Phyllis Frelich
Phyllis Annetta Frelich

(1944-02-29)February 29, 1944
DiedApril 10, 2014(2014-04-10) (aged 70)
Years active1970–2011

Phyllis Annetta Frelich (February 29, 1944 – April 10, 2014) was a deaf American actress. She was the first deaf actor to win a Tony Award.

Early life

Frelich was born to deaf parents Esther (née Dockter) and Philip Frelich,[1] and was the eldest of nine siblings (all deaf). She attended North Dakota School for the Deaf, graduating in 1962, and then went on to study at Gallaudet College, the only liberal arts university in the world for deaf students. Her parents were also alumni of the North Dakota School for the Deaf.[2] At Gallaudet she completed a degree in library science, but also participated in theater. It was there that she was seen performing by David Hays, one of the founders of the National Theater of the Deaf, who asked her to join the theater company.[3]


In 1973, she moved to New York City along with Mel Winkler, Frank Alesia, and Jeannie Russell.[citation needed]

Frelich originated the leading female role in the Broadway production of Children of a Lesser God, written by Mark Medoff. That play was specially written for her, and based to some extent on her relationship with her husband Robert Steinberg.[4] Children won the Tony for Best Play; Frelich won the 1980 Best Actress Tony Award and her co-star, John Rubinstein, won the Best Actor Tony Award.[3] Frelich was the first deaf actor or actress to win a Tony Award.[5] Marlee Matlin played Frelich's role in the film version, for which she won the Academy Award for Best Actress. Frelich later starred in other plays written by Medoff, including The Hands of Its Enemy and Prymate.[3] She was nominated for an Emmy Award for her performance in the 1985 television movie Love Is Never Silent. On the original air date of February 9, 1985, she appeared as a guest in the Gimme A Break! episode "The Earthquake". Frelich appeared in the recurring role of Sister Sarah on Santa Barbara. Her last acting role was in an episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation in 2011.[3]

Frelich was elected to the ninety-member Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Board in Hollywood, the highest policy-making body in the entertainment industry in 1991. She was the first deaf actress to be recognized in the United States.[6]

In 1991, Frelich starred with Patrick Graybill in The Gin Game at the Deaf West Theatre in Los Angeles drawing critical acclaim on their aesthetic art of American Sign Language. This performance was adapted from D. L. Coburn's play and was directed by Linda Bove, with Deaf West Theatre artistic director Ed Waterstreet.[6]


Frelich died on April 10, 2014, at her home in Temple City, California at the age of 70 in April 2014 from progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP), a rare degenerative neurological disease for which there are no treatments.[7]



Year Title Role Notes
1992 Judgement District Attorney
1997 Santa Fe Dr. Joyce Ginsberg
2002 Children on Their Birthdays Mrs. Bobbit


Year Title Role Notes
1981 Barney Miller Madeline Schaefer Episode: "Stormy Weather"
1985 Gimme a Break! Martha Episode: "Earthquake"
1985 Love Is Never Silent Janice Ryder TV movie
1986 Spenser: For Hire Joan Cugell Episode: "When Silence Speaks"
1987 Santa Barbara Sister Sarah Recurring role, 31 episodes
1989 Bridge to Silence Amanda Wingfield TV movie
1991 Hunter Barbara Collins Episode: "Cries of Silence"
1992 L.A. Law Suzanne Bidwell Episode: "My Friend Flicker"
1998 Pacific Blue Helena Episode: "Broken Dreams"
1998–1999 ER Dr. Lisa Parks 2 episodes
1999 Diagnosis: Murder Frances Lamar Episode: "Today Is the Last Day of the Rest of My Life"
2004 Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye Helga Episode: "The Holocaust Survivor"
2008 Sweet Nothing in My Ear Sally TV movie
2011 CSI: Crime Scene Investigation Mrs. Betty Grissom Episode: "The Two Mrs. Grissoms", (final appearance)


  1. ^ "Philip Frelich". Inforum: The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. December 6, 2006. Archived from the original on April 21, 2014. Retrieved March 29, 2022.
  2. ^ "Obituary for Philip Frelich at Gilbertson Funeral Home". Retrieved 2020-11-04.
  3. ^ a b c d Weber, Bruce (April 15, 2014). "Phyllis Frelich, Deaf Activist and Actress, Dies at 70". New York Times. Retrieved April 21, 2014.
  4. ^ Weber, Bruce. "Phyllis Frelich, Tony-Winning Actress and Deaf Activist, Dies at 70" The New York Times, April 14, 2014
  5. ^ "National Association of the Deaf - NAD".
  6. ^ a b Lang, Harry G.; Meath-Lang, Bonnie (1995). Deaf persons in the arts and sciences : a biographical dictionary (1. publ. ed.). Westport, Conn. [u.a.]: Greenwood Press. pp. 130. ISBN 0-313-29170-5.
  7. ^ Notice of death of Phyllis Frelich Archived 2014-04-14 at the Wayback Machine,; accessed April 13, 2014.

Further reading