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Audree Norton, who many consider the first deaf actress to appear in a featured role on an American network TV series, has died. She was 88.
Norton, a founding member of The National Theatre of the Deaf, died April 22 in Fremont, Calif., her family announced.
In September 1968, on “The Silent Cry,” the episode that kicked off the second season of the CBS crime drama Mannix, Norton starred as a deaf woman who, while reading the lips of a man talking inside a phone booth, realizes that he’s plotting to kidnap someone.
She seeks out good-guy private detective Joe Mannix (Mike Connors). He investigates, putting their lives in jeopardy.
Norton would later appear on such series as Family Affair and The Streets of San Francisco.
Norton also played a deaf mother who wanted to adopt a child in a 1971 episode of ABC’s The Man and the City, and she and her husband, Kenneth, who also was deaf, auditioned for roles as parents in a 1978 ABC Afterschool Special titled “Mom and Dad Can’t Hear Me.”
According to the 1988 book Hollywood Speaks: Deafness and he Film Entertainment Industry, written by John S. Schuchman, a casting director told Norton that “of all the people, you and your husband won the roles. But you are out because the director is afraid to use deaf actors and actresses.”
Instead, Priscilla Pointer and Stephen Elliott were cast, and Norton filed a complaint with the Screen Actors Guild. Schuchman suggests that Norton’s grievance cost her a career in television but paved the way for other deaf actors to work.
Born in Great Falls, Mont., Norton lost her hearing after she contracted spinal meningitis at age two. She and her mother moved to Minnesota, where she attended the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf and then Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.
In 1952, she got married and joined her husband in Sulphur, Okla., where he was teaching at the Oklahoma School for the Deaf.
They moved to San Francisco, and Norton in 1967 helped launch The National Theatre of the Deaf, performing with the company on tours across the U.S., on Broadway and in Europe.
Also in 1967, Norton appeared on an installment of NBC Experiment in Television alongside Phyllis Frelich, the deaf actress who would go on to win a Tony Award for her performance in Children of a Lesser God.
In addition to her husband, Norton’s survivors include children Nikki and Kurt; grandchildren Tessa and Travis; and great-grandson Wesley.
A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. on May 20 at the Klopping Theatre on the campus of the California School for the Deaf in Fremont.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks that a donation to Gallaudet be made in Norton’s memory.
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