Getting to know Marlee Matlin

an interview with the actor and advocate

Marlee Matlin image

In 1987, Marlee Matlin, star of the film Children of a Lesser God, became the first deaf performer ever to win an Oscar--and, at 21, the youngest person ever to snag a Best Actress statuette.

Almost 36 years later, Matlin co-starred in the film CODA , which this year won Best Picture at the Academy Awards and Best Supporting Actor for Matlin's deaf co-star, Troy Kotsur. The movie chronicles the life of a teenaged girl, the only hearing member of her deaf family.  

A Jewish Morton Grove native, Matlin has appeared in numerous TV shows, including Seinfeld, The West Wing , and Law and Order SVU . She has four grown children with Kevin Grandalski, a Los Angeles cop and her husband of 29 years. Up next, Matlin is directing a TV show called Accused , a crime drama starring three deaf actors.

In advance of her appearance at the JUF Women's Philanthropy 2023 Lion Event on Sept. 22, Matlin sat down for a phone interview with Jewish Chicago --with the help of Jack Jason, her longtime interpreter, producing partner, and fellow member of the tribe. In the interview, Matlin chats about her Chicago Jewish roots, her trailblazing TV and film career, her advocacy work on behalf of people with disabilities--and "The Fonz."   

Jewish Chicago: What sort of Jewish upbringing did you have in Morton Grove?  

Marlee Matlin: It was very much about family and community. I was fortunate that we had a temple near our house, Temple Bene Shalom in Skokie, that serves both deaf and hearing people.  

What is your favorite part of being Jewish?  

The emphasis on family and getting together on holidays. And the food-I still make my mother's kugel. 

Is it sweet or savory?  

Sweet, and very fattening with lots of eggs and heavy cream.  

Have you visited Israel?  

Yes, I went to Israel with the Ruderman [Family] Foundation…to increase awareness on accessibility. I was surprised to find that Israel is far ahead of the U.S. when it comes to inclusion, accessibility, and accommodating people with barriers and challenges. I learned about a program for people with disabilities in the armed services who contribute in whatever way they can.

Who were two of your greatest mentors?

First, Henry Winkler: I was able to continue my Jewish celebrations and traditions with him in Los Angeles. He continues to be like a second father since my father has passed away. He has been there [for me] ever since I was 13. He encouraged me [then] to be an actor-and told me I can be whatever I want to be.

And second, Whoopi Goldberg: She encouraged me early on…to just be who I want to be, and not pay attention to the naysayers.   

Do you believe opportunities for deaf actors have grown since you first came to Hollywood? 

Definitely! Now there are so many deaf actors out there, with [my CODA co-star] Troy Kotsur winning the Oscar. Now I'm not the only one. We had three movies ( CODA, Eternals , and A Quiet Plac e) in the mainstream [recently] that featured deaf actors. The idea of diversity, equity, and inclusion is becoming really important. I'd like to add one more letter to that formula-the letter "A" for accessibility. You can't have inclusion without accessibility. 

You don't seem to let anything hold you back. Where does that grit come from? 

It probably comes from my parents because they both had really tough upbringings. They both worked very hard and encouraged that in me. They never took 'no' for an answer, [including] when they found out I was deaf. 

Early on, you thought you might become a police officer. You're directing a crime drama. And you're married to a police officer. What makes you gravitate toward cops?  

I like criminal justice because it's all about exerting control. [That's helpful] when you're in a situation where people create barriers for you. When I was young, I thought if I were a cop, I could tell people what to do and be in control. I didn't marry a cop because I like cops. I just like guys in uniform--firemen, policemen, etc. 

What are some of your favorite places to visit when you come back to Chicago? 

Portillo's, the old neighborhoods in Morton Grove and Skokie, and the Cubs.  

What would the Marlee of 2022 tell 21-year-old Marlee, the star of Children of a Lesser God? 

Keep doing what you're doing because the Marlee of today is a result of the Marlee then. Be patient with people and good things will come.


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