In this story from November 2002, Oscar winner Marlee Matlin shares how she refused to let her deafness prevent her from pursuing her passion for acting.
All I wanted as a kid in Morton Grove, Illinois, was to be like everyone else. But I wasn’t. I’d lost virtually all my hearing at 18 months of age, after a bout of roseola. My parents were determined not to let my deafness hold me back, though. They got advice from a psychologist at Northwestern University’s clinic for the deaf, and I started speech classes at the age of three, lip-reading and sign language at five.
Mom found a synagogue with services that were both spoken and signed. I loved going to temple and being with other people who “spoke” the same language I did. There in God’s house, I felt like I really belonged.
Nowhere else did I feel truly a part of everything that went on, not even at home. I’d see my older brothers singing along with the radio, but I couldn’t hear the music without the volume cranked up so high it would have blown out the windows.
I wanted to talk on the phone with my grandmother, but I couldn’t make out a word she said. It was hard for me to follow stuff on TV, except cop shows, where there was little dialogue and lots of action. I loved cop shows.
At school there were interpreters, teachers who knew sign language. Even without them, I could read lips and speak well enough to get along with most of the other students. But I got tired of sticking up for myself with the kids who laughed at the way I talked, and of being the only one my age who signed.
Sometimes when I got home I’d be so frustrated I’d rip out my hearing aids and throw them across the room. (The technician who fixed them claimed I set a record for repairs.) “I hate asking for help. Why can’t I do all the things everyone else does? It’s not fair!”
“We all have some things we just can’t do,” Mom would patiently tell me. “But God gives us other gifts that more than make up for that.”
What was my gift then, the thing that I was really good at? At services I’d ask God to help me find it. But before I did, I found something else just as wondrous. A new girl my age came to temple one day. A girl I noticed was signing. I went right up to her. “Hi, I’m Marlee,” I finger-spelled my name.
“I’m Liz,” she replied. “I’m deaf.”
“Me too!” I was so excited my fingers flew. “I think we should be best friends.”
For a second, she was too surprised to respond. Then she nodded and broke into a big smile. Our friendship was sealed from that moment on.
Then the summer I was seven I discovered it—the gift Mom had talked about. One afternoon at day camp the counselors showed me a stage and said, “If you want, you can get up there and perform.” I must have looked puzzled because they explained, “We’re going to teach your group a song. The other girls will sing the words, and you can sign them.”
I will never forget being on that stage at summer camp, signing my heart out to the beat of the music, and seeing all those people looking back at me, smiling and clapping. This is it! a voice deep inside told me. This is where you belong! The rush I got was like that incredible sense of connection I got in temple, when I felt closest to everything and everyone else in God’s world.
At home I’d stand in front of the bathroom mirror and make believe an entire audience was looking back at me. Then I’d pretend to be a camp counselor, a teacher, a mother, a cop like on TV. I would playact for hours … until my brothers complained, “Marlee’s hogging the bathroom again!”
That fall Mom took me to the newly opened Center on Deafness, where the psychologist from Northwestern directed children’s theater programs. The day we visited, they were putting together a musical, The Wizard of Oz, which I knew from television, so I asked, “Who’s Dorothy?” The director told me they didn’t have a girl for the part yet. I didn’t hesitate. “How about me?”
That was the first of many roles I played in their productions over the years. By third grade my friend Liz too had become a regular at the Center. Onstage, it seemed the usual barriers to communication fell away and I had a direct connection with the people watching, like a conversation that went deeper than words.
“You have a real gift for reaching the audience,” the director remarked one day when I was 12. I hadn’t thought of a gift being something I could share; that struck me because I had been studying for my bat mitzvah, the Jewish girl’s coming-of-age ceremony, and learning about my place in the greater community of God’s world. Could acting be what I was meant to do?
“That’s not very practical,” some of my relatives tried to dissuade me. I would have let them too, if not for one evening in 1977 when my friends and I performed at a benefit for the Center. I couldn’t believe who came up to me afterward. The Fonz from the TV show Happy Days. Cool! He shook my hand. “I’m Henry Winkler,” he said. “You were great. I hope you keep acting.”
I couldn’t help myself. “Do you think I can work in Hollywood someday, like you?” I asked.
He didn’t have any trouble understanding me. He looked me right in the eye and said, “You can be whatever you want to be.” He even asked me to keep in touch and to look him up any time I was in Los Angeles.
In high school, though, I got caught up in being a teenager and put acting aside. I did stay in touch with Henry, but Hollywood seemed so far away compared to the immediate excitement of cars, parties, boys. For once, my deafness didn’t get in the way of the things that mattered to the other kids—I could drive, dance, and yes, I’ll admit it, flirt.
