The Astounding Life Of Kim Peek, The Real-Life Inspiration For The Film ‘Rain Man’

Published March 13, 2024

Kim Peek's one-of-a-kind brain allowed him to read two pages of a book at once, recite the day of the week for any date in history, and memorize some 12,000 volumes.

Kim Peek The Real Rain Man

Wikimedia CommonsKim Peek, the real Rain Man.

In the film Rain Man, Dustin Hoffman plays an autistic savant with an incredible ability to remember details, count hundreds of spilled toothpicks at a glance, and perform other astounding mental feats. But though Hoffman’s character has abilities that defy belief, he’s based on an actual person: Kim Peek, the “real” Rain Man.

What’s more, Peek’s life was even more incredible than the film suggests.

Born with a truly extraordinary brain — one that lacked the cluster of nerves that connects the two hemispheres — Peek developed surprising abilities as he grew up. After living in obscurity for most of his life, a chance encounter with Rain Man screenwriter Barry Morrow brought his story to the world.

This is his true story.

The Boy With An Unusual Brain

Laurence Kim Peek was born on November 11, 1951, in Salt Lake City, Utah, where it was clear that he was different from the beginning. Peek was born with a condition known as macrocephaly, which caused the circumference of his head to be abnormally large, in addition to a damaged cerebellum — the part of the brain that coordinates movement and balance — and a rare birth defect known as agenesis of the corpus callosum.

This latter condition essentially meant that the bundle of nerves that would typically connect the brain’s two hemispheres was absent. Peek was likewise missing his anterior commissure, a white matter tract that serves as a secondary connector.

When he was just nine months old, a doctor told his parents that he would never walk or talk and that he should be institutionalized. Some years later, another doctor suggested a lobotomy.

Peek certainly had severe had developmental problems. He didn’t learn to walk until he was almost four years old and he required help to do basic things dressing and brushing his teeth until the end of his life. Peek also had low I.Q., around 87, and struggled with subjects like math.

But his parents ignored the advice from doctors because they were seeing something that the medical professionals didn’t: the workings of Peek’s unusual brain. By the age of two, Peek could memorize huge amounts of information. By the age of six, he’d worked through the family’s eight volume encyclopedia set. By 14, Peek had completed a high school curriculum.

And as he grew up, Kim Peek began to display even more incredible abilities.

Kim Peek’s One-Of-A-Kind Mind

Kim Peek’s mental abilities only expanded as he aged. Cared for by his father, Fran — his parents divorced in 1981 — Peek displayed jaw-dropping memorization skills as an adult. He could memorize facts about everything from history to sports, leading to his nickname “Kimputer.”

Perhaps most remarkable was Peek’s reading ability. He could read two pages at once, one with each eye. Not only did Peek read some 12,000 volumes during his life, but he retained everything that he read.

This turned Peek into a walking encyclopedia. For instance, Peek could give detailed driving directions to cities across the world based on maps he had simply once glanced at. Having memorized phone books, he could even tell strangers the names of their neighbors, according to The Guardian.

Laurence Kim Peek

FacebookLaurence Kim Peek was an expert in at least 14 subject areas.

Furthermore, the real Rain Man had a remarkable ability to make mental calculations involving calendars. For example, Peek could remember which day of the week any historical event fell on when asked. He would also frequently approach strangers and amaze them by telling them what day of the week they were born on based on their birth date, as well as some of the most important events that happened on that day.

Misdiagnosed with autism, Peek spent most of his adult life working at a day workshop for adults with disabilities, where he managed payroll without the need of a calculator or a computer. Often, he would take leave to travel with his father, helping other disabled people across the country.

As his father Fran noted to the Wisconsin Medical Society: “Kim is not behaviorally autistic. He has a warm, loving personality. He truly cares for people and enjoys sharing his unique skills and knowledge capacity.”

Kim Peek

X (Formerly Twitter)Kim Peek died on December 19, 2009.

Then, Kim Peek met Barry Morrow — one of the screenwriters of Rain Man.

Kim Peek and ‘Rain Man’

In 1984, the Peeks met screenwriter Barry Morrow at a meeting of the Association of Retarded Citizens in Texas. Morrow, who was hoping to find inspiration at the conference, was “flabbergasted” by Kim Peek’s abilities and promptly set out to write a script with a similar character.

The result was Rain Man (1988). Though it takes some liberties with Peek’s story — Dustin Hoffman’s character is described as autistic while Peek is not — it tells a similar story of a “savant” with incredible powers of recollection. And Hoffman largely based his character, Raymond Babbitt, on Peek.

The movie was a hit. Not only did it win four Oscars, but it propelled Kim Peek’s story into the spotlight. People were curious to learn how Peek’s unusual brain gave him such extraordinary mental powers.

So what exactly gave Kim Peek his amazing abilities?

Researchers have suggested that being born with no connection between the hemispheres of Peek’s brain meant that he was able to process more information at once. Unlike many people with the condition, however, Peek’s brain developed different connections that most people don’t have. These extra connections let Peek recall incredible amounts of information.

Kim And Fran Peek

Fran PeekKim Peek with his father Fran in the car from Rain Man, holding the film’s Oscar award.

What’s more, the film’s popularity also meant that people across the country were interested in Peek himself. He and his father traveled around, and Peek spoke to an estimated 64 million people about his condition. He became a positive role model for anyone who grew up “different.”

Kim Peek eventually died of a heart attack in 2009 at just 58. It was the end of an incredible life.

As Barry Morrow, who gave his Best Original Screenplay Oscar to Peek, once said of the real Rain Man: “I don’t think anybody could spend five minutes with Kim and not come away with a slightly altered view of themselves, the world, and our potential as human beings.”

After this look at Kim Peek, the real Rain Man, read about more true tales that inspired beloved movies, including the stories of Rod Ansell, the real-life Crocodile Dundee and Henry Hill and the real-life Goodfellas.

All That's Interesting
Established in 2010, All That's Interesting brings together a dedicated staff of digital publishing veterans and subject-level experts in history, true crime, and science. From the lesser-known byways of human history to the uncharted corners of the world, we seek out stories that bring our past, present, and future to life. Privately-owned since its founding, All That's Interesting maintains a commitment to unbiased reporting while taking great care in fact-checking and research to ensure that we meet the highest standards of accuracy.
Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.