Oliver Sacks, 82, the brilliant neurologist played in fictionalized form by Robin Williams in 1990’s Awakenings, died of cancer Sunday in New York City. His death, confirmed by an assistant, was expected: Sacks had written about coming to terms with his mortality in a series of recent dispatches for The New York Times.
The London-born Sacks, whose elegant, plainspoken writing allowed even the most jargon-averse readers to breeze through counterintuitive and complex medical case histories, gained his greatest public attention with Awakenings, but other examples of his work crossed over to other media. His book The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, featuring tales from his work with patients suffering neurological illnesses and injuries, was the basis for composer Michael Nyman’s 1986 opera of the same name. In 1992, J.K. Simmons starred in The Music Never Stopped, a film version of a Sacks essay (“The Last Hippie”) about a man whose music-loving son was incapable of storing memories.
But it was Awakenings, based on Sacks’ real-life work at a Bronx clinic, that brought Sacks his most widespread acclaim. Adapted for the screen by Steve Zaillian and directed by Penny Marshall, the film starred Williams as the Sacks-like doctor and Robert De Niro as one of the catatonic patients suffering a rare form of encephalitis who was resurrected, however briefly, by a new medication.
The film became a major hit, grossing more than $52 million in the U.S. and earning Oscar nominations for best picture, lead actor (for De Niro) and adapted screenplay.
“I’m very saddened by the passing of Oliver Sacks,” De Niro said in an email to Deadline. “He was a remarkable doctor who made extraordinary contributions to medical science and to society.
Oliver looked into the human mind and found beauty. He shared his insights with the world and made the world a better place. There is no one to take his place.”