I reveled in being just like everyone else. After graduation I studied criminal justice at a local junior college (maybe it was all those cop shows I’d watched growing up), but I dropped out when I found out being deaf drastically limited my career options in law enforcement.
The spring of 1985 my brothers told me about auditions for a Chicago production of Children of a Lesser God, an award-winning play with a number of deaf characters. I hesitated. After all, as I said to Liz, I hadn’t been onstage in years. “What are you waiting for?” she exclaimed. “You love to act! Try out!”
As soon as I stepped onstage for my audition, I felt right at home. I won a supporting role in the play. Things happened fast after that. Movie producers cast me in the lead role in the film version. There I was, a 19-year-old who had never lived away from home, starring in a Hollywood movie and moving to New York City to pursue an acting career.
At the same time, I found my first serious boyfriend. No wonder I was overwhelmed. Fortunately I also found a skilled interpreter, Jack Jason, a graduate student in film and the son of deaf parents, who stuck with me through all the interviews after the movie premiered in the autumn of 1986.
Never did I imagine that six months after my twenty-first birthday I would be accepting the Academy Award for Best Actress. Afterward I made sure to stop by and see my old friend Henry Winkler. He opened his front door, and I just held up the golden statue, my own personal sign language for “Thank you for encouraging me to follow my dreams.”
I should have been on top of the world. Instead, I nearly got crushed in a maelstrom of negativity. Did I truly deserve the award, critics asked, or was it a sympathy vote? One magazine dismissed me as a one-hit wonder. People in the movie business predicted I’d never work again. It was true, opportunities didn’t open up for me as I had hoped.
So many times I was told, “You’re a wonderful actress. But you’re deaf. What else is there for you, really?” I started to wonder myself. I could have handled it if I tried out for roles and got turned down, but I wasn’t even considered to begin with … all because I was deaf. Just like when I was a kid, I felt left out of a world I longed to be part of.
And just like back then, I was too proud to ask for help. My parents and Liz could tell I was unhappy and visited from Chicago often. They’d already given me so much support, I was afraid to let them down. I didn’t want to burden Jack, my only real friend in New York, who worked hard enough as my interpreter. Worst of all, my relationship with my boyfriend was falling apart.
I felt as if I were falling apart too. Don’t I belong in acting? Can something that feels so right be all wrong for me? I kept asking myself.
From inside me, a voice spoke, a voice I heard clearly. The same voice that had introduced me to the joy of connecting with an audience way back in summer camp. This time I knew who it had to be. Only God could reach past the anger and frustration and pain and answer the questions deep in my soul. If you aren’t happy with your life, change it. If the roles aren’t coming to you, go to them. Make the most of what you’ve been given.
I made a break with everything that had been dragging me down, including my unhealthy relationship with my boyfriend. I decided to start over in Los Angeles, where the movie and TV studios were. Surely there would be more roles for me there. Luckily Jack, eager to find more opportunities in film, joined me.
“Marlee, where are you staying?” my old friend Henry asked when I told him I was in town. “A hotel on—” He didn’t let me finish. “Forget it. Stacey and I have plenty of room. You’re staying with us.”
“Only until I find my own place,” I said. “A weekend, tops.”
I ended up living with the Winklers for two years. I needed that time to grow up. To see that turning away help from the ones who cared for me most, like Liz and Jack, Stacey and Henry, was like turning away God, who also wanted the best for me. To learn that really connecting with people, deaf and hearing, onstage and off, meant both opening up to them and being open to what they had to share with me.
I stuck with acting, finding small parts in a few movies. Then in 1991, at 26, I landed the starring role in the television series Reasonable Doubts. Much as I enjoyed playing a fully drawn character whose deafness was only part of who she was, the best thing about the show for me was meeting the love of my life.
When you shoot on location on the streets of L.A., police officers are there to direct traffic. One day on the set I noticed a cute new man in blue. Really cute. There was just something about him. I asked one of the other cops who he was. “Name’s Kevin Grandalski.”
“Is he single?”
He sure was. From our first date, we clicked. My fascination with cops, his ability to sign (he’d learned in order to fulfill his language requirement in college). Not to mention the healthy balance he brought to my life—Kevin’s athletic to my artistic, shy to my outgoing, laid-back to my intense. When he proposed, I exclaimed right along with the voice inside me, “Yes!”
The first people we broke the news to, besides our parents, were Henry and Stacey. “You’re having the wedding here,” Stacey announced. On August 29, 1993, on the Fonz’s front lawn, with my family and Liz and Jack looking on, Kevin and I were married.
All I’d wanted as a little girl trying to come to terms with my deafness was to be like everyone else. I feel so blessed to have ended up exactly where I belong—being me, an actress, wife and mom, guided through my deepest struggles by the one voice I always hear.
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