Pizza Hut at the buffet. Every time I was ever there, he was there too.

  7. I met Kim and his father in 2001. They were visiting an evolutionary psychology class at a Jewish high school in Atlanta where I was a teacher. His father said he enjoyed doing the number-crunching and calendar tricks, so the students asked him some of those kinds of questions, but the more interesting moments were when he just riffed on things that he noticed. One teacher tried to ask him a question, but Kim immediately figured out from his accent that he was from Northumberland, and then recited the chapter-by-chapter outline of a historical novel that was set there. I asked Kim what he knew about an obscure name in the Hebrew Bible (Sarepta), and he quoted all the relevant verses and some lines out of a history book about it. But he seemed to understand nothing about the facts he was quoting; he just had so many of them that they sounded meaningful. At some point he just walked out of the room, and his father graciously told us that that meant the meeting was over.

    1. Skynet has noted your remark, and wishes you to know that you’ll be first up against the wall, come the cyberrevolution.

  8. I met him years ago at a Developmental Disabilities Convention in Billings, MT, and was able to visit him a few times over a few days. What struck me, was that the character in Rain Man had his amazing memory, but lacked his sense of humor. He was constantly making jokes in a deadpan manner. It didn’t seem that his father had coached him to make the jokes, it seemed that they were his way of trying to make a human connection with the people who were fascinated by his ability. My condolences go out to his father, Fran.

  9. I met Mr. Peek and his brother when I was a young teenager. They used to travel all over and do “shows” where Mr. Peek would wander around the room and his brother would explain his condition and demonstrate his remarkable skills. I told him just the name of the very small, rural village I grew up in and he was able to find it on a US map in seconds. It was an unforgettable, unnerving experience.

  10. Based solely on the reading I’ve done today, I can confidently say that I would be far more interested in attending a social event with Mr Peek than I would with Mr Bruells.

    Bravo to you for having the mental capacity to use a GPS and all, but I don’t think that being a savant in more than a dozen topics qualifies as “excelling in a small set of tasks”.

    1. A savant in a dozen topics?

      As far as I know he had an astonishing memory, being able to recall nearly anything he ever read. Which is indeed truly amazing, but more or less useless unless your are able to do something with with that information.

      Regarding your quip about rather spending a social event with him than with me: O noes. I’m pretty sure that you’d feel different if you were the performer or if he was your colleague.

  11. The fact that he started playing music brings a million questions into my mind:

    Would his desire for strict adherence to the original composition (which caused him to correct performers on a stage) make it harder to learn an instrument, as he was probably missing quite a lot of notes himself? Or did he rarely miss notes?

    Did his memory aid in his playing? He had such a talent for memory, could he convert music he had memorized to keys on the piano on the fly?

    Was he capable of improvisation?

  12. Vale Peek, a savant at being a savant.
    Those interested in him might like to look into Daniel Tammett’s story. He also excels in many areas (knowing pi to over 20,000 places, and learning to speak fluently in a new language in about a week), and when he and Peek met, they really clicked. Unlike Peek, Tammett was lucid enough to write a couple of books about what its like to have these abilities, and he advanced his own detailed theory of mind.

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