Born in Illinois in 1965, Marlee Martin lost her hearing at a young age but nonetheless pursued an acting career and became highly successful, winning an Academy Award in 1987 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.
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 1987. It was a remarkable accomplishment for a 21-year-old actress coming off 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.
Matlin went on to star in the TV drama Reasonable Doubts with Mark Harmon, which debuted in 1991 and lasted for two seasons. In 1993, she demonstrated her comedic abilities with her guest appearance as Jerry Seinfeld's lip-reading romantic interest on the hit sitcom Seinfeld. That same year, Matlin landed a recurring humorous role on the quirky small-town drama Picket Fences. "This role let me put out the funny side of me. There's nothing in it about deafness. It just happens that I am deaf; it's time for me to explore something different," she told People magazine. She received Emmy Award nominations in 1994 for her work on both series.
That same year, Matlin depicted a mentally handicapped woman struggling to keep her child in the television movie Against Her Will: The Carrie Buck Story. She also continued to make television guest appearances on such shows as Spin City and ER. In 1996, Matlin played a supporting role in the independent drama It's My Party.
Before long, Matlin received another Emmy Award nomination for her appearance on the legal drama The Practice in 2000. Not one to wait for opportunity to knock, Matlin met with Aaron Sorkin, creator of the political drama The West Wing, and convinced him to give her a role. She played Joey Lucas, the opinion poll director, on the show. She also found time to make a guest appearance on the crime drama Law & Order: Special Victims Unit in 2004, which earned her another Emmy Award nomination.
Around this time, Matlin branched out in a new direction, fulfilling a longtime dream. "When I was 11, I knew that I wanted to write a kid's book and tell the world what it was like being deaf," she explained to Exceptional Parent magazine. Matlin's first young adult book, Deaf Child Crossing, was published in 2002. She then teamed up with Doug Cooney for Nobody's Perfect (2006) and Leading Ladies (2007).
Matlin returned to series television in 2007 with a role on the Showtime drama The L Word as a love interest for Jennifer Beals's character. In 2008, she showed off a new skill, appearing on the celebrity competition series Dancing with the Stars. She loved her time on the show, despite the grueling hours of dance practice she had to put in each week. "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," she told People magazine. Around this time, Matlin also appeared in the television film Sweet Nothing in My Ear, which tackled the controversy surrounding cochlear implants that can give a deaf person some sensation of hearing.
Matlin also returned to writing, and used her own life as her subject matter. In 2009, she published her autobiography, I'll Scream Later. Matlin showed her sense of humor that same year, lending her voice to the animated series The Family Guy. She soon returned to series television with a recurring role on Switched at Birth, which focuses on the lives of two teenage girls who discover that they were, as the title states, switched at birth. Matlin plays a deaf teacher on the show, which also features several other deaf actors. As she told PBS talk show host Tavis Smiley, the series has "broken down barriers." Matlin explained that the show "makes it very, very compelling for everyone to watch, regardless of whether you’re deaf or not."
Outside of acting and writing, Matlin supports many charitable causes. She helps the Children Affected by AIDS Foundation, the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation and the Starlight Children's Foundation.
Matlin currently resides in Los Angeles with her husband, Kevin. Together, they have four children.
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