Saturday, December 26, 2009

Did Dustin Hoffman exploit the Rain Man? After his death this week, his father makes a startling accusation

By David Jones

Kim Peek (left) with his father Fran and Dustin Hoffman (right) who portrayed him in Rain Man


During a career spanning half-acentury and more than 60 films, Dustin Hoffman has forged a reputation for portraying unusual characters with extraordinary empathy and idiosyncratic brilliance.

According to many critics, however, his defining role was that of Raymond Babbitt, the autistic genius who could instantly solve the most complicated maths calculations and memorise entire phone directories, in the 1988 movie Rain Main.

The script was famously inspired by the true story of Kim Peek, who was classified as ' mentally retarded' as a child, but was later discovered to possess such amazing brainpower that medical experts later called him The Living Google.

And Peek's father, Fran Peek, claims Hoffman honed his Oscar-winning performance by studying his son's peculiar mannerisms, movements and diction during an intense six-hour encounter at a Hollywood studio.

When the two men parted, Mr Peek senior claims, the star was so profoundly moved that he rubbed noses with the real-life Rain Man (Kim's habitual way of showing affection) and told him, Peek says: 'I may be the star - but you are the heavens.'

This week, therefore, when it was announced that Kim Peek had died suddenly of a heart attack, aged only 58, his father says he expected Hoffman to send his condolences, at least. Though he has received hundreds of sympathy messages, however, he has heard nothing from the star.

Instead, an unedifying war of words has broken out between the grieving Mr Peek, 83, who accuses Hoffman of shunning his treasured son, and the actor's camp who say Kim's influence on the film project has been grossly overplayed.


Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman starring in the 1988 film 'Rain Man'

How has this sad situation come about? The origins of the dispute date back a quarter of a century to 1984, when Hollywood scriptwriter Barry Morrow met Kim Peek at a meeting of the Association of Retarded Citizens in Texas, and was astonished by his great brainpower.

After discovering that Kim, then 33, was able to reel off every address in the 50 states of America, complete with zip codes, he decided to write a movie based around his phenomenal gifts.

Until then, Kim had lived reclusively with his family in Salt Lake City, but Morrow urged his father to show his son's talents to the world.

Nearly five years passed before Rain Man was released to huge acclaim, in December, 1988. Kim was duly thanked, both in the film's credits and by Hoffman himself during his acceptance speech after winning an Oscar for Best Actor.

Soon afterwards, remem-bering Morrow's entreaty, his father began touring the country with his son on public speaking engagements.

Drawing on the film's huge popularity, they aimed to break down the stigma surrounding mental impediment by demonstrating Kim's exceptional abilities before an audience, and - though he could not understand the concept of fame - 'the real Rain Man', as he was announced, became a celebrity.

A few years later, Fran Peek also wrote a book, titled The Real Rain Man, about his son's moving struggle with Savant syndrome, the rare condition which gave him extraordinary powers of recall even though he was so disabled he could not wash or dress unaided.

His talents were so amazing that studio bosses thought they beggared belief, however, and Morrow's original film script was extensively rewritten to make it more believable, and bears little relation to Kim's life.

Hoffman also later stated that his characterisation was largely based on another man, Peter Guthrie, whose behaviour he studied. He was not a savant, like Kim, but instead suffered from autism.

For a quarter of a century, however, Kim Peek has been regarded as the film's inspiration - and speaking at length for the first time since his son died in his arms last Saturday, Fran Peek maintained it would never have been made were it not for his son.

But he claimed Hoffman - or his aides - had effectively 'cut off' Kim after the film came out, refusing to accept phone calls or answer messages. This, he says, was 'one of the sad things about Rain Man'.

'I tried to call him several times, but I could never get through,' says Mr Peek. 'After we met him at the studios in Hollywood, when he studied Kim's behaviour, we heard from him only once more, four or five years ago, when Kim won an award from the Christopher Reeve Foundation for helping other people with disabilities, and he sent a video lasting 30 seconds, congratulating Kim.

'It would have been nice to receive some sort of message this week, and I would be very, very pleased and honoured if Mr Hoffman comes to his funeral next Tuesday. He might surprise me by showing up, but I doubt it.'

