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AMERICAN MASTERS: Oliver Sacks: His Own Life

Stream or tune in Monday, April 12, 2021 at 9 p.m. on KPBS TV

Oliver Sacks in New York City, 1990.

Credit: Courtesy of Ken Shung/MPTV

Above: Oliver Sacks in New York City, 1990.

AMERICAN MASTERS presents “Oliver Sacks: His Own Life,” a two-hour film that explores the life and work of the legendary neurologist and storyteller as he shares intimate details of his battles with drug addiction, homophobia and a medical establishment that embraced his work only decades after the fact.

In February 2015, a few weeks after receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis, Oliver Sacks sat down with Emmy- and Peabody Award-winning filmmaker Ric Burns for a series of interviews in his apartment in New York City.

For 80 hours, surrounded by family, friends and notebooks from six decades of thinking and writing about the brain, he talked about his life and work, his abiding sense of wonder at the natural world and the place of human beings within it.

Drawing on these deeply personal reflections, as well as interviews with close friends, family members, colleagues and patients, and archival material from every point in his life, “Oliver Sacks: His Own Life" is the story of a beloved doctor and writer who redefined our understanding of the brain and mind.

Oliver Sacks: His Own Life: Preview

"Oliver Sacks: His Own Life" explores the life and work of the legendary neurologist and storyteller, as he shares intimate details of his battles with drug addiction, homophobia, and a medical establishment that accepted his work only decades after the fact.

“From the start, this project has been one of the most moving and revelatory I've ever had the privilege of being involved with,” said director Ric Burns. “From the moment my colleagues and I walked into his apartment on Horatio Street in New York in February 2015, it was clear that virtually every issue of importance about what it means to live a life and to be a human being was concentrated in his unusual life story: survival, beauty, art, science, storytelling, love, individuality, difference, dignity, autonomy, agency, wonder, language, meaning, consciousness, community, friendship, yearning, loss, connection with something larger.”

What pushed Oliver Sacks’ brother towards psychosis?

The physician and writer Oliver Sacks had a brother who started to experience psychosis as a young man. This experience was a great influence on Sacks, who would go on to devote his life to treating, documenting, and humanizing people with mental disorders.

Drawing on these profoundly moving reflections, the film also features nearly two dozen deeply revealing and personal interviews with family members, colleagues, patients and close friends, including Jonathan Miller, Robert Silvers, Temple Grandin, Christof Koch, Robert Krulwich, Lawrence Weschler, Atul Gawande, Roberto Calasso, Paul Theroux, Isabelle Rapin, Bill Hayes, Kate Edgar, Mark Homonoff, Jonathan Sacks, Steve Silberman, Shane Fistell and Lowell Handler, among others.

What made physician Oliver Sacks unique?

Journalist Robert Krulwich explains that the storytelling abilities of neurologist Oliver Sacks had the significant effect of "storying people back into the world" – people who otherwise would have been isolated and overlooked by the rest of society because of their neurological challenges.

The filmmakers had unparalleled access to the extensive archives of the Oliver Sacks Foundation. The materials helped them share the life story of an extraordinary physician and writer who was dogged by his own neuroses and by the rejection of his medical colleagues as he nonetheless redefined for millions of readers the nature of the human mind, through the simple act of telling profoundly compassionate stories.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Lowell Handler

Oliver on train, writing in journal, 1987.

The film also illuminates the exploration of the science of human consciousness and the nature of subjectivity, and provides a meditation on the deep and intimate relation between art and science and storytelling.

Related Article: A lightning strike caused a man to discover Chopin, and neurologist Oliver Sacks to investigate

“Oliver led an extraordinary life,” said Burns. “But he also left all of us a lesson for how to think about our lives as we confront our own mortality.”

Why did Oliver Sacks love the periodic table so much?

The renowned physician and writer Oliver Sacks was known for his amazing empathy for other people. But his first “friends” as a child, as he described, were not people but numbers, minerals, metals, and plants. He loved these things throughout his life and even incorporated them into his wardrobe.

Watch On Your Schedule:

This film is available for streaming on all station-branded PBS platforms, including PBS.org and the PBS Video App, which is available on iOS, Android, Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV and Chromecast.

Extend your viewing window with KPBS Passport, video streaming for members supporting KPBS at $60 or more yearly, using your computer, smartphone, tablet, Roku, AppleTV, Amazon Fire or Chromecast. Learn how to activate your benefit now.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Bill Hayes

Oliver writing on porch, 2015, N.Y.

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Credits:

A production of Steeplechase Films, Inc., ITVS, Inc. and AMERICAN MASTERS PicturesHHMI Tangled Bank StudiosMotto PicturesPassion Pictures, Sutor Kolonko and Sandbox Films in association with Vulcan Productions and Artemis Rising Foundation. Directed by Ric Burns, executive produced by Paul G. Allen, Carole Tomko, Rocky Collins, Michael Kantor, Julie Goldman, Christopher Clements, Margaret Munzer Loeb, Regina K. Scully, Geralyn White Dreyfous, David Guy Elisco, Sean B. Carroll, Sally Jo Fifer, John Battsek, Nicole Stott and Greg Boustead. Music by Brian Keane. Cinematography by Buddy Squires, A.S.C. Edited by Li-Shin Yu and Tom Patterson with Chih Hsuan Liang. Produced by Leigh Howell, Bonnie Lafave and Kathryn Clinard.

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