Kim, the Savant Who Came to Hollywood : A meeting with a remarkable man--a real-life ‘Rain Man’

The TV cameraman rushed to the bottom of the entrance ramp at the Ontario airport to shoot the line of passengers filing out of the Delta flight from Salt Lake City; they all glanced around in the sharp camera beam to try to spot the celebrity in their midst--then moved on as if to say, “There are so many these days, you can’t keep up.”

Two men split from the crowd to greet their waiting hosts. One appeared to be in his mid-60s, with a suit and tie and graying, wavy hair that went along with the agreeable demeanor of a successful businessman. The other, dressed in a sports jacket and a tie, was of a more indeterminate age. He was pale, with thick brown hair brushed boyishly forward and lips pursed as if in laborious thought.

The older man was named Fran; the younger man was his 37-year-old son, Kim. At once you could spot a degree of mental retardation in Kim in the quizzical way he tilted his head, like a bird checking out a foreign object; in his heavy, over-loud voice--which sounded like a toastmaster playing to a crowd--and in the soft, white, tapered hands, whose limpness resembled women’s hands in Rennaissance devotional paintings.

“Lots of big stars tomorrow,” Kim said to his host, screenwriter Barry Morrow, who was flanked by his wife, Bev, son Clay, 14, daughter Zoe, 10, and KSL-TV Salt Lake City’s film team, Shelley Thomas and Carl Peterson.


“Lots of limos,” said Bev.

“I even know where to get one,” Kim replied jovially. “593-7000.” They were meeting for the benefit premiere of the movie “Rain Man,” which was to take place the following night at the Academy Theater in Beverly Hills.

The story, which stars Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise, is about two brothers, one of whom (Hoffman) is an autistic savant; that is, a person who is mentally handicapped yet capable of spectacular feats of knowledge. Morrow wrote the story and co-authored the screenplay for “Rain Man.” Kim, a 1-in-10-million savant, was his inspiration. (Kim’s last name is omitted because he has the guilelessness of a child and his family fears for the ease with which he could be exploited or even kidnaped.) He was also an early model for Hoffman’s performance.

Nice Little Place’

The group piled into Morrow’s van, and as Morrow drove home to Claremont, Kim ticked off the number of the freeway exits that would lead to the one they wanted. There isn’t a city, town or hamlet noted on a U.S. map that has escaped Kim’s photographic eye. He knows all the pertinent roads and highways with the familiarity of a vascular surgeon examining veins in a leg.

“Pomona! This is where we have to watch carefully,” Kim said.

“I don’t have to watch carefully if you’re here,” Morrow said, grinning. At 40, Morrow somewhat resembles the young Donald O’Connor.

“How many days before Bush is in?” Fran asked, referring to the presidential inauguration.

“Thirty-eight,” Kim replied.

“How many presidential inaugurations have there been on January 20th?” Fran asked.

“He’ll be the ninth one,” Kim said.

The van pulled into the Morrow’s two-story, brown-shingled house adjacent to the Claremont Colleges. “This is a pretty nice little place,” Kim said excitedly. Once inside, he gravitated instantly to Morrow’s library and peered at a picture of himself, Morrow and his father that was shot on his previous visit to Hollywood. “Here’s our picture taken many times ago,” he said.

Morrow took out a volume of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. He read off the first title in the table of contents and challenged Kim to recite the rest.

“ ‘The Devil’s Advocate’ by Morris West,” Kim shot back. “ ‘Up From Slavery’ by Booker T. Washington, ‘Hook’ by Walter van Tilberg Clark, ‘The Mistress of Mellyou’ by Victoria Holt, ‘The Days Are Too Short’ by Marc--" He moved away. As he’d never been around anyone who speaks French, he didn’t know how to pronounce Marcel Pagnol and decided to change the topic rather than embarrass himself. Nonetheless, there isn’t a volume of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books he’s read whose table of contents he hasn’t memorized, right down to the page numbers.

Frequently, when Kim’s brain is overloaded, his voice slips into a loud hum, like an automobile stuck in neutral while its engine is racing, and he shakes his hands like flippers. It happened now. “This is one we really have to talk about,” he said, referring to “The Merchant of Venice.” “He’s going to England.”

“Who, Shakespeare?” Morrow asked.

“No. Dustin Hoffman. He’s going to London to play Shylock.” He listed the dozen plays he considers Shakespeare’s major works (“These are the ones that show actions going on”) and then said, in reference to “Richard II,” “When Richard says his ‘This England’ speech, there’s no mention of this, but Katherine, John of Gaunt’s third wife, is standing by him.”

