Robin Williams

Awakenings True Story: Real Life Doctor & Drug Experiments Explained

Awakenings is based on a true story, and here's who the real doctor in charge was and the drug experiments the patients went through.


  •  Awakenings is a fictionalized retelling of Dr. Oliver Sacks’ groundbreaking work on catatonic patients, featuring a powerful performance by Robin Williams.
  •  The movie stays true to the essence of Sacks’ book, depicting the devastating effects of encephalitis lethargica and the potential of L-DOPA, despite some changes for dramatic purposes.
  •  Robin Williams and Oliver Sacks became close friends during the making of Awakenings, with Williams citing his role as Dr. Sayer as his favorite and expressing admiration for Sacks as a teacher and writer.


The 1990 movie Awakenings is a dramatization of Dr. Oliver Sacks’ 1973 memoir of the same name — and the true story behind the semi-fictional Dr. Sayer is just as fascinating. In 1990, viewers were treated to a dramatic story starring Robin Williams (who, even in a more serious role, added a touch of his particular sense of humor) and Robert De Niro. The pair play doctor and patient in a story that’s equal parts heartwarming and heartbreaking. Unlike Robin Williams’ other medical drama, the historically inaccurate Patch AdamsAwakenings uses its true story to enhance its own semi-fictional narrative.

Directed by Penny Marshall, Awakenings is a retelling of the groundbreaking work carried out by Dr. Oliver Sacks, author of the Awakenings book. While it certainly makes some big changes, including the key characters involved, the important aspects and powerful elements of the Awakenings true story are captured. This helped to make Awakenings a huge hit, making over $52 million (Box Office Mojo) and being nominated for three Oscars, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor (Robert De Niro), and Best Picture. Additionally, there are many fascinating facts about the true story of Awakenings and how they relate to the movie.

The Inspiration For Awakenings Dr. Sayer Explained

Robin Williams’ Character Is Based On Dr. Oliver Sacks

Awakenings follows neurologist Malcolm Sayer (played by Robin Williams), who, in 1969 while working at a hospital in the Bronx, began extensive research on catatonic patients who survived the 1917-1928 epidemic of encephalitis lethargica. Sayer learns of a new drug that helps patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease and believes it could be of use on catatonic patients.

He runs a trial on patient Leonard Lowe (played by Robert De Niro), who completely “awakens” and starts to show major improvements, but the experiments soon come across some obstacles that threaten the life quality of the patients who were just starting to deal with a new life in a new time. As detailed in Sacks’ memoir, the drug and experiments shown in the movie are actually real, despite Awakenings being a fictional story.

Dr. Sayer is based on Dr. Oliver Sacks, a British neurologist, naturalist, historian, and writer, who authored various best-selling books recounting case studies of people with neurological disorders, including himself. Sacks suffered from prosopagnosia, also known as “face blindness,” a cognitive disorder of face perception that affects the ability to recognize familiar faces, including one’s own. This disorder was the basis for his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, published in 1985. Over a decade earlier, he wrote a book about the Awakenings true story, recounting the life stories of the victims of the 1920s encephalitis lethargica epidemic.

Also known as sleeping sickness, this disease attacks the brain and leaves victims in a “statue-like condition, speechless and motionless,” similar to locked-in syndrome. Sacks described the patients as “conscious and aware – yet not fully awake,” and started studying and helping them at Beth Abraham Hospital in the 1960s. The Awakenings cast brought Oliver Sack’s work with sleeping sickness to life, especially Williams as Dr. Sayer, and it’s a Robin Williams doctor movie that avoids the saccharine qualities of Patch Adams.

Awakenings True Story: The Real Doctor Sacks And His Drug Experiments

The Real Experiments That Inspired The Awakened Movie Explained

Awakenings Williams de Niro

The drug Sacks began using on catatonic patients was L-DOPA, also known as levodopa, an amino acid precursor to the neurotransmitters dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine (adrenaline). L-DOPA is used in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease, but Sacks saw its potential in helping other diseases. According to an article by AP News back in 1991, De Niro’s character, Leonard Lowe, is a real person based on a real patient of Sacks, described as “an exceptionally well-read man, freely quoting philosophers and writing insightful book reviews.

Leonard, as well as many other patients, initially had a positive reaction to the drug and fully awoke, but just like in the movie version of Awakenings, Leonard began to become paranoid and developed severe tics, eventually regressing to his earlier catatonic state and passing away in 1981.

Awakenings Book Vs. Awakenings Movie: What They Changed

Despite Being Remarkably Accurate, Awakenings Is Still A Fictional Tale

There are many differences between the Awakenings book and the movie. The most notable is that Oliver Sacks doesn’t appear in the movie, with the Dr. Malcolm Sayer character that is played by Robin Williams standing in for him. This was a deliberate decision to give the writers artistic license for dramatic scenes and friction that didn’t occur in real life (including flirting with a female nurse, which the real Oliver Sacks never did, as he was homosexual).

The patients in Awakenings have had the more violent or sexually aggressive elements of their symptoms toned down, too. De Niro’s character is perhaps the closest to their literary counterpart, but even Lowe has some moments in the Awakenings movie that don’t appear in the book. Again, these are flirtatious moments that are clearly added to inject some Hollywood drama and keep audiences engaged.

The pacing of Dr. Oliver Sacks’ memoir Awakenings is different in the movie, but this works for the heartfelt story that’s bolstered by Williams and one of the many powerful roles De Niro transformed himself to play. Crucially, the key moment when the patients awaken took place over a few weeks in the book, and they didn’t awaken all at once.

What the Awakenings movie didn’t change much was the impact of the debilitating illnesses Dr. Sacks/Dr. Sayer treated. Illnesses like sleeping sickness are, after all, at the core of Awakenings’ true story and the work Dr. Sacks carried out, so it makes sense that the harrowing impact of catatonic conditions is the element of Awakenings least tampered with when it was brought to the big screen.

Robin Williams & Oliver Sacks Became Lifelong Friends

Playing A Fictional Version Of Dr. Sacks Was Robin William’s Favorite Role

Robin Williams holding Robert De Niro's arm in Awakenings

Of course, Awakenings made various changes to the stories of Sacks’ patients, but as it counted on Sacks as technical advisor, the crew made sure that it stayed true to the essence of the book and gave a true yet devastating portrayal of encephalitis lethargica and its effects. Character-actor and adlib performer extraordinaire, Robin Williams, and Oliver Sacks were close friends by the time both sadly passed away, meeting on the set of Awakenings. Williams spent a lot of time with Sacks to make sure that his character Dr. Sayer didn’t stray too far from the Awakenings true story.

The late Williams even cited portraying Sacks/Dr. Sayer as his favorite role in a Reddit AMA, saying, “I think playing Oliver Sacks in Awakenings was a gift because I got to meet him, and got to explore the human brain from the inside out. Because Oliver writes about human behavior subjectively and that for me was the beginning of a fascination with human behavior.” Likewise, in a conversation with Charlie Rose, Williams talked about Sacks as one of the great teachers in his life long after the movie was over.

The fact that Dr. Sayer in Awakenings replaces the real Dr. Sacks isn’t important, as countless inaccurate biopics about specific individuals do not resemble them at all. However, the closeness between Williams and Sacks, as well as the great admiration Williams clearly had for the man, made this movie feel more authentic than some of those more egregious biopics. It is easy to feel the personal connection through Williams’ relationship in Awakenings, even if he isn’t technically playing Oliver Sacks.

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