Marlee Beth Matlin is an American actress, author, and activist. For playing Sarah Norman in the romantic drama film Children of a Lesser God (1986), Matlin won the Academy Award for Best Actress (among other recognition), becoming the only deaf performer to have won an Academy Award as well as the youngest winner in the Best Actress category.
Matlin starred in the police drama series Reasonable Doubts (1991–1993) which earned her two Golden Globe Award nominations. Her guest roles in Seinfeld (1993), Picket Fences (1993), The Practice (2000), and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (2004–05) earned her four Primetime Emmy Award nominations. Her role in CODA (2021) earned her nominations for a Satellite Award and a Screen Actors Guild Award.
Deaf since she was 18 months old, due to illness and high fevers, Matlin is a prominent member of the National Association of the Deaf. Her longtime interpreter is Jack Jason. In 1993, she married Kevin Grandalski, with whom she has four children.
Matlin was born in Morton Grove, Illinois, to Libby (née Hammer 1930–2021) and Donald Matlin, who was an automobile dealer. Matlin lost all hearing in her right ear and 80% of the hearing in her left ear at the age of 18 months due to illness and fevers. In her autobiography I'll Scream Later, she suggests that her hearing loss may have been due to a genetically malformed cochlea. She is the only member of her family who is deaf. She enjoys a sense of humor about her deafness: "Often I’m talking to people through my speakerphone, and after 10 minutes or so they say, 'Wait a minute, Marlee, how can you hear me?' They forget I have an interpreter there who is signing to me as they talk. So I say, 'You know what? I can hear on Wednesdays.'"
Matlin and her two older brothers, Eric and Marc, grew up in a Reform Jewish household. Her family roots are in Poland and Russia. Matlin attended a synagogue for the Deaf (Congregation Bene Shalom), and after studying Hebrew phonetically, was able to learn her Torah portion for her Bat Mitzvah. She was later interviewed for the book Mazel Tov: Celebrities' Bar and Bat Mitzvah Memories. She graduated from John Hersey High School in Arlington Heights and attended Harper College in Palatine, Illinois. She had planned a career in criminal justice. In her autobiography, Matlin described two instances where she was molested: by a babysitter at age 11, and by a teacher in high school.
Matlin made her stage debut at the age of seven, as Dorothy in an International Center on Deafness and the Arts (ICODA) children's theatre of The Wizard of Oz, and continued to appear with the ICODA children's theatre group throughout her childhood. At the age of thirteen, she won second prize in the Chicago Center's Annual International Creative Arts Festival for an essay titled, "If I Was not a Movie Star."
She was discovered by Henry Winkler during one of her ICODA theater performances, which ultimately led to her film debut in Children of a Lesser God (1986). The film received generally positive reviews and Matlin's performance as Sarah Norman, a reluctant-to-speak deaf woman who falls for a hearing man, drew high praise: Richard Schickel of TIME magazine wrote, " has an unusual talent for concentrating her emotions -- and an audience's -- in her signing. But there is something more here, an ironic intelligence, a fierce but not distancing wit, that the movies, with their famous ability to photograph thought, discover in very few performances." Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times was also impressed with Matlin, writing, "She holds her own against the powerhouse she's acting with, carrying scenes with a passion and almost painful fear of being rejected and hurt, which is really what her rebellion is about," and Paul Attasanio of the Washington Post said, "The most obvious challenge of the role is to communicate without speaking, but Matlin rises to it in the same way the stars of the silent era did -- she acts with her eyes, her gestures." Children of a Lesser God brought her a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Drama and an Academy Award for Best Actress. Only 21 years old at the time, Matlin remains the youngest actress to receive the Oscar in the Best Actress category; she is still the only deaf Academy Award recipient in any category.
Two years later, she made a guest appearance on Sesame Street with Billy Joel performing a revised version of "Just the Way You Are" with lyrics by Tony Geiss. Matlin used sign language during the song and hugged Oscar the Grouch during the song's conclusion. One year after that, Billy Joel invited her to perform in his video for "We Didn't Start the Fire". In 1989, Matlin portrayed a deaf widow in the television movie Bridge to Silence. In that role, she spoke in addition to using sign language. People magazine did not like the film, but praised Matlin's work, writing, "the beautiful, emotionally moving Matlin is too good for this well-intentioned but sentimental slop."
