American Masters—Oliver Sacks: His Own Life

Air date: 04/09/2021

American Masters Announces Broadcast Premiere of Oliver Sacks: His Own Life April 9 on PBS

Film by Ric Burns tells the inspirational story of the famed neurologist and writer


NEW YORK, February 11, 2021 — Today, American Masters announced the broadcast premiere of the documentary Oliver Sacks: His Own Life Friday, April 9 at 9 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings), at and on the PBS Video app. The two-hour film 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, American Masters—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, American Masters—Oliver Sacks: His Own Life 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.

“This was a passion project for not only Ric Burns, but for all the production partners on this thoughtful and emotional film,” said Michael Kantor, Executive Producer of American Masters. “There is so much to learn from Oliver Sacks’ story and so much to be inspired by. We are thrilled to bring this program to a broad and diverse public television audience.”

“Oliver Sacks is one of those rare people who opens our eyes to new ways of seeing our fellow humans and ourselves,” said Head of HHMI Tangled Bank Studios Sean B. Carroll. “We are proud to have had the opportunity to work with this talented team of storytellers to shine a light on the remarkable life of one of the most inspirational physicians and influential writers of our lifetime.”

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. 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.

“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.”

American Masters—Oliver Sacks: His Own Life, which the Los Angeles Times called “one of the year’s best docs,” had a limited remote theatrical release last fall, following its successful festival run that kicked off with a world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival.

Now in its 35th season on PBS, American Masters illuminates the lives and creative journeys of our nation’s most enduring artistic giants — those who have left an indelible impression on our cultural landscape. Setting the standard for documentary film profiles, the series has earned widespread critical acclaim and 28 Emmy Awards — including 10 for Outstanding Non-Fiction Series and five for Outstanding Non-Fiction Special — 14 Peabodys, an Oscar, three Grammys, two Producers Guild Awards and many other honors. To further explore the lives and works of more than 250 masters past and present, the American Masters website offers streaming video of select films, outtakes, filmmaker interviews, the American Masters Podcast, educational resources and more. The series is a production of THIRTEEN PRODUCTIONS LLC for WNET.

American Masters—Oliver Sacks: His Own Life is a production of Steeplechase Films, Inc., Independent Television Service, Inc. and American Masters Pictures, HHMI Tangled Bank Studios, Motto Pictures, Passion 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.

Funding for American Masters—Oliver Sacks: His Own Life is provided by National Endowment for the Humanities, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Ford Foundation/ JustFilms, Arthur G. Altschul Jr., Wellcome Trust, Nion McEvoy, Overbrook Foundation and Vijay Vaidyanathan.

Funding for American Masters is provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, AARP, Mrs. Rosalind P. Walter, Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Ellen & James S. Marcus, Judith & Burton Resnick, The Blanche & Irving Laurie Foundation, Vital Projects Fund, Cheryl & Philip Milstein Family, The André and Elizabeth Kertész Foundation, The Ambrose Monell Foundation, Lillian Goldman Programming Endowment, Seton J. Melvin and public television viewers.


About WNET
WNET is America’s flagship PBS station: parent company of New York’s THIRTEEN and WLIW21 and operator of NJTV, the statewide public media network in New Jersey and its news division, NJ SPOTLIGHT NEWS. Through its new ALL ARTS multi-platform initiative, its broadcast channels, three cable services (THIRTEEN PBSKids, Create and World) and online streaming sites, WNET brings quality arts, education and public affairs programming to more than five million viewers each month. WNET produces and presents a wide range of acclaimed PBS series, including Nature, Great Performances, American Masters, PBS NewsHour Weekend, and the nightly interview program Amanpour and Company. In addition, WNET produces numerous documentaries, children’s programs, and local news and cultural offerings, as well as multiplatform initiatives addressing poverty and climate. Through THIRTEEN Passport and WLIW Passport, station members can stream new and archival THIRTEEN, WLIW and PBS programming anytime, anywhere.


About HHMI Tangled Bank Studios

HHMI Tangled Bank Studios is a mission-driven production company that crafts exceptional films about science and scientists for broadcast, theatrical and digital distribution. As storytellers within a world class science organization, we are uniquely positioned to shine a light on some of the most significant scientific breakthroughs of our time – and explain why they matter. Recent films include The Serengeti Rules, which won an Emmy for outstanding nature documentary; Ric Burns’ Oliver Sacks – His Own Life; The Farthest – Voyager In Space, which won an Emmy for outstanding science documentary; and Peabody Award-winning Inventing Tomorrow, which premiered at Sundance and aired on PBS/POV. For more information, please visit WWW.TANGLEDBANKSTUDIOS.ORG.


About Steeplechase Films

Steeplechase Films is an award-winning production company founded in 1989 by Ric Burns. Over the past two decades, Steeplechase films has produced 40+ hours of award-winning films for PBS, garnering 13 national Emmy nominations, six Emmy awards, three Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia Journalism awards, two George Foster Peabody Awards, and two Organization of American Historians’ Erick Barnouw prizes. Steeplechase has completed numerous historical documentaries, including Oliver Sacks: His Own Life, the New York series, Eugene O’Neill, Death and the Civil War, The Pilgrims, The Chinese Exclusion Act, and Driving While Black: Race Space and Mobility in America.


