Three days after receiving an Oscar nomination for co-writing the "Rain Man" screenplay, Barry Morrow was in Salt Lake City again, visiting friends, attending a celebration party thrown in his honor and spending some time with Kim, the savant who inspired his initial "Rain Man" story.
For a fellow who hasn't been writing movie scripts all that long, Morrow has a remarkable track record:His first story, actually scripted by someone else, became the Emmy-winning TV movie "Bill," which starred Mickey Rooney and the then-unknown Dennis Quaid.
The sequel to that film, "Bill: On His Own," again with Rooney and Quaid, was Morrow's first produced screenplay and was praised by critics as being every bit as good as its predecessor.
More recently, Morrow wrote "The Karen Carpenter Story," which was a huge ratings hit for CBS.
Morrow's first theatrical script, "Rain Man," however, was a movie that looked like it might never be produced as several directors came and went during the on-again, off-again production schedule. But the persistence of contracted star Dustin Hoffman, who changed Morrow's lead character to a more autistic personage, and another writer, Ronald Bass, who helped reshape the script, finally connected with director Barry Levinson. And a $100 million hit - $116.6 million, to be precise - was born. And it's still going strong.
What's more, "Rain Man" is the only "sure thing" in the upcoming Oscar race, holding this year's record for the most nominations - eight - and the odds-on favorite in every category.
All this attention is enough to make anyone feel heady, but Morrow seems rooted, a modest family man who has devoted much of his life to others. The two "Bill" films are as much about Morrow's devotion to someone who needed a friend as they are about a retarded adult thrust into the outside world after 46 years in an institution. (Morrow currently serves on the board of the National Association for Retarded Persons.)
And Morrow wrote "Rain Man" after meeting Kim because he wanted to share with the world his fascination with this fascinating human being.
"It's bread cast upon the water," Morrow said in an interview with the Deseret News. "If I do something for someone else it always comes back."
Morrow met Kim five years ago at a convention for the Association for Retarded Persons, in which Kim's father is quite active. Morrow does a most accurate imitation of Kim as he describes their meeting.
"He told me my phone numbers (in Iowa), not my present ones, but from several years ago. Then, which to me was the most remarkable thing, he gave specific directions from where we were, in Arlington, Texas, to my home in Clairmont.
"I was flabbergasted that such a human being could exist. I'd read about people, and I'd spent much time in institutions and met autistic people with calendar skills, but I'd never met someone who could do it all."
Morrow said he didn't immediately think of writing a story about Kim, but he couldn't stop telling everyone he met about him. Finally it dawned on him that this would make a good movie. "I'd spent six years with Bill before a script came to mind."
Morrow said there were two substantial changes in his initial script after Ronald Bass came on the scene, one making the brother younger, to accommodate the casting of Tom Cruise, and the other being the center section where the characters are on the road. "I had more things happening to him."
As far as the character of Kim is concerned, Morrow says the spirit is the same, though the character became autistic whereas Kim just has some autistic characteristics. "The line between autistic savants and retarded savants, which isn't really even a term, has never been clearly delineated. Kim is a `megasavant.' He has autistic features, areas where he is retarded, but Hoffman found autistic people in his research and made the character more like them."
Morrow was a documentary filmmaker at the University of Iowa when he met Bill and found himself inadvertently on the road to moviemaking. He says that when he made his first trip to Hollywood for "Bill," he had no idea the risk he was taking, gambling on a screenwriting career.
But there's little question he made the right choice.
Morrow sums up his success typically in light of how it affects others, noting that the ending of "Rain Man" was changed from his original idea to keep the brothers together to what he concedes is a better one as they separate: "Mine was not a happily-ever-after ending either, but this one is better. It's unsatisfying, and that makes people think about it.
"Now, perhaps, the real `Rain Men' in the world will have a better time of having their plight understood, and maybe `Rain Man' won't have to go away on the train next time."