Deaf, Tony-winning actress Phyllis Frelich, who both inspired and starred in the Broadway version of “Children of a Lesser God,” died Thursday in her Temple City, Calif. home. She was 70.
According to her husband Robert Steinberg, Frelich suffered from progressive supranuclear palsy, a rare degenerative neurological disease for which there is currently no effective treatment.
“She was extraordinary, the finest sign language actress there ever was,” Steinberg told Associated Press. “We were married for 46 years. I would have been happy with 46 more.”
Frelich was born in Devils Lake, North Dakota to two deaf parents, the oldest of nine deaf children. She graduated from the North Dakota School for the Deaf as well as Washington D.C.’s Gallaudet College, now called Gallaudet University. It was there that she began to pursue her interest in acting.
She joined the National Theatre of the Deaf, which is where she met Steinberg, who was a scenic and lighting designer on a number of plays of Mark Medoff. Medoff took inspiration from the couple to make “Children of a Lesser God,” which followed the relationship of a deaf woman and a teacher at a school for the deaf.
Frelich played the central deaf woman Sarah Norman, for which she won a Tony in 1980. The show would go on to inspire a film, and deaf actress Marlee Matlin won an Academy Award for her role in the movie.
“I was the first deaf person he had known,” Frelich told The Associated Press in 1988. “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 inspired more of Medoff’s works after that as well, including “In The Hands of Its Enemy” where Medoff starred as a deaf playwright.
Frelich’s TV credits including “CSI,” “ER” and “Gimme a Break!” as well as Hallmark Hall of Fame miniseries “Love is Never Silent.” She also received the Theodora Roosevelt Rough Rider Award in 1981, North Dakota’s highest honor.