LOS ANGELES — When Jon Sarkin walks down that red Oscar carpet tonight, no one will notice him amid the crush of stars. After the ceremony, at the Vanity Fair party – the holy grail of celebrity bashes – Sarkin will be ignored by parapazzi and fans.
But just wait a couple of years, and all of Hollywood could be at his feet. Such is the power of a truly gripping life story.
So amazing is that story, in fact, that Tom Cruise bought the rights to it. Hot on the heels of such torn-from-the-headlines films as “Erin Brockovich,” “The Hurricane,” “The Insider” and “Boys Don’t Cry,” Cruise hopes that the 46-year-old Sarkin’s epic ordeal will bring him the Best Actor Oscar he craves.
And Sarkin agrees. Ten years ago, the New Jersey-born doctor nearly died from a brain aneurysm, and had part of his brain cut away by surgeons battling to save his life.
He emerged a shattered man – but one with amazing visual perception. His brain seemed virtually rewired, experiencing sounds and colors with such intensity it was as if he physically felt them. “It’s like being on a hallucinogenic drug the entire time,” Sarkin explains. “Everything is more vivid, more deeply felt.”
Seeing the world through new eyes, Sarkin turned to painting as therapy – and to his amazement, was acclaimed as an artist. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, GQ and The New York Times magazines and in one-man shows at galleries across America. Ultimately his art caught the eye of Tom Cruise, who snapped up his life story 18 months ago.
Last week, Sarkin toured the Paramount studio in Hollywood, visiting Cruise’s production company to check on the progress of his film. And tonight he’ll be rubbing shoulder pads with Cruise at the Vanity Fair party. “It’s exciting and surreal,” says the bearded artist. “This is like a dream.”
Sarkin’s transformation began as a nightmare on a golf course near his home in Rockport, Mass. “I bent over to pick up a ball when my head felt like it was exploding. I thought, ‘I’m going to die. NOW.’”
“Apparently a swollen blood vessel had come into contact with a nerve affecting my hearing and vision. Everything I saw was bizarre…I had a screaming in my ear like the sexless piercing shriek of a baboon.”
Doctors advised brain surgery to separate Sarkin’s damaged nerve from the blood vessel – but the operation went horribly wrong.
“I had a stroke and died on the operating table,” says Sarkin, hazel eyes unblinding, his rumbling baritone devoid of self-pity. “They took out part of my brain to save me.”
He was in a coma for two months, after which he had to relearn how to breathe, walk, talk and eat. “After three months I left the hospital a different person. I underwent a cataclysmic change.”
“It was as if the surgeons had removed some filter in my brain that normally stops you being overwhelmed with visual information. Suddenly I was experiencing colors emotionally as if I was I was on hallucinogenic drugs. I was physically feeling what I saw.”
“I viewed the world through new, alien, and sometimes frightening eyes.” His career as a successful chiropractor was over. “Before the incident I was a hard-working, driven professional,” Sarkin recalls.
“Afterwards my vision was messed up, and the stroke left my speech slurred, and my left arm weak. I can’t pick my kids up, or run, or drive a car. I couldn’t think straight. I couldn’t work anymore.”
Disability insurance guaranteed that Sarkin’s wife and their three children would never have to worry about money.
But Sarkin struggled with his transformation, and with his desire to make a new life for himself. Doctors urged him to take up art as therapy.
“I never thought I’d make any money from art, let alone be successful at it,” he says. “I just couldn’t think what else to do.”
Sarkin’s art vibrates with color and passion. There’s also a distinctly bizarre view of the world running through all he creates. At times he’s like a visiting Martian making ironic observations on the alien planet Earth.
While his “outsider” paintings win him respect, living with the otherworldly Sarkin is not easy for his wife, Kim.
“It’s been difficult, but it’s an experience I cherish,” she says. “The serious side of him is gone, which I miss. But he’s happier now than he’s ever been, and has the freedom to explore his art.”
Sarkin admits: “It’s been hard for her. At times she found it very difficult living with me, and most wives would have bailed. But she didn’t, and I’m very grateful. We have a stronger marriage as a result.”
With all its ups and downs, Sarkin believes his life offers a role that Tom cruise could revel in.
“He’s a great actor, and he could really go to town with my story,” Sarkin says. “But Tom – if you really want to find out what it’s like inside my head, better fasten your seat belt, man, because you’re in for a rough ride.”
Sarkin is unconcerned that Hollywood might reinvent his story – an accusation leveled against such recent films as “The Hurricane” – or may exploit him, as many felt “Shine” exploited the tormented Australian pianist David Helfgott.
“What can Tom Cruise do?” laughs Sarkin. “Kill me? I’ve been there already. I died on the operating table. A near-death experience gives you great perspective. Let him exploit me. But honestly – I think he’ll do a great job.”