“He works as a payroll clerk for 84 people,” Fran said of Kim. “Sometimes he uses a calculator, but most of the time he just remembers everyone’s salary, hours, taxes and deductions, and pretends to use the calculator so no one will think he’s made a mistake.

Years of Being Withdrawn

“For years he was very withdrawn and didn’t have much to do with people,” Fran said. “But in 1981, when I got divorced, he started traveling with me, and the change has been remarkable.”

Kim wandered into the living room. “He gives these demonstrations of his ability at assemblies,” Fran said. “People write down factual questions on a piece of paper and put them into a fishbowl. One time, he answered 173 out of 174 questions. On the last, someone had asked, ‘Who was Miss Utah of 1945?’ Kim knew, but wouldn’t answer, because the woman’s husband had said he was a war hero and was later discredited. Kim chose not to embarrass her. It was her son in the audience who had posed the question.”

The origins of autism, which leaves its victims apparently emotionless and aphasic, are unknown. General theory holds that the left brain has been suppressed, causing the right brain to overcompensate. A chemical imbalance results in an unusually high production of the brain’s natural opiate, the beta-endorphin, but no one can say whether that’s a cause or an effect. The phenomenon affects 5 in 10,000. Of that number, about 10% are savants;, that is, clinically retarded but capable of remarkable expertise in certain areas, such as music, numbers or geography.

Dr. Daniel D. Christensen, medical director of the Western Institute of Neuropsychiatry at the University of Utah, knows Kim and offered this background:

“Autism is a mental illness diagnosable by impaired social interaction, an absence of the awareness of the existence and feelings of others, and abnormal ways of seeking comfort in distress, like the ‘Who’s on First?’ routine in ‘Rain Man.’ Autistics have impaired communications skills, or none at all. They have a limited repertoire of gestures and interests, like Kim’s staring at his fingers. They have a lot of distress over trivial changes in the environment, which they counter with an insistence on sameness.

“People will fight over the causes, but they’re generally thought to be biological. The most widely held is that there’s some sort of embryonic brain damage to the left hemisphere, which deals with language, intelligence and symbolic thinking, perhaps because it’s exposed to enzymes for a greater length of time, or perhaps because it’s subjected for a greater length of time to the male hormone testosterone--the male-female ratio in autism is 6 to 1.”

Christensen likens Kim’s knowledge to computer retention. “It excludes integrative thinking,” he said, “or the ability to abstract. You can’t ask Kim what it means to be a citizen in a democracy or to interpret the meaning of a proverb. He can’t interpret his information; what he possesses isn’t, strictly speaking, intelligence.”

That having been said, Christensen added, “Kim is unusual even among savants. He’s amazing in the number of skills he possesses, which include mathematics, sports, history, literature, calendar calculation, number and map memorization and geographical information. He is beyond any savant I ever heard of. We can’t understand the science of memory until we understand Kim. The paramount question he poses is to our inability to explain him. He’s a landmark to our ignorance.” He estimates that Kim’s case is 1 in 10 million.

Creator of ‘Bill’

Barry Morrow was the creator of the award-winning TV film “Bill,” which starred Mickey Rooney. Co-written with Corey Blechman, “Bill” is the story of a mentally retarded man whom Morrow befriended and eventually, by becoming his conservator, adopted.

There’s a philosophical underpinning to all of Morrow’s work, which deals with the handicapped or afflicted (he did “Quiet Victory,” the Charlie Wedermeyer teleplay that aired recently on CBS, as well as the Jan. 1 CBS biography on Karen Carpenter), and thereby challenges our notions of normality.

Morrow is active in an organization called the Assn. of Retarded Citizens. So is Fran. They became acquainted at a national meeting in Arlington, Tex.

“Fran said he had a son who was hard to describe, who was in some ways retarded and in some ways mystical, and that he had these powers, like the ability to memorize a phone book. That night at a cocktail party Kim tapped me on the shoulder and faced me nose to nose and said, ‘Now think about yourself, Barry Morrow.’ What he meant was ‘I think about you, Barry Morrow.’ Sometimes he gets dyslexic. He made that moaning sound he makes, then he recited my last three phone numbers and all the credits associated with ‘Bill’ and the sequel, ‘Bill on His Own.’ My fascination with Kim has never waned.

