Marlee Matlin: What My Parents Understood by Karen Putz

Marlee Matlin stepped into a brilliant spotlight when she accepted the 1986 Oscar for her performance in the film Children of a Lesser God. Never before had a deaf person made this kind of splash in Hollywood, and, to top it off, she was the youngest actress to ever receive an Oscar in that category.. Since then, Marlee has gone on to have an incredible career as an award-winning actress, appearing in a variety of TV programs. Marlee’s savvy portrayal of a political pollster/consultant on NBC’s highly acclaimed West Wing presents a fresh role model for all young deaf and hard of hearing kids. She’s constantly raising the bar and breaking the stereotypes about persons who are deaf or hard of hearing. Her busy acting schedule and frequent appearances (including a recent guest spot on Oprah, appearing with former Miss America, Heather Whitestone), must now be worked around her role as wife and mother of four.

Marlee grew up in Morton Grove, a suburb of Chicago. Her parents learned of her hearing loss at the age of 18 months. Her hearing loss was caused by illness and high fevers. Her parents grieved hard, finding little help from doctors, who told them that she would likely need to attend a school for deaf children far from home. This was unacceptable to her parents. “My parents visited a number of schools, but every one of them was missing one very important thing. Each time the doctors suggested a school, my parents came back with the same question: “Who would put Marlee to bed every night?” The doctors had no answer. Instead, her parents chose to place her in programs with support services for students with hearing loss. Marlee attended Hersey High School in Arlington Heights, a school with a large number of deaf and hard of hearing students attending self-contained and mainstreamed classes. While growing up, Marlee was encouraged to use her voice as well as sign language.

With strong support from her family, Marlee’s childhood world was unlimited. “My parents just opened the door every day and let me explore the world on my own. I roamed the neighborhood by myself. I met new kids by myself. It was all about intention. Admittedly, I was ‘different’ but my parents and family had answers for everything.” If the other kids were curious abut her hearing aids, Marlee’s brother would tell them that she was wearing big globs of bubble gum and would offer them a taste. Whenever someone would question Marlee¹s speech, her other brother would explain that it was an exotic accent, the result of Marlee being born in a faraway country. A sense of humor carried the Matlin family a long way.

When her father had a “Deaf Child” sign installed on her street, Marlee learned to see it as an opportunity. “At first I wasn’t crazy about the sign. Instead of helping to protect me, I thought of it as telling everyone I was different, that I needed to have ‘help.’ But it was my mom and dad who told me I should look at the sign a different way. That sign said, ‘I’m Marlee! Want to stop by and say HI? I’ll be your best friend!’ None of the other kids had a sign of their own in the neighborhood! And they were right. What a feeling of validation that was!”

Marlee credits her parents for their encouragement. “They really made an effort to make sure nothing was ever denied me. When I was seven years old, my mother enrolled me in a summer camp. It was a camp in which most of the children were hearing and just a handful were deaf. It didn’t matter to her that it wasn’t a ‘deaf’ camp; she thought I deserved to go to a camp like everyone else. One afternoon, a camp counselor came up to me and asked if I’d like to sign a song along with the other kids as they sang. It was something like “John Brown’s Body Lies Mouldering in His Grave.” Why not? And you know, I loved it! As I ‘sang’ and signed, the audience began to smile and clap. The more I signed, the more they smiled and clapped. It felt great! I wanted to do more of this stuff.”

When she got home from camp, her mother took her to The Center on Deafness, (now known as ICODA, the International Center for Deafness and the Arts), a first-of-its-kind performing arts center where deaf and hearing kids joined together for after-school programs and recreation. Marlee watched them prepare for a production of The Wizard of Oz. When the director asked her if she was interested in participating, Marlee insisted that there was only one part for her–and you can guess who got the lead. Marlee had her first taste of acting there, at the age of 7. The dress she wore in her role as Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz hangs proudly at the ICODA museum.

Marlee later toured the Midwest while attending college. At one performance, she learned that actor Henry Winkler, “the Fonz”, was going to be in the audience. Marlee wasted no time. She went straight up to him after the show and told him she wanted to be an actress just like him. Much later, she learned that some in the profession had discouraged Henry from supporting Marlee in her dream. They felt that Henry encouraging Marlee would only lead her to disappointment because Hollywood didn’t embrace deaf actors. Instead of dissuading Marlee, Henry provided her with a defining moment of her early career. As Marlee remembers, “So there was Henry, politely listening and nodding to the well meaning advice of others, and when they were done, Henry turned around and knelt down and looked me straight in the eye. In his coolest, most Fonzie-like voice he said, ‘Marlee, sweetheart, you can be whatever you want to be. Just follow it here–in your heart–and your dreams will come true. Don’t let anything stand in your way.”

From the humble origins of community theatre to a touring company and onto Hollywood, Marlee’s stellar career has gained notoriety, and sometimes even controversy. A year after receiving her Oscar, Marlee was asked to present an award at the next year’s program. She faced an uproar when she chose to present using her voice. She signed her introduction and then spoke the names of the nominees. “It seemed that by speaking instead of signing,” said Marlee, “some members of the Deaf Community considered my presentation offensive. I was mortified. To some Deaf people, my speaking at the Oscars was a message that Deaf people should be taught to speak and not sign.”

Whoopi Goldberg helped Marlee to put things in perspective. Whoopi told her about the time she wore blue contact lenses for her magazine cover on “Rolling Stone.” Whoopi was criticized by the African American community for trying to “be white.” She wasn¹t trying to be anything, she explained. She just wanted to experiment with blue eyes. Whoopi offered some advice to Marlee: “It’s time to do what’s right for you. It’s time to move on.” Marlee hasn’t stopped moving since.

Marlee met her husband, Kevin Grandalski, on the television set of Reasonable Doubts. Kevin works as a policeman outside of Los Angeles and the two of them blend the excitement of police work with the craziness of Hollywood.. She and her husband have four children, Sarah (8 going on 38), Brandon (4, who knows three languages: English, Spanish and Sign), Tyler (2, who wreaks havoc with his purple crayon) and the newest addition to the family, seven-month old Isabelle. Despite the tiring demands of motherhood, Marlee manages to find balance between her work and her family. Marlee recently completed a book titled Deaf Child Crossing, published by Simon and Schuster. Deaf Child Crossing is a Judy Blume style book that focuses on the friendship of two girls, one who happens to be deaf. Marlee is currently at work producing the second book in a series. She is also receiving critical acclaim for her recent role in an independent film titled, “What The $#@%! Do We Know”? ($#@! is pronounced “bleep” according to the film’s website. )

Looking ahead to a bright future, Marlee reflects on her success so far. “I understand what my parents long ago figured out…I am a person who just happens to be Deaf. For me, life or work doesn’t mean having to dwell on my deafness. I’m standing here as a working actress with an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and a couple of Emmy nominations to prove it.”