Family & Companions
When Marlee Matlin won the Academy Award for Best Actress for the film "Children of a Lesser God" (1986), she was the then youngest ever recipient of the award and only one of four actresses to receive it for her film debut. Those facts would be impressive enough on their own, but Matlin was not only an actress; she was also a deaf actress. It was not Matlin's fault that the rest of her career was something of an anti-climax after such a dynamic debut. Nevertheless, Matlin carved out a solid career in films and on television, often winning roles based on her talent alone and forcing producers to alter the role to accommodate her deafness. Her uniqueness made her not only a magnetic screen presence, but an inspiration to anyone struggling with a seemingly insurmountable handicap who still manages to follow their dreams.
Marlee Beth Matlin was born Aug. 24, 1965, in Morton Grove, IL. At the age of 18 months, she lost all hearing in her right ear and 80 percent of the hearing in her left ear after suffering measles and high fevers. Her parents were committed to letting Matlin live as normal a life as possible. Against the advice of doctors, they resisted sending her away to a special school for the deaf; instead enrolling her in local programs with support services for children with hearing loss. They also encouraged Matlin's early interest in the arts. She attended the innovative Center on Deafness (now the International Center for Deafness and the Arts), where hearing impaired and regular kids joined together for activities and recreation. At the age of seven, she starred as Dorothy in the Center's production of "The Wizard of Oz." It was her first starring role, but it would not be her last.
Emboldened by her early success, Matlin committed to becoming a professional actress. However, she was also interested in law enforcement and studied criminal justice at Harper College in Illinois to have something to fall back on if her acting career did not work out. She need not have worried. Soon after leaving school, she won the role of Sarah Norman in the Tony Award-winning play "Children of a Lesser God." Matlin earned rave reviews for her portrayal of the stubborn deaf woman who falls in love with her teacher. When Paramount Pictures decided to produce a film version of the play, it cast William Hurt - fresh off an Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role for "Kiss of the Spider Woman" (1985) - to play the teacher role of James Leeds. In what appeared to be a risky move, the studio decided to let the unknown Matlin recreate her stage role on screen. Matlin rewarded Paramount's loyalty by winning the Oscar and turning "Children of a Lesser God" into a box office hit.
While "Children of a Lesser God" was a fairly conventional melodrama, there was no discounting the extraordinary chemistry between its two leads. The reportedly tumultuous affair between Matlin and Hurt extended to real life, but they broke up soon after she won her Oscar. Having already nabbed film acting's most prestigious award, Matlin had to work hard to avoid the post-Oscar doldrums; a task made harder by the scarcity of roles for deaf actresses. Her follow up film, "Walker" (1987), was a critical and financial flop. Playing the deaf wife to Ed Harris' 19th century mercenary, Matlin's character was mercifully killed off early in the film, sparing her further embarrassment. Matlin followed up with a TV movie, "Bridge to Silence" (CBS, 1989), a project that marked her first speaking role. Her next feature film, "The Linguini Incident" (1991) was the cinematic equivalent of a wet noodle, and "Hear No Evil" (1993) saw no box office. With good movie roles drying up, Matlin turned her attention to television.
Matlin had a nice run in the Chicago crime series "Reasonable Doubts" (NBC, 1991-93), earning a Golden Globe nomination for her role as a deaf assistant D.A. She moved on to the drama series "Picket Fences" (CBS, 1992-96), winning an Emmy nomination for her guest appearance, before becoming a regular on the series during its final season. She stretched herself by playing a non-deaf mentally handicapped woman trying to keep custody of her child in the TV movie "Against her Will: The Carrie Buck Story" (Lifetime, 1994), and made guest appearances on a variety of popular sitcoms, including "Seinfeld" (NBC, 1990-98) and "Spin City" (ABC, 1996-2002). Matlin, a devoted AIDS activist, also lent her talents to the independent film "It's My Party" (1996), about a young man coping with the disease.
All in all, Matlin was keeping busy - no small accomplishment for a deaf actress on the wrong side of 30. But she knew that to ensure her professional longevity, she had to take matters into her own hands. So she decided to call Aaron Sorkin. Sorkin was the executive producer and creator of the TV political drama "The West Wing" (NBC, 1999-2006) - a huge hit which had a diehard fan in Matlin. Sorkin agreed to meet with Matlin for lunch. By the end of their meal, she had convinced him to give her a role on the show. Sorkin had originally created the role of Joey Lucas for a non-deaf actress, but he rewrote it with Matlin in mind; no doubt appreciating the irony of making the opinion poll director at the White House hard of hearing.
