Justin Walters / AP
Saturday, April 12, 2014 | 9:18 p.m.
Phyllis Frelich, a Tony Award-winning deaf actress who starred in the Broadway version of "Children of a Lesser God," has died. She was 70.
Frelich, died Thursday at their home in Temple City, Calif., her husband, Robert Steinberg, said. She suffered from a rare degenerative neurological disease called progressive supranuclear palsy, or PSP, for which there are no treatments, he said.
"She was extraordinary, the finest sign language actress there ever was," he said. "We were married for 46 years. I would have been happy with 46 more."
A native of Devils Lake, N.D., Frelich graduated from the North Dakota School for the Deaf and Gallaudet College — now Gallaudet University — in Washington, D.C. She was the oldest of nine deaf children born to deaf parents.
Frelich became interested in acting while at Gallaudet. She joined the National Theatre of the Deaf where she met Steinberg, who worked as a scenic and lighting designer on several plays by Mark Medoff.
The couple inspired Medoff to create "Children of a Lesser God," which follows the relationship between a deaf woman and a teacher at a school for the deaf. The production was first staged in New Mexico and then in Los Angeles. Frelich won a Tony in 1980 for her Broadway portrayal of Sarah Norman, the deaf woman at the heart of the play.
"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."
Medoff, now a professor at New Mexico State University, said he was immediately charmed by her energy and her enthusiasm for having a conversation with him.
"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 AP on Saturday.
Medoff went on to write other plays with her in mind, including "In the Hands of Its Enemy," in which she starred as a deaf playwright with Richard Dreyfuss.
Frelich didn't see herself as any pioneer, but more as an actor who happened to be deaf, Medoff said. A supporter of the rights of deaf people, Frelich urged for more roles for deaf performers.
"She didn't start out as a revolutionary individual, but she became an incredible advocate for deaf culture," Medoff said.
"Children of a Lesser God" was later made into a movie, which won an Academy Award for deaf actress Marlee Matlin.
John Rubinstein, who won the Tony for the male lead role of John Reed in "Children of a Lesser God," said nobody matched Frelich's energy.
"She was 70 years old, but that statistic means nothing. She looked like a 40-year-old woman ready to run 25 miles," Rubinstein said.
He said she never gave less than 100 percent. Rubinstein said the audience always got an intimate and gut-wrenching experience watching Frelich express "what she needed to express with only her arms and hands and face and body."
Jeffrey Tambor, who acted opposite Frelich and Dreyfuss in "The Hands of Its Enemy," called her "a walking acting lesson."
"I just remember her eyes just radiating all this warmth and power and love and courage in her performance," Tambor told the AP.
He said she brought the audience to its feet every night during the play's one-year run. Off-stage, her sons and his daughter would play together in between matinee and evening performances. And she would be amused when he said something in sign language incorrectly.
"It was just a wonderful play and a wonderful cast. Phyllis was our leader. She was something," Tambor said.
Frelich also appeared in the Hallmark Hall of Fame miniseries "Love is Never Silent" and on TV shows as "CSI," ''ER" and "Gimme a Break!"
Frelich received North Dakota's highest honor, the Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award, in 1981. Her picture hangs in the state Capitol.
Associated Press reporter Daisy Nguyen contributed to this obituary from Los Angeles.