To be fair, scriptwriter Barry Morrow was one of the first to offer condolences.
Hoffman was paid $5.8 million for the film, plus a percentage of its gross earnings, which topped $172 million at the box office and have multiplied many times with video sales and TV repeats.

Kim could have worked out Hoffman's earnings to the last decimal point - but it would not take a mathematical genius to work out what he received himself. The answer is zero.

'We weren't business people, and anyway we weren't trying to sell him for anything,' explained Mr Peek. 'I never asked for royalties. That just wouldn't have seemed right. The film people did send $10,000 to be put in trust for Kim.

But then the state took away his Medicaid (the modest monthly disability payment on which he lived) because he wasn't supposed to have assets of more than $2,400.'

By his account, it all sounds rather unfair - yet, according to a source close to Hoffman, it is the actor who is being unjustly maligned.

While Hoffman did, indeed, meet Kim Peek, says the source, he barely recalls their encounter, which was one of several character studies he arranged before filming. He denies he would ever have said the quotable: 'I may be the star - but you are the heavens.'

Moreover, Fran Peek's insistence that his son provided the model for Raymond Babbitt's character was spurious. 'All these years he's been claiming his son to be the real Rain Man, but nobody ever wanted to call the man a liar by refuting it.'

Hoffman's character was based on the young autistic man, Peter Guthrie, the source added, while his co-star Tom Cruise drew traits from Peter's brother Kevin, a handsome young football player.

'Dustin stays in touch with Peter and Kevin, and they were credited and paid. It's obviously sad that Mr Peek's son has died, but how can he be accused of shunning Kim when he never knew him?'

Whatever the truth, however, Mr Peek says he has no wish to dwell on it. For whether or not it inspired Dustin Hoffman, the 'true Rain Man' story is remarkable and uplifting.

It began in Salt Lake City, where the man who became known as the Living Google, was born on November 11, 1951.

From his first moments, it was clear something was very wrong.

His head was abnormally large, with a baseball-sized blister at the back where his brain protruded through his skull, and his eyes moved independently of one another.

When he was nine months old, a psychologist pronounced him 'mentally retarded' and urged his parents to put him in an institution - the young Raymond Babbitt's fate in the film.

To their eternal credit, however, the Peeks ignored this advice and took Kim home, even though Mr Peek was then a busy advertising executive and his wife worked as an estate agent.

Kim couldn't walk until he was four and was a teenager before he was able to climb stairs.

His parents gave him love and stimulation, however, and by the time he was 18 months old he had developed the first of many intriguing peculiarities. Whenever a book had been read to him, he would place it back on the shelf upside down.

As his parents came to realise, this signified that he had memorised it word for word, and by the end of his life he could recall the smallest detail from some 12,000 books, including the complete works of Shakespeare and the Bible.

Mr and Mrs Peek began to suspect their son possessed unusual gifts when he was three. 'He asked us what "confidential" meant, and before we could answer he'd looked the word up in a dictionary,' his father recalls, laughing.

The medical establishment and educational authorities treated him disgracefully, however.

At six, it was suggested that he have a lobotomy to 'cure' his incessant chattering, fidgeting and pacing up and down; and when he attended school, aged seven, he was expelled for being 'uncontrollable' after just seven minutes in class.

Thereafter, tutors were sent to his home for just 45 minutes, twice a week. They were astonished at the speed with which he devoured books, never realising that he possessed the uncanny ability to read one page with his left eye while at the same time reading the opposite page with his right.

By 14, he had completed the high school curriculum four years ahead of schedule, but it was not until he was 18 that he got a job, managing the payroll for 160 people, a task he performed in a few hours a week without even a calculator.

When he was in his early 30s, he was fired because the authorities computerised the pay-roll. But it took two full-time accountants, plus the computer, to replace him.
As Kim seldom ventured outside the house except to go to work, his talents still remained a secret known only to his parents, his younger siblings, Brian and Alison, and a few other relatives.

Even they had no idea just how startlingly exceptional he was until 1988, when Fran Peek had him re-evaluated by a psychiatrist.

