Marlee Matlin

photo by Claudine Williams

by Sue Tomchin

Anyone who saw Children of a Lesser God when it came out in 1986 (or have watched it on Netflix or DVD in the years since) can’t forget Marlee Matlin’s Academy Award-winning performance. 

But where do you go after winning the industry’s top award at age 21 for your first role? Quite a long way. Indeed, Matlin has built a body of work – and a life – that reflects her versatility, her skill, her generosity, and her willingness to take risks. She has compelled us to see her not for her disability, but for her talent and humanity, and along the way has helped to normalize the inclusion of all deaf individuals. 

“That I am Deaf is just a footnote,” she writes in her best-selling autobiography, I’ll Scream Later (Gallery Books, 2010). “It is a part of who I am, but far from all of who I am.”
Matlin’s path hasn’t been an easy one. She overcame a drug problem that took her to The Betty Ford Center at age 20 and has been clean ever since. She also experienced two abusive incidents in childhood: One at age 11, with a female babysitter; and a second, at age 14, with a high school teacher. She writes that when her acting coach for Children of a Lesser God asked her to dig deep to summon the rage and vulnerability necessary for a scene, she tapped into these memories. She also relates that her two-year relationship with Children of a Lesser God co-star William Hurt included violent encounters.

Keeping a career going over decades, “you have to have an aggressiveness in you, a desire to get yourself out there even when it’s tough,” she once told a struggling actor at a Q&A session.
One of the realities of being an actor, she writes, is that you “keep yourself working, keep yourself in the game, put everything you can into every project, and walk away from it having learned something new.” 

Most recently, she has appeared in the SyFy series The Magicians, and was a regular on the ABC thriller Quantico. She was a cast member on The West Wing, and received award nominations for her work as a courtroom litigator in the series Reasonable Doubts. Her appearances on such iconic shows as The Practice, Law and Order: SVU, Picket Fences and Seinfeld (she played Jerry’s love interest) garnered Emmy Award nominations. She also was cast member of the Peabody Award-winning series Switched at Birth, which, according to ABC Family, was "the first mainstream television series to have multiple deaf and hard-of-hearing series regulars and scenes shot entirely in American Sign Language (ASL)."

In addition to appearing in multiple movies, she made her Broadway debut in 2015 in the Tony-nominated revival of Spring Awakening, which was performed simultaneously in English and ASL. 

"Every day brings new challenges, creative juices that keep churning inside me, characters whose lives and whose stories I want to tell, new chapters
to write." 

Her appearance on Dancing with the Stars in 2008 was a remarkable testament to her fearlessness since, unable to hear, she had to use the music’s vibrations to perform. She told People magazine that viewers had sent her “hundreds of letters each week about how much they appreciate that I’ve opened the eyes of hearing people that deaf people can do anything except hear.” 

In 2011, she appeared The Apprentice, coming in second, but raised $1 million for her charity, The Starkey Hearing Foundation. (She raised $986,000 and Donald Trump donated $14,000 to make it an even $1 million.)

Matlin was born in the Chicago suburb of Morton Grove, Ill. The youngest of three children, she lost most of her hearing shen she was 18 months old. Her parents wanted her to grow up at home and attend mainstream schools with deaf education programs. 

She fell in love with acting at the International Center on Deafness and the Arts (ICODA) in Chicago where her starring role as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, at age eight, demonstrated her gifts. When she was 12, actor Henry Winkler saw her perform at an ICODA event, and was impressed with her talent. He later became her mentor, offering advice and support at important junctures. 

Matlin’s parents were determined that she would have a bat mitzvah, like other Jewish girls, and she writes that the chance to study the Torah and learn her people’s history helped her connect to her faith. Over the years, she has helped many Jewish organizations by speaking and working on fund raisers. She took part in the first national television advertising campaign encouraging gifts to Jewish Federations.

She has also advocated for the deaf community and was instrumental in getting federal legislation passed in support of closed captioning both on television and online. Through the years, she has acted as the ACLU’s ambassador for disability rights and was appointed to the Gallaudet University Board of Trustees in 2007, in addition to receiving an honorary degree in 1987.

Matlin’s involvement has extended to many other causes. She currently serves as national celebrity spokesperson for The American Red Cross and in September appeared on Stand Up To Cancer's sixth telethon. She was chair of National Volunteer Week, and has helped the Children Affected by AIDS Foundation and the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation. 
While acting has certainly been a driving force in her life, her family remains the most important element: Her husband, Kevin Grandalski, and their four children. 

She never stops growing and taking on new roles. As she writes in her book: “Every day brings new challenges, creative juices that keep churning inside me, characters whose lives and whose stories I want to tell, new chapters to write.” 

More of the 2018 Women to Watch Honorees: