Groundbreaking actress will help JFCS celebrate 75th year

Marlee Matlin

Marlee Matlin made history in 1987 when she won an Academy Award for “Children of a Lesser God,” becoming the only deaf person to win an Oscar and, at 21, the youngest recipient of the Best Actress award.

She owes much of that record-breaking achievement to her Jewish upbringing, she told the AJP recently through her longtime interpreter, Jack Jason. “My Judaism was all about inclusion,” she says, explaining that at the temple her family attended, B’nai Shalom in Skokie, Ill., “there was no thought about separateness. They included deaf people and hearing together. In fact I was bat mitzvahed using sign language and speaking.”

Throughout a prolific, expectation-defying career that’s brought her roles on TV shows such as “Seinfeld,” “The West Wing” and her current series, “Switched At Birth,” a dazzling turn on “Dancing With the Stars” and even a voice role on the animated series “Family Guy,” Matlin’s also been an activist, fighting for closed captioning on TV and many other causes. She’s been recognized for her public service with numerous awards, including an honorary doctorate from Gallaudet University, the private university for the deaf and hard of hearing.

Matlin will bring her passion for philanthropy — and for breaking down barriers — to Tucson April 10 when she speaks at the Jewish Family & Children’s Service 2016 Celebration of Caring. The event will mark JFCS’s 75th anniversary.

Recently, Matlin says, she’s been working most with the Starkey Hearing Foundation. “We help identify people in developing countries who have hearing loss or who are deaf” and provide free hearing aids, she explains. “I’ve been to Colombia, Cambodia, the Dominican Republic.”

She’s also worked with the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, helping raise awareness and funds for children who have AIDS.

“And I’ve just become an honorary board member for the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation,” she says, “because my father had multiple myeloma. I wanted to talk about how the lessons that [my parents] passed along to me, about overcoming adversity and walking around barriers that may have come my way through being somebody who is deaf, were the same lessons my father had to apply to himself when he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, and he, just like he taught me, refused to take no for an answer and didn’t let the illness define him.”

She says both of her parents contributed to her success.

“My mother was the one who got me into the acting world,” she says, by taking her to after school programs at the International Center on Deafness and the Arts in Northbrook, Ill., not far from Morton Grove, the Chicago suburb where she grew up. “And my father was the one who passed along his wonderful sense of humor.”

While Matlin’s mother didn’t actually envision an acting career for her, someone else did: Henry Winkler, who was the speaker at the JFCS gala last year and is “one cool Jew,” says Matlin.

The two first met when Matlin was 12 years old and Winkler was starring in TV’s “Happy Days.” He and his wife were visiting Chicago for a film project and saw a Center on Deafness performance. Winkler immediately recognized Matlin’s star quality and encouraged her to follow her dream, staying in touch through letters and meeting with her whenever her family visited relatives in California.

“He was nice enough to let me stay in their home when I won the Oscar and everyone said I would never work again in Hollywood,” Matlin says.

In 1993, when Matlin married Kevin Grandalski, an L.A. cop she met while filming the TV show “Reasonable Doubts,” the wedding was held in the Winklers’ yard. Matlin and her husband have two boys and two girls, ages 20, 15, 13 and 12. The family celebrates all of the Jewish and Christian holidays, she says, but stops short of defining rituals — no baptisms or b’nai mitzvah.

Matlin is also the author of three children’s books in a series that begins with “Deaf Child Crossing,” and a 2009 autobiography, “I’ll Scream Later” (her reaction to learning  she was nominated for an Oscar), which revealed some of the darker parts of her past, including being molested by a babysitter and a stint in drug rehab. She’s been sober almost 30 years, she notes.

As an actress, she continues to chart new territory. Last year, she made her Broadway debut in Deaf West Theatre’s revival of the rock musical “Spring Awakening,” which featured deaf actors delivering their lines and songs in sign language, accompanied by hearing actors who spoke or sang what was being signed. The show was a critical and popular success.

She’s currently filming the fifth and final season of “Switched at Birth,” which features a mix of deaf and hearing characters.

“I don’t think any other show that I’ve ever worked on had the courage to do an entire episode all in American Sign Language … without any spoken dialogue and subtitle it all,” she says, crediting the Freeform network (formerly ABC Family) and the show’s creator, Lizzy Weiss. “I was very happy about that.”

Despite her busy schedule, she enjoys speaking at Jewish community events. It’s all about staying connected, she says.

“We’re all part of the same big giant Jewish family … You can be 6,000 miles away from home and walk into a room [at a Jewish event] and you feel very comfortable because everybody there is like family,” she says. “It’s a great way to stay in touch.”

The April 10 JFCS gala will be held at the Westin La Paloma Resort & Spa beginning with a reception at 5:30 p.m. Dinner will be at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $125; to RSVP, visit jfcstucson.org/donate/celebration-of-caring, email celebration@jfcstucson.org or call 795-0300, ext. 2238.