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A screenwriter’s acts of kindness inspired films that touched millions

 

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Barry Morrow: Movies from the Heart | by Warren Goldie

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For Barry Morrow,  what began as a selfless act of kindness grew into a sensational Hollywood career that included winning an Academy Award for co-writing Rain Man starring Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise.

Morrow had spent seven years in Iowa, a period that figures prominently in his journey to Hollywood, for before Rain Man there was Bill’s Story, an Emmy Award-winning TV movie about Morrow’s friendship with a mildly retarded, extraordinary man named Bill Sackter in the Iowa City area.

Without Bill, there would have been no Rain Man.

Barry Morrow (left) credits Bill Sackter (right) as being the catalyst that started his screenwriting career and changed the direction of his life. "I got him going in the coffee business, he got me going in the writing business," says Morrow. "I still miss him."

Barry Morrow (left) credits Bill Sackter (right) as being the catalyst that started his screenwriting career and changed the direction of his life.

The story starts in 1977 in Minneapolis, a few miles from where Morrow grew up. He was picking up his wife Beverly from her job as a cocktail waitress at Minikahda Country Club when he spotted a smiling, waving figure in an upper floor window — Bill Sackter. That face, that beaming, innocent face. It stuck with Morrow. When he finally met Bill at the club’s Christmas party, he learned that the handyman/dishwasher had spent 44 years in a mental institution. Morrow saw this as a gross injustice and befriended Bill. Soon he was including him in his life and family activities.

“Bill was childlike in his wonder,” recalls Morrow, now 65. “Hanging out with him was like being in Disneyland. He had an infectious way of finding people’s hearts. And not just me. Everybody who came into his orbit.”

A year later, the friendship appeared to be in trouble when Morrow accepted a job as a video editor at the University of Iowa, 270 miles south. Six months later, he heard that Bill was to be institutionalized again.

“I couldn’t let that happen,” says Morrow, who drove the family station wagon to Minneapolis, picked up Bill and brought him to Iowa.

At the time, Morrow and his wife and newborn son lived in a farmhouse in Richmond, outside Iowa City. Morrow became Bill’s legal guardian. He found Bill a room in a neighbor’s house and got him a job making coffee in a student lounge at UI’s School of Social Work.

Before long, people from all over town were stopping by for java and experiencing  the “one-man oasis” as one customer put it, the lovable proprietor of what would become Wild Bill’s Coffee Shop.

Bill thrived. He managed his rented room. He rode the bus to town, lunch box in hand. He worked his coffee stand. He’d come a long way from the mental institution.

As for Morrow, he knew he had a story to tell.

Rising Action, Watershed Moments

On a summer night in 1977, Morrow sat down at the typewriter. “I just wanted to make sense of it,” he says. He poured it all out in a 50-page story, including facts he’d collected about Bill from legal documents, and excerpted it for the Des Moines Register.

It was a sensation. Bill and Barry were the talk of the town. Iowa’s U.S. Senator John Culver republished the story in the Congressional Record. News spread far and wide. Bill was named Handicapped Iowan of the Year. The pair even visited President Carter at the White House.

CBS heard of the tale and contacted Morrow about making it into a TV movie. Bill’s Story aired in 1981 starring Mickey Rooney as Bill and a very young Dennis Quaid as Morrow. Morrow won an Emmy for the story. Rooney won one, too. In 1983, Morrow scripted a sequel, Bill on His Own, starring Mickey Rooney and Helen Hunt, which was also well received.

Morrow became an advocate for the developmentally disabled and served on the board of the Association of Retarded Citizens (The Arc). He joined the National Association of Social Workers and the Autism Society of America. He and Bill achieved fame on the speaking circuit, attending events all over the country. “He’d play his harmonica and I’d give a speech,” laughs Morrow.

Act Two: Megasavant

When Bill died in 1983, Morrow continued the fight. At a convention of The Arc in 1984 he met Kim Peek, a rare megasavant. Kim was the man on whom Morrow would base the Dustin Hoffman character of Rain Man.

“I was blown away that such an individual could even exist,” says Morrow, who spent an exhilarating two days with Kim and his father, Fran Peek, of Salt Lake City, witnessing Kim’s breathtaking feats of photographic recall and bonding with him, as he had with Bill.

Kim, who was less autistic than what Hoffman played in the movie, could neither don his clothes nor brush his teeth without help, due to poor motor skills. What he could do was recite vast tracts out of the telephone book, all of Shakespeare’s works, and the dates and even days of the week of just about every important event in history verbatim from memory.

Kim could read a book in about an hour, recalling every word. He could even read the left- and right-hand pages of a book separately with each eye. Macrocephaly, a rare abnormality in which the brain’s two hemispheres are not synced up properly, made this possible.

Morrow wanted to write about Kim, but there was a problem. “A voice in my head kept saying, stop doing movies about the handicapped.” Morrow’s agent and Hollywood friends agreed, warning him he’d be pigeonholed, unable to find other kinds of work.

“I didn’t care,” says Morrow.

He just wasn’t quite sure how to approach it. Tapping the feel-good Bill formula again didn’t seem right.

He decided to turn the Bill strategy on its head. Rather than creating a kind, likable Barry Morrow-type protagonist to drive the story, he would invent the opposite—a selfish, unscrupulous cad. And so, troubled, kinetic, grey-market Lamborghini dealer Charlie Babbitt, played by Tom Cruise, was born.

Kim Peek (left), who inspired the Dustin Hoffman character in Rain Man, poses with Barry Morrow. The movie won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Actor in a Leading Role.

Kim Peek (left), who inspired the Dustin Hoffman character in Rain Man, poses with Barry Morrow.  The movie won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Actor in a Leading Role.

When Morrow accepted the Oscar for Rain Man, he handed it across the podium to Kim Peek, standing beside him. Kim cherished the statuette for the rest of his life and kept it close at hand, displaying it at the many onstage events at which he demonstrated his memory skills. Peek died in 2009 of a heart attack at the age of 58.

Character Arcs

Today, Morrow lives in Santa Barbara with his wife of 45 years, Beverly. Their son, Clay, is a director of animation at Disney Studios. Daughter Zoe is a school teacher. Clay and Zoe both live within an hour’s drive of their parents. Morrow continues to work as a writer and producer.

“I had no ambition to be a writer,” admits Morrow, who grew up the fourth child of six in a crowded home in St. Paul, Minnesota. “Being around all those kids, the way you got attention at the dinner table was telling a good story. I learned how to take a story and make it better.”

At his upcoming keynote address at the Iowa Motion Picture Awards ceremony on March 29, Morrow will share stories about his life and Hollywood career. He will also reveal a creative project he’s been working on secretly for nine years.

Looking back on his years in Iowa (1974-81), Morrow views them wistfully. “We had some of the best times of our lives in Iowa,” he says. “We had no money. The kids were small. We lived on a farm with chickens. We didn’t have a TV. When we moved to Iowa City, we loved it, too. Those times were wonderful.”

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