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Unreasonable Doubts : Marlee Matlin Overcomes Skepticism to Star in Her Own Series

September 22, 1991|SHARON BERNSTEIN | Sharon Bernstein is a Los Angeles-bases free-lancer and frequent contributor to TV Times and Calendar.

Marlee Matlin has the firmest handshake in Hollywood.

She needs to. Being young, female and hearing-impaired in a realm controlled by hard-driving men renders one fairly low on the "take me seriously" scale.

And seriously is how Matlin, who stars in NBC's new legal drama "Reasonable Doubts," wants to be taken.

"She doesn't let people get away with things," said Jack Jason, Matlin's sign-language interpreter and friend since he was hired in 1985 by her then-boyfriend William Hurt to interpret for her during the European premiere of his film "The Kiss of the Spider Woman."

"People say she's really intense," Jason said. "She looks you in the eye, she gives you a strong handshake. Sign language necessitates the eye contact. And the handshake is just Marlee."

Matlin, who plays Tess Kaufman, a Chicago-based assistant district attorney in "Reasonable Doubts," won an Oscar in 1987 for her performance, opposite Hurt, in the film "Children of a Lesser God." Just 21 at the time, she became the youngest woman ever to win the best actress award, and the only hearing-impaired Oscar winner.

Since then she appeared in the 1987 feature "Walker," the television movie "Bridge to Silence" with the late Lee Remick and the feature "The Man in the Golden Mask." She is also in the as-yet unreleased film "The Linguini Incident" with Rosanna Arquette and David Bowie.

When she was growing up, Matlin recalled, "some people sort of brushed me aside. It still happens today, but it's not something I let them get away with."

Born in Morton Grove, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, Matlin came into the world as a hearing child, into a family that had no experience with deafness. She lost her hearing at 18 months, after a battle with the childhood disease roseola.

Because of her age, Matlin was among the first generation of hearing-impaired children to be encouraged to attend regular public schools instead of institutions for the deaf, as part of a special-education program known as "mainstreaming."

"I went to a public school all through my life that had a program for the deaf," she said. "I took the bus to school, and when I was old enough to drive, I drove. I did everything that the typical high school teen-ager did." Her parents, Matlin said, were protective of their willful daughter, but they raised her to live without fear in the hearing world.

"My parents are very independent people," Matlin said between takes on the set of "Reasonable Doubts. "They're very big-hearted people, very friendly, but at the same time very protective of themselves and their kids. They gave me a lot of independence growing up and they supported me in whatever I wanted to do."

On the set, Matlin uses a mixture of sign and spoken language to communicate. Her voice, when she uses it, is husky but strong. She has a running joke with co-star Mark Harmon: Because he received a parking privilege for his trailer that she did not share, every time Harmon comes on the set she shouts his name at the top of her lungs, as if imitating a program announcer who is introducing the star of a show. She follows the shout with a barely audible whisper of her own name, the second banana.

This day, she had persuaded the entire crew to shout Harmon's name as he makes his entrance in a rehearsal scene. The shout and accompanying laughter could be heard throughout the mammoth sound stage where rehearsal is taking place.

"She has a great sense of humor," Jason said, as Matlin bustled around on the set that represents the office of her boss on the show. This interview was to take place on that set, but it is dark, and no one among the crew seems to understand that light is needed--not just to be comfortable, but in Matlin's case, in order to communicate.

Finally, Matlin took up the cry for assistance like a chant: "We want light! We want light!"

It worked.

Matlin's mixture of disarming charm and rock-hard determination worked equally well on "Reasonable Doubts" executive producer Robert Singer, who said that, initially, he did not conceive the character of Tess as hearing-impaired. Until he met Matlin.

"It was supposed to just be a general meeting to get to know her, and she was so winning ... she's really captivating," Singer said. "I had this idea that I had sold NBC, and right after meeting her I knew I wanted her to do it."

Singer said that while NBC programming chief Warren Littlefield was extremely supportive of the casting of Matlin and the rewriting of Tess as hearing-impaired, others in the television industry were not.

"I heard when I was writing the thing, 'You bit off something that you won't be able to chew; this will be an impossibility; it can't work on prime-time TV,' " Singer said. "We just pushed forward."

Matlin, who wants to produce as well as act, and work as an advocate for closed-captioning on television, has been pushing