Kim Peek, Murray man who inspired 'Rain Man', dies

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Kim Peek, the Murray man who inspired the 1988 movie "Rain Man," died Saturday of a sudden heart attack.

Peek, 58, was likely the world's most famous savant, enduring mental handicaps while at the same time possessing extraordinary gifts of memory and recall.

"He had a depth and breadth of knowledge and a memory that was just unbelievable," said Daniel Christensen, a professor with the University of Utah's Neuropsychiatric Institute. "He was unique. I don't know if there will ever be another person quite like Kim."

In recent weeks, Kim Peek had suffered from an upper respiratory infection, his father, Fran Peek, said Monday afternoon. Peek had been retaining water, gaining nearly 30 pounds. Water pills did not seem to ease the situation.

Peek was born on Nov. 11, 1951. At 9 months, doctors said he was severely mentally retarded.

"They told us we should institutionalize him because he would never walk or talk," Fran Peek said. "But we refused to do that."

By 16 months, Peek demonstrated extraordinary abilities. He could read and memorize entire volumes of information.

"He could find anything he wanted to. He read all of Shakespeare, the Old and New Testaments," Fran Peek said.

An MRI later showed that his brain lacked a corpus callosum -- the connecting tissue between the left and right hemispheres. Peek said his son's brain lacked the normal filtering system for receiving information. The condition left him able to retain nearly 98 percent of everything he read, heard or watched on television. The average person only retains about 45 percent.

As both a child and adult, Peek's favorite place was the library, where he devoured books at a confounding rate. At the time of his death, Peek is believed to have committed at least 9,000 books to memory. He could recite so many gigabytes of facts that people often called him Kim-puter. NASA made him the subject of MRI-based research.

Peek, who was shy and withdrawn, spent most of his early years among his family and friends. However, his life took a swift turn in 1984, when he met screenwriter Barry Morrow. Peek's personality impressed Morrow, who wrote the screenplay for ``Rain Man.'' The movie, starring Dustin Hoffman as a savant, and Tom Cruise as his brother, won four Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor for Hoffman and Best Screenplay for Morrow.

The movie's popularity forced Peek to break out of his shell. He spent the next 21 years traveling the world mesmerizing audiences with his mental abilities. He has spoken to more than 64 million people and traveled nearly 3 million air miles, his father said. There have been 2,800 newspaper and magazine articles and 22 documentaries about Peek and his extraordinary capabilities.

While he always amazed people with his ability to recite facts, Kim Peek always encouraged his audiences to recognize and respect differences and treat others like they would want to be treated, said his father. The father-son pair, who were inseparable, also worked to get equal educational opportunities for the disabled.

While Peek was known for his amazing ability to retain and recite facts, he also was musical genius, said April Greenan a musicologist and director of the U. of U.'s McKay Music Library.

"He could talk about musical form in an intricate, specific and authoritative way," said Greenan, who met Peek about seven years ago. She said Peek could hear just a few bars of a piece of music and be able to sort out the patterns and explain how it was similar to other pieces of music by other composers and from different eras.

"You couldn't program a computer with the thousands of pieces of music in Kim's head," Greenan said. "He was beyond anything anyone in music has ever known."

Peek is survived by his father, his mother, Jeanne W. Buchi, one brother and one sister.

A funeral will be Dec. 29. Details are pending.