Phyllis Frelich, Stage Star of 'Children of a Lesser God,' Dies at 70

Phyllis Frelich LOVE IS NEVER SILENT 1985 - P 2014
Hallmark/Everett Collection

Phyllis Frelich LOVE IS NEVER SILENT 1985 - P 2014

UPDATE: The deaf actress won a Tony Award for her leading role in the 1980 Broadway play. Marlee Matlin earned an Oscar for playing the part in the film version.

Phyllis Frelich, the deaf actress who won the best actress Tony Award in 1980 for her performance in the best play winner Children of a Lesser God, has died. She was 70.

Robert Steinberg, her husband of 46 years, told The Hollywood Reporter that Frelich for the past few years had been struggling with PSP (progressive supranuclear palsy), a rare degenerative neurological disease for which there are no treatments. She died Thursday at their home in Temple City, Calif.

PSP is the disease that took the life of actor Dudley Moore at age 66 in 2002.

Marlee Matlin was the recipient of the best actress Oscar for playing Sarah Norman, the role that Frelich originated, in the 1986 Paramount Pictures film version. Matlin said on Twitter that she was "devastated … [Frelich] was a TRUE talent. RIP"

In the original Broadway play, a speech therapist (John Rubinstein) who works at a school for the deaf falls in love with a maid/student at the school, played by Frelich. It was written by Mark Medoff and first performed in a workshop production at New Mexico State University, with Frelich and Steinberg starring.

"You paved so many roads for us, Phyllis," the Deaf West Theatre group of North Hollywood said on its Facebook page. "A leading light of our community has been lost, and we mourn deeply."

Frelich, born to deaf parents and the oldest of nine deaf children in her family, earned an Emmy nomination for her supporting role in the 1985 Hallmark Hall of Fame miniseries Love Is Never Silent and had a regular role as a deaf nun on the NBC soap opera Santa Barbara.

She also appeared on such TV series as Barney Miller, Gimme a Break!, Spenser: For Hire, Hunter, L.A. Law, Pacific Blue, ER, Diagnosis Murder and, most recently, in a 2011 episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation as the mother of Gil Grissom (William Petersen).

She performed the American Sign Language interpretation of Jewel's rendition of the national anthem at the Super Bowl in 1998.

A native of Devils Lake, N.D., Frelich attended the North Dakota School for the Deaf and then Gallaudet University in Washington.

In addition to her husband, survivors include their sons Reuben and Joshua. The family asks that donations in the name of Phyllis Frelich Steinberg be made 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.

Twitter: @mikebarnes4