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AMERICAN MASTERS: Oliver Sacks: His Own Life

Oliver Sacks in New York City, 1990.
Courtesy of Ken Shung/MPTV
Oliver Sacks in New York City, 1990.

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

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.

“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.”

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.


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.

Oliver on train, writing in journal, 1987.
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.”

Watch On Your Schedule:

This film is available for streaming on all station-branded PBS platforms, including 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.

Oliver writing on porch, 2015, N.Y.
Courtesy of Bill Hayes
Oliver writing on porch, 2015, N.Y.

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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.