Phyllis Frelich, a Tony-Award wining actress who paved the way for deaf actors in Broadway, has died at the age of 70.
Frelich died Thursday at the Tempe City, California, home she shared with husband Robert Steinberg. Frelich suffered from a rare degenerative neurological disorder called progressive supranuclear palsy.
Despite the uncurable condition, Frelich lived with passion and was known as a trailblazer among deaf actors. The actress graduated from the North Dakota School for the Deaf and Gaulladet College, now Gaulladet University.
It was at Gaulladet, a national university for the deaf, that Phyllis Frelich met her future husband, who worked as a scenic and lighting director for plays by Mark Medoff.
The couple inspired Medoff to create Children of a Lesser God, a Tony-winning play about the relationship between a deaf woman and a teacher at a school for the deaf.
“I was the first deaf person he had known,” Frelich told The Associated Press in 1988 of Medoff. “I told him there were no roles for deaf actresses. He said, ‘OK, I’ll write a play for you.’ He did. He went home and wrote Children of a Lesser God. He wanted to write a good play. He was interested in me as an actress and he wasn’t trying to write a message play.”
Frelich was the oldest of nine children, and both her parents were deaf.
“She was extraordinary, the finest sign language actress there ever was,” her husband said. “We were married for 46 years. I would have been happy with 46 more.”
Phyllis Frelich was seen as an example for deaf actors, and her Tony Award for Children of a Lesser God brought greater acceptance for them. After Frelich’s death, fellow deaf actress Marlee Matlin noted on Twitter that she was “devastated … [Frelich] was a TRUE talent. RIP”