Ironically, his aim was to prove that his son's IQ was sufficiently low for him to qualify for state welfare benefits. Yet University of Utah psychiatry professor Daniel Christensen was flabbergasted by what he discovered.

An MRI scan revealed that his brain was missing a vital component: the corpus callosum, a stalk of fibres which joins the brain's two walnut-like halves and enables information to pass between them.

There was damage to the left hemisphere of his brain. This controls abstract and conceptual thoughts while the right hemisphere stores facts and derives meaning from concrete objects and events.

These defects may have accounted for his savantism, a condition first identified by the 19th century British physician John Langdon Down (the physician who first described Down's syndrome), and derived from the French word savant, meaning someone of great learning or knowledge.

Down called his patients 'idiot savants' because - as with Ki

m Peek - they were physically unco-ordinated and their skills were severely limited, for all their extraordinary gifts.

By the Eighties, such patients were classified as 'talented' or 'prodigious' savants, depending on their powers. Ordinarily, their ability to retain enormous amounts of information covers just one or two subjects - maths and literature, for example.

But Kim Peek's knowledge extended to 15 areas, including geography, world history, the space programme, religion and music, so he was described as a 'mega-savant'.

His knowledge quotient was set at 188, making him a genius to rank with Einstein.

When it came to his ability to relate to people, socialise, and express his feelings, however, it was a very different matter.

Surprisingly, his father told me Kim once had a girlfriend, whom he met through a group for disabled people. She suffered from multiple sclerosis, so was largely confined to her home, 35 miles north of Salt Lake City.

But every month Mr Peek senior would take his son to meet her, and they would go to a restaurant and then the cinema.

The relationship wasn't physical. 'I think he was interested in females and respected them, but he never showed any sexual feelings about them,' says his father. 'He wanted her to get out and have some fun.'

His son had a strong sense of duty, and his own moral code, he adds, recalling what happened when he was entered in the 50-yard dash in the Utah Special Olympics, aged 19.

'He was racing against two guys in wheelchairs and as he approached the finishing line he looked back and saw their chairs had got tangled together. So he went back and pushed first one, then the other opponent, through the ribbon before crossing in third place.'

He may have received only a bronze medal, but he won the most important prize for this act: the special sportsmanship award.

At times his curious world view gave rise to poignant humour. As he was unable to understand metaphors, he took everything that was said to him literally.

'If I told him to lower his voice, he would slide down in his chair,' his father remembered fondly. 'And when I said, "Get a grip of yourself", he would grab hold of his own arm.'

Mr Peek says it was partly because he devoted so much time to Kim that his marriage failed in 1981.

Then, after Rain Man was released, he and his son began touring the U.S. and overseas. His ex-wife had reservations about the idea, fearing Kim would be ridiculed if he were paraded on stage.

On his first public appearance, at a local high school, she was proved right. One loutish pupil shouted: 'I have a question - what's it like to be a spastic?'
A stunned silence descended on the hall, and his father held his breath, fearing how his son might react. He needn't have worried.

'Fine - what are you proud of?' Kim fired back. Then he invited the heckler on to the platform, hugged him and pronounced: 'Now you are educated we can be friends!'

Thus began a 20-year speaking career during which he travelled almost three million miles, raised $7 million for charity, and for ever changed millions of people's perceptions toward the disabled.

Kim's premature death was probably not linked to his condition, Dr Christensen says, and his family are heartbroken - no one more so than his father who, for the past two decades, had not left his side for more than a few minutes.

However, his father gives thanks for a life that had so much purpose, and was so remarkable that two U.S. research institutions have requested permission to preserve his brain for medical science (Mr Peek has refused because he wishes Kim to be buried intact).

His tombstone will bear the self-written homily with which he always ended his appearances: 'Learn to recognise differences in others and treat them like you would want them to treat you.

'It will make this a better world to live in. Care and share and do your best. You don't have to be handicapped to be different - everybody is.'

For a man who was so much more remarkable than his film persona, it is a fitting epitaph and makes the row over the Rain Man's true identity seem rather trifling.


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