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Academy Award winner Marlee Matlin, who pursued a professional acting career despite being legally deaf, is an inspirational role model to many.
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Born in Illinois in 1965, Marlee Martin lost her hearing at a young age but nonetheless pursued and acting career and became highly successful, winning an Academy Award in 1986 for her role in Children of a Lesser God. She went on to star in a number of other film and television movies. Her perseverance is an inspiration to many.
"I've gotten 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."
Marlee Beth Matlin was born on August 24, 1965 in Morton Grove, Illinois. Her father operated a used-car dealership, and her mother sold jewelry. The youngest of three children, Marlee Matlin was only 18 months old when an illness permanently destroyed all hearing in her right ear, and 80 percent of the hearing in her left ear, making her legally deaf.
Matlin's hard-working parents chose to educate Marlee in their community rather than sending her to a special school. Matlin began learning to use sign language around the age of 5, but her parents struggled. "[My parents] learned some sign language to communicate with me, but they raised me with a great deal of love and respect, and it wasn't easy for them because of who I was—being a girl, being very stubborn, being very strong willed, being very outspoken, and very independent," Matline explained to Exceptional Parent magazine.
As a child, Matlin discovered acting through a program at the Center on Deafness that brought deaf and hearing kids together. She landed her first leading role as Dorothy in a production of The Wizard of Oz with a children's theater company in Chicago. Matlin continued to pursue her acting into adulthood, while also earning a degree in law enforcement at Harper College.
Matlin worked in the Chicago theater scene for several years before getting her big break as the lead in a production of Children of a Lesser God in Chicago. When the play was adapted for the big screen, Matlin received a chance to reprise her stage role. She starred as Sarah, a young deaf woman, who becomes involved with a speech teacher (played by William Hurt) at a school for the deaf. She rejects learning to lip-read and to talk, choosing communicate through sign language alone. As critic Roger Ebert said, "She holds her own against the powerhouse she's acting with, carrying scenes with a passion."
For her work on the film, Matlin won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1986. It was a remarkable accomplishment for a 20-year-old actress in her first film role—a feat that may also have been difficult for her to savor at the time. Matlin had been at the Betty Ford Center when she learned of her Academy Award nomination, receiving treatment for a substance abuse problem. To make matters worse, she and William Hurt had been romantically involved during the making of Children of a Lesser God, which proved to be a destructive relationship. "We brought out each other's worst instincts," she later told People magazine.
For her next film, 1987's Walker, Matlin played the deaf wife of a mercenary (played by Ed Harris) in Nicaragua during 1800s.
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