“At first I didn’t think there was anything more people wanted to hear on the subject of mental retardation, but the ‘Rain Man’ story kept percolating. Kim is the antithesis of Bill; he’s much more inscrutable. I wanted to create the greediest, most self-centered person I could think of and make him the brother of a Kim. What happens when you throw them together? They do end up in the same place. The bonds are formed.”

To the Premiere

The next day Kim and Fran were back at the Morrow house in preparation for the limo trip to the premiere. Shelley Thomas, a tall, well-spoken, affable woman, made last-minute arrangements to follow the limo in her rented car with her low-key, Nordic-looking cameraman, Carl Peterson.

She wryly discussed the “Rain Man” producer and United Artists’ publicists’ distinctive reluctance to have Kim at the premiere at all, as though he might detract from the occasion.

“ ‘We don’t want him there,’ they told me,” Thomas said. “Can you imagine that?” Later she added, “If they hadn’t let him come, it would’ve killed him.”

Kim was dressed in a dark business suit and paced the living room in pensive silence. His shoes were shined. He looked like an eccentric businessman showing up for a board meeting where he would be prized for his remarkable expertise. A writer friend of Morrow’s showed up as house-sitter. He had his infant son riding in a frontal knapsack, like a marsupial. Told the date of the child’s birth, Kim announced the day and year of the youngster’s retirement--a feat that Kim offers anyone who gives him a date and year of birth. (He gives you the day, the day of your birthday in the current year, and the day and date of your retirement on your 65th birthday, all in a flash.)

“You’ll be happy. You’ll be very happy,” he said to the uncomprehending infant, whose bobbing head he cupped lovingly in his palm.

In the limo, Morrow said: “Once in Reno I tried to get Kim to play 21, like in the movie. He refused. He said it wouldn’t be fair. I said the casino system isn’t fair; it’s always geared against the gambler. ‘That’s their problem,’ he said. He played a slot machine and won. I swear it’s his electric aura that tripped the machine off. But he just took his cup of money and said, ‘Let’s do something else.’ ”

At the premiere, Kim was introduced to the studio bigwigs and producers. He beamed with the sense of his centrality in this event. But he suffered through the movie, for the way it was about him and not about him. Sometimes he appeared so agitated, staring at his fingers splayed before his face, that his father put his arm around him. When Cruise and Hoffman set out on the road, he grabbed the reporter’s hand and said, “Now the journey begins.”

On the way home, Morrow said, “I looked over at you. You didn’t watch the screen very much.”

“I saw it with my heart,” Kim replied.

Commitment to Son

A few days later, Kim had dinner in a Salt Lake City restaurant with his father and a dear and close friend, Mary Ruth, a discreet, bespectacled woman who treats Kim with the same tone of patient, intelligent, unpatronizing inquiry as does Fran. The three have been close for years, but as Fran describes the relationship, “We talked about getting married, but I told her it wouldn’t be fair to her; in effect, she’d be marrying two men. My commitment is to my son. That’s too much of a burden to put on anyone.”

(Fran himself is a man of parts. He has a university degree in banking and finance, as well as incommercial art. He was a World War II Air Force bombardier and aerial photographer. As an amateur pitcher, he once gave up two hits to Joe DiMaggio in a single exhibition game. He turned over his successful ad agency to Kim’s sister and now works as a public information officer for the Utah Board of Education.)

Still, Kim, Fran and Mary Ruth are constant companions, and Kim revels in the familiar company.

“When I first came here . . . ,” Kim began to say. “You were born here,” said Fran, disregarding Kim’s mystical note. Kim went on to talk about family associations going back to the turn of the century (family is crucial to Kim’s way of thinking), and in the next hour or so his mind took dazzling turns of free association in which historical facts, images, names and anecdotes poured out like an endless series of jazz improvisations.

A reference to “Highway Patrol” (Kim hummed the theme song) sequed into a note on Verdi in Russia. He described the genealogy of the Bible, from Gutenberg through King James to Martin Luther, and the circumstance of the Massacre of St. Bartholomew that led to the composition “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” He mentioned several Caesars and then Attila the Hun ordering battlefield workers: “Stop the work. You must bow down before me at the break of dawn!”

Kim mentioned “La Traviata.” Occasionally a movie reference broke peculiarly into his discourse (all his sources of information are equivalent in his mind), as when he said, “Wagner wrote ‘Lohengrin’ in 1850, but didn’t hear it until 1862 because Sir William Walton booted Richard Burton out of the country.”

He remembered the 1981 NCAA Eastern Regional semifinals, when Danny Ainge of BYU beat Notre Dame 51-50 with a shot at the buzzer. “Why was the Indiana-North Carolina NCAA regional game of March 30 ’81 almost canceled?” he asked. “Because President Reagan had been shot.”

