Phyllis Frelich dies at 70; deaf actress was Tony award winner

Phyllis Frelich
Actress Phyllis Frelich starred on Broadway in “Children of a Lesser God,” for which she won a Tony in 1980. After a long illness, Frelich has died at 70.
(Justin Walters / Associated Press)

Phyllis Frelich, a deaf actress who received a Tony award in 1980 for her performance in “Children of a Lesser God,” has died at her Temple City home. She was 70.

The cause of her death Thursday was progressive supranuclear palsy, her husband, Robert Steinberg, said. PSP is a rare neurological condition that also took the life of actor Dudley Moore in 2002.

Born Feb. 29, 1944, in Devils Lake, N.D., Frelich was one of nine deaf children. Her parents were deaf as well.

Credited with paving the way for other deaf performers, she never dreamed of acting until attending Gallaudet College, a school for the deaf in Washington, D.C.


“The dream was to get out of wherever you were and meet and mingle with the cream of the deaf world, all together in one place,” she told The Times in 2001.

One of her starring roles was in “Road to a Revolution,” a play written for her by Mark Medoff and inspired by a 1988 student uprising at Gallaudet.

“Children of a Lesser God,” also by Medoff, delved into the relationship between a deaf woman and her speech pathologist at a school for the deaf. Marlee Matlin won a best actress Oscar in the 1986 film version.

Frelich was long frustrated by a scarcity of roles for deaf actresses. When she complained about it to Medoff, he wrote “Children of a Lesser God” for her.


“The play opened and I really thought, ‘I’m working with as good as an actor as I’ve ever worked with in my life. And I’ve got to take advantage of it,’” Medoff told the Associated Press on Saturday.

Frelich met her husband, who is not deaf, when both were associated with the National Theatre of the Deaf. Steinberg is a scenic and lighting designer.

Frelich worked until about three years ago, when her illness forced her to stop, her husband told The Times. Her last role was on the TV show CSI.

In addition to Steinberg, Frelich is survived by sons Reuben and Joshua, and eight brothers and sisters.

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