About Vulcan Productions

Since its inception, Vulcan Productions has leveraged platforms ranging from film and television to XR and other emerging media to produce and distribute content that informs, inspires, and activates audiences – putting stories to work with far-reaching impact campaigns that advance new policies, shift individual behaviors, and contribute to significant institutional change. The team will continue to tell great stories and empower audiences to take action on important issues until Vulcan Productions sunsets in early 2021. During this time of transition, Vulcan Productions will continue to support its partners on existing projects. Vulcan Productions films include THE REASON I JUMP, OLIVER SACKS: HIS OWN LIFE, GHOST FLEET, THE COLD BLUE, Netflix Original: THE IVORY GAME, the Sundance Special Jury Award-winner STEP, News & Documentary Emmy®-nominated GOING TO WAR, GIRL RISING, RACING EXTINCTION, the Academy Award®-nominated BODY TEAM 12, and emerging media works including GHOST FLEET VR, X-RAY FASHION, DROP IN THE OCEAN, and GUARDIANS OF THE KINGDOM.


About Motto Pictures

Motto Pictures specializes in producing and executive producing documentary features and series. Motto has been honored with three Academy Award nominations and multiple Emmy Awards. Founded in 2009, Motto secures financing, builds distribution strategies and creatively develops films with an eye toward maximizing the position of each project in the domestic and international markets. Motto has produced a wide range of award-winning films, working with a line-up of talented and acclaimed filmmakers, that have been featured at the most prestigious film festivals and distributed around the world.  These films include: One Child Nation, Ringside, The Apollo,  Abacus: Small Enough To Jail, The Final Year, The Cleaners, Charm City, The Raft, Take Your Pills, Life, Animated, Weiner, The Music Of Strangers, Best Of Enemies, Art And Craft, The Kill Team, 3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets, 1971 ,Solitary, Enlighten Us, Southwest Of Salem, Indian Point, Buck, Sergio, God Loves Uganda, Manhunt, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry and Beware Of Mr. Baker among many others.


About ITVS

ITVS is a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization that has, for over 30 years, funded and partnered with a diverse range of documentary filmmakers to produce and distribute untold stories. ITVS incubates and co-produces these award-winning films and then airs them for free on PBS via our weekly series, Independent Lens, as well as on other PBS series and through our digital platform, OVEE. ITVS is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. For more information, visit ITVS.ORG.


About National Endowment for the Humanities

The National Endowment for the Humanities supports research, education, preservation and public programs in the


About Alfred P. Sloan Foundation

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation is a New York based, philanthropic institution that makes grants for research in science, technology, and economics; quality and diversity of scientific institutions; and public engagement with science. Sloan’s program in Public Understanding of Science and Technology, directed by Doron Weber, supports books, radio, film, television, theater, and new media to bridge the two cultures of science and the humanities. The Foundation works with about 20 film school and film festival partners and has supported over 700 film projects, including over 30 feature films. For more information visit or follow @SloanPublic on Twitter or Facebook.


About Sandbox Films

Sandbox Films is a mission-driven documentary studio that champions excellence in science storytelling. Through co-productions and co-financing opportunities, we collaborate with production partners and visionary filmmakers around the world to tell new stories about science. We seek to illuminate the pursuit of discovery, in all its beauty and sometimes messiness, with stories that humanize science in relatable ways for diverse points of view. Sandbox Films, LLC is a registered affiliate of the Simons Foundation. More info at SANDBOXFILMS.ORG.


About Passion Pictures

Passion Pictures’ first feature documentary One Day In September was conceived and produced by John Battsek and went on to win an Academy Award® in 1999. Passion has since been at the forefront of feature documentary production – as evidenced by a prolific run of multi-award winning films, a reputation for securing international theatrical releases, and – as of 2018 – an unprecedented thirteen consecutive years premiering films at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival.  Notable titles include: Restrepo, The Tillman Story, The Imposter, Searching For Sugar Man, Winter On Fire And Listen To Me Marlon – these films and others see Passion collaborate with some of the most exciting filmmakers, writers, journalists, editors, composers, cinematographers and production partners working in the industry today. We hope our films connect, move and inspire through the power of extraordinary true stories.



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Oliver writing in a robe in his apartment, 2015. Credit: Bill Hayes

Oliver in metal elevator with cane. Credit: Bill Hayes

Oliver writing on porch, 2015. Credit: Bill Hayes

Oliver at home writing on notepad, 2015. Credit: Bill Hayes

Produciton still from the February 2015 shoot. Credit: Jared Ames

Oliver reading through magnifying glass at home, 2015. Credit: Bill Hayes

Oliver Sacks in New York City, 1990. Credit: Ken Shung/MPTV

Oliver, eyes closed, 1987. Credit: Lowell Handler

Oliver writing on the road, 1987. Credit: Lowell Handler

Oliver writing at Blue Mountain Center, 2010. Credit: Bill Hayes

Oliver on train, writing in journal, 1987. Credit: Lowell Handler

Sacks with his 250cc Norton motorcycle in 1956. Credit: Oliver Sacks Foundation

Oliver in lab at UCLA. Credit: Oliver Sacks Foundation

Oliver smiling, age 3. Credit: Oliver Sacks Foundation

Oliver on train, hand on head, 1987. Credit: Lowell Handler

Oliver with patients at Beth Abraham Hospital. Credit: Lowell Handler

Oliver on Horatio Street in New York, 2001. Credit: Erica Berger

Oliver and Billy swimming in the Adirondacks. Credit: Henri Cole

Oliver writing in Amsterdam train station, 1987. Credit: Lowell Handler