Matlin attended the 1988 Oscars to present the Academy Award for Best Actor. After signing her introduction in ASL, she spoke aloud the "names of the nominees" and of Michael Douglas, the winner. She was nominated for a Golden Globe for her work as the lead female role in the television series Reasonable Doubts (1991–1993). Matlin was nominated for an Emmy Award for a guest appearance in Picket Fences (1992) and became a regular on that series during its final season (1996). She played Carrie Buck in the 1994 television drama Against Her Will: The Carrie Buck Story, based on the 1927 United States Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell 274 U.S. 200. In that role, Matlin portrayed a hearing woman for the first time in her career, which earned her a CableACE nomination for Best Actress. She had a prominent supporting role in the drama It's My Party (1996). She later had recurring roles in The West Wing, and Blue's Clues. Other television appearances include Seinfeld ("The Lip Reader"), The Outer Limits ("The Message"), ER, The Practice, and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. She was nominated for Primetime Emmy Awards for her guest appearances in Seinfeld, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and The Practice.
In 2003, she hosted the 3rd Annual Festival for Cinema of the Deaf in Chicago. In 2004, she starred in the movie What the Bleep Do We Know!? as Amanda. In 2006, she played a deaf parent in Desperate Housewives. She had a recurring role in My Name Is Earl as public defender for Joy Turner (who made many jokes about Matlin's deafness at Matlin's expense), and played the mother of one of the victims in an episode of CSI: NY. That same year, Matlin was cast in season 4 of The L Word as Jodi Lerner, a lesbian sculptor and girlfriend of one of the show's protagonists, Bette Porter, played by Jennifer Beals.
On February 4, 2007, and February 7, 2016, Matlin interpreted the "Star Spangled Banner" in American Sign Language at Super Bowl XLI in Miami, Florida, and at Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara, California, respectively. In January 2008, she appeared on Nip/Tuck as a television executive. In 2008, Matlin participated as a competitor in the sixth season of ABC's Dancing with the Stars. Her dance partner was newcomer Fabian Sanchez. Matlin and Sanchez were the sixth couple eliminated from the competition.
On May 6, 2009, Matlin received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. On November 8, 2009, Matlin appeared on Seth & Alex's Almost Live Comedy Show, hosted by Seth MacFarlane and Alex Borstein. After Borstein imitated Matlin calling MovieFone and singing "Poker Face," Matlin herself appeared and launched into a comical tirade against Borstein over being made fun of, and how she was not invited to provide her own voice for Family Guy. Matlin went on to voice Stella, Peter Griffin's coworker, in the Season 10 episode "The Blind Side;" Stella later became a recurring character.
In 2010, Matlin produced a pilot for a reality show she titled My Deaf Family, which she presented to various national network executives. Although they expressed interest, no network purchased rights to the show. On March 29, 2010, Matlin uploaded the pilot to YouTube and launched a viral marketing campaign. In 2013, Matlin played herself in No Ordinary Hero: The SuperDeafy Movie.
Beginning in 2017, Matlin played the recurring role of Harriet on the Syfy television series, The Magicians. On July 31, 2017, it was announced by Deadline that Matlin joined as a series regular in the third season of the ABC thriller Quantico. She starred in the role of ex-FBI agent Jocelyn Turner. In 2019, Matlin was mentioned in an article by Hearing Like Me as somebody that could bring more #DeafTalent to “Life and Deaf,” a new comedy show set in the 1970s that aims to explore the life of a kid with deaf parents. This show was to be executive produced by Marlee Matlin according to Deadline.
In 2021 Matlin appeared in CODA, an American comedy-drama film that follows a hearing teenage girl who is a child of deaf adults (CODA for short). The film stars Emilia Jones as the hearing girl, with Matlin and Troy Kotsur as her culturally deaf parents and Daniel Durant as her deaf brother; the role earned her a nomination for a Screen Actors Guild Award.