With steady work on a hit series, Matlin continued to do TV guest spots whenever the part called for a deaf actress. She earned Emmy nominations for guest starring roles on "The Practice" (ABC, 1997-2004) and "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" (NBC, 1999- ). When NBC cancelled "The West Wing," Matlin found steady work as Jennifer Beals' love interest on the lesbian romance drama, "The L Word" (Showtime, 2004-09). Matlin also had a recurring role on the hit sitcom "My Name is Earl" (NBC, 2005-09). She also found time to star in the quirky documentary/drama film, "What the Bleep?! Down the Rabbit Hole" (2006), playing a mute photographer.
Although she worked steadily in films and television throughout her career, Matlin did not confine her talents to acting. She also threw herself into an artistic pursuit that was not dependent upon the ability to hear or speak: writing. Matlin wrote the children's novel Deaf Child Crossing, published by Simon & Schuster in 2002. The book tells the story of the friendship between two nine-year-old girls; with one who happens to be deaf. Simon & Schuster also published a sequel entitled Nobody's Perfect in 2007. In early 2008, Matlin continued to push herself outside her comfort zone by joining the sixth season cast of "Dancing with the Stars" (ABC, 2005- ). She fared well enough, coming in sixth place overall in the competition. Meanwhile, she played the mother of a deaf child (Noah Valencia) who struggles with her husband (Jeff Daniels) over whether or not to give their son an implant that will help him hear again in "Sweet Nothing in My Ear" (CBS, 2008). Following an onstage performance in the comedy show "Family Guy Presents Seth & Alex's Almost Live Comedy Show" (2009), Matlin joined the fourth season of "The Celebrity Apprentice" (NBC, 2004- ), in which she played for charity opposite the likes of LaToya Jackson, Jose Canseco, Meat Loaf and Gary Busey.
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At age eight, performed with Children's Theater of the Deaf in Des Plains, IL
Feature film debut, the leading role of Sarah in "Children of a Lesser God"
TV movie debut and first speaking role in "Bridge to Silence" (CBS)
Played assistant prosecutor Tess Kaufman on TV series, "Reasonable Doubts" (NBC)
Appeared as herself in Robert Altman's "The Player"
Portrayed April Hare in episodes of the Disney Channel's "Adventures in Wonderland"
Played a terrorized deaf woman in the thriller, "Hear No Evil"
Performed the national anthem in American Sign Language with country music star Garth Brooks at Super Bowl XXVII; also appeared in Brooks' video "We Shall Be Free"
Received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
Played Jerry's girlfriend Laura in two episodes of "Seinfeld" (NBC), nominated for an Emmy
Earned praise for her performance in Lifetime's "Against Her Will: The Story of Carrie Buck"; based-on-fact tale of a mentally-impaired woman who fought against her sterilization in the 1920s
Had recurring role as Laurie Bay on David E Kelley's "Picket Fences" (CBS), received Emmy nomination
Hosted PBS' "People in Motion" a look at how technology is reshaping the lives of people with disabilities
Played Eric Roberts' sister in Randal Kleiser's "It's My Party"
Starred in the HBO movie, "Dead Silence"
Reteamed with Eric Roberts in "Two Shades of Blue"
Producing debut, the Lifetime TV-movie "90 Days at Hollyridge"
Had a recurring role as a feisty campaign manager on the NBC political drama "The West Wing"
Earned plaudits for playing a deaf woman on trial in ABC's "The Practice"; scripted by David E Kelley
Published her first novel <i>Deaf Child Crossing</i>, which was loosely based on her own childhood
Guest-starred on NBC's "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" as Doctor Amy Solway; earned an Emmy nomination
Reprised her role for the final episodes of the NBC White House drama, "The West Wing"
Joined the fourth season of Showtime's Lesbian themed drama, "The L Word" as fiery artist Jodi Lerner, the new love interest of Bette (Jennifer Beals)
Joined the ABC reality series, "Dancing with the Stars" as a contestant
Joined the cast of the fourth season of "Celebrity Apprentice" (NBC)