Phyllis Frelich Dies: 'Children of a Lesser God' Actress Was 70

Image: Phyllis Frelich Dies: 'Children of a Lesser God' Actress Was 70

Monday, 14 Apr 2014 07:51 AM

By Nick Sanchez

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Phyllis Frelich, the deaf actress who both inspired and starred in the Broadway version of "Children of a Lesser God" has died at the age of 70.

"She was extraordinary, the finest sign language actress there ever was," her husband, Robert Steinberg, told The Associated Press. "We were married for 46 years. I would have been happy with 46 more."

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Steinberg said his wife died from a rare degenerative disease for which there is no cure, progressive supranuclear palsy, or PSP.

It was through her husband, a scene and lighting designer, that Frelich came to meet playwright Mark Medoff, inspiring him to write "Children of a Lesser God."

"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."

In the play, Frelich played Sarah Norman, a deaf woman under the tutelage of a teacher at the school for the deaf. In 1980, she won a Tony for her performance on Broadway. The 1986 movie version of the play also netted deaf actress Marlee Matlin an Oscar.

"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,'" said Medoff, now a professor at New Mexico State University.

Actor Jeffrey Tambor of "Arrested Development" fame once starred alongside Frelich and Richard Dreyfuss in "The Hands of Its Enemy," and said of his late friend, "Phyllis was our leader. She was something . . . a walking acting lesson."

In recent years, Frelich appeared on TV shows like "ER," "CSI," and "Diagnosis Murder."

In addition to her husband, Frelich is survived by her two sons, Reuben and Joshua. They encourage supporters to donate to CurePSP.

"Phyllis hoped that her suffering could help raise awareness of the disease and maybe prompt some drug company somewhere to get busy," Steinberg said.

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