He laughed at a couple of puns, such as the time U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations William Scranton, at a commencement address said, “We’re more cynical than skeptical” when he meant the opposite, and at the West Coast TV announcer at a boxing match saying, “Let’s get on with the heavyweight lamination.” (He meant to say “elimination.”)

When Kim laughs, he peers down at his lap and reddens with glee, as though laughter were an irresistible but forbidden pleasure.

Occasionally, other people in the restaurant would throw reproachful glares in his direction because Kim’s voice was so loud, until they realized he couldn’t help it. Or else they began listening.

Word was starting to get out around Salt Lake City about Kim. (Thomas’ TV coverage of Kim in Hollywood had made the nightly news.) The waitress stopped and congratulated him. She gave him her birth date. He gave her the three-day answer. A waiter hovered nearby, slack-jawed with amazement.

Fran offered Kim a cough drop. Kim put it into his mouth. His face strained, then he cracked it with a sound that resembled a jawbone unhinging. “He’s never learned to suck on a cough drop,” Fran said with a covert smile. “That sound always gets people in a restaurant.”

He related how he had carried Kim up and down flights of stairs for 14 years before Kim learned how to walk stairs on his own--at school. “I came in one day to get him. They said, ‘Don’t go up. Wait here.’ He came walking down for the first time in his life. I just about died.”

He mentioned a Special Olympics 100-yard dash in which Kim was pitted against two other youngsters in wheelchairs. “He didn’t know how to run; he had a kind of sideways crab shuffle. But when he approached the finish line, the others were barely 30 yards down the course. He went back and wheeled one across the finish line ahead of him, then returned to do the same with the other boy. He came in third in a three-man race, but” (turning to Kim) “you got a medal for sportsmanship.

“That’s why you’re not autistic,” Fran added. “You have compassion.”

“Life is richer than the movies,” Barry Morrow said in a phone conversation before he headed to Minnesota to visit relatives for the holidays. “No matter how many awards a movie might garner, it doesn’t match my feelings, or the truth. When Kim came along, I felt compelled to try again, with a harder, less altruistic feeling for the main character of Charlie Babbitt (the Cruise role). Then I met this extraordinary human being.

“The mind in all its manifestations is a constant source of wonder to me. It really is the last frontier. What really attracts me to Kim is that he doesn’t recognize his uniqueness. He doesn’t use intellectual power to gain control over people. His drive for knowledge is unselfish. They felt for years that he couldn’t learn much. (There was a time when they were considering a lobotomy.) People who think you can’t change or grow, they’re wrong.”

He Is the Rain Man

The following evening, Kim was a bit moody and distracted when the snows began collecting on the streets of Salt Lake. “He remembers all his anxieties,” Fran said, alluding to a winter night some years earlier when the pilot light on their furnace accidentally went out. Thereafter, cold and darkness and snow forever posed a threat to Kim’s sense of survival.

At dinner Fran talked of how Kim was born in 1951 with an adult-sized head, and how a blood-blister led them to think at first that he might be hydroencephalitic. There were no local programs for the handicapped in those days; Kim’s parents didn’t realize he had a gift until they discovered that he had taught himself arithmetic. As Kim matured, his frustration often led to anger, which gave him surges of strength.

“One day I came home and saw him holding his mother up against a wall.”

“I don’t have that strength anymore,” Kim said.

“You’ve calmed down quite a bit,” Fran said. Fran spoke of how he and a business associate had pioneered centers for the handicapped but that now, except for Rotary Club, his 37 years of voluntary work had come to an end. “My volunteer work is just you,” he said to Kim. Kim put his arm around his father.

After showing off the books, pictures, videocassettes and other memorabilia in his upstairs room, Kim rested his hands on the reporter’s shoulders in a semi-embrace and thanked him for his attentiveness. “This is a very important time for me,” he said. Behind him, on a table, lay an honorary plaque recently given him by a group of local physicians; on it was inscribed Dustin Hoffman’s tribute to Kim, “I may be the star but you are the heavens.”

It seemed strange that this incomparable man, so rapt in his universe of fact and so indifferent to the normal blandishments of the ego, should treasure the idea that somehow a movie had authenticated his character and brought it to the world’s eye, and that Dustin Hoffman had become a caretaker for his borrowed soul. (“You and I are as one” were his first words on meeting Hoffman.)

He said portentously, “Tell Los Angeles: I am the Rain Man.