Jewish roots helped JCF speaker Marlee Matlin find her voice in film, TV

Marlee Matlin got on stage for the first time at summer camp, and had an instant realization that she loved making people laugh.

There was only one problem. A bout with roseola infantum had left her deaf when she was 18 months old. Who would encourage a deaf child to follow her dreams of becoming an actor?

Her parents, that’s who. And later, her mentor, Henry Winkler, otherwise known as “The Fonz.”

Added to that was the Jewish trait of a “can-do” attitude. “I wouldn’t be who I am if I weren’t Jewish,” Matlin says.

The mother of four, who won an Oscar at 21 for her acclaimed performance in “Children of a Lesser God” and has been on seven seasons of the Emmy-winning television series “The West Wing,” is the featured speaker at the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation’s Women’s Alliance Power of One event, scheduled for Feb. 16.

Speaking through her interpreter and production partner of 20 years, Jack Jason, via telephone in Los Angeles, Matlin spoke of her upbringing in a Jewish home in Chicago, where her parents encouraged her to do anything she set her mind to.

From the beginning, they ignored “expert” opinions that Matlin should be sent to a special school for deaf children.

“The distance would prevent them from being a regular part of my life,” she said. “I never knew a Jewish mother who wanted her daughter to be more than five feet away from her, and they couldn’t bear to have me be away every day and night.”

So Matlin was “mainstreamed” into a magnet school in Chicago, where there were a few other deaf children.

At the same time, she often had difficulty making friends.

“When I was a kid, I would lock myself in the bathroom and act out all these characters in the mirror,” she said. “I didn’t find a lot of people to sign or talk with, so I created all these characters, and acting was my wanting to continue that. It was a means to express myself, to let out whatever frustrations I had.”

After attending camp, she tried out for the role of Dorothy in a children’s theater production of “The Wizard of Oz.”

“I knew there was no other role for me to play except for Dorothy,” she said. “My chutzpah gave the director the confidence to cast me, and I never looked back.”

Matlin’s bat mitzvah was a pivotal event, in that once again, it was assumed that she would have one just like every other Jewish child.

Since she was taught how to speak and sign, Matlin learned how to pronounce Hebrew as well.

“I was able to speak my Torah portion,” she said. And being in a large Jewish community meant that the family was able to find a synagogue where the rabbi knew sign language.

While Matlin was chosen for the role in “Children of a Lesser God” because she was deaf, over the years, Jason has helped her find roles that she could play, even though they were not written for a deaf actor.

For example, her role in the 2004 cult favorite “What the Bleep Do We Know?” was written for a female photographer who serves as the film’s “everywoman.” Jason, whose parents are deaf, knew that many deaf people become photographers because their eyesight is so keen. He asked the producers whether they would consider Matlin for the role.

She admitted that the script — which features numerous scientists using quantum physics theories to explain how positive thinking can change the course of history — was way over her head, at first, and still is.

Yet, except for her Oscar role, this is the role that people have been most affected by — some have even told her that the movie has changed their lives.

The success of that movie surprised everyone, especially Matlin. “People come up to me, even now, and say ‘Even though I’m not deaf, I felt that could have been me. I felt through your expressions.'”

“Power of One” begins 5 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 16 at Moscone West, 800 Howard St., S.F. $85, plus a pledge of $365 to the JCF’s 2006 campaign. Information: (650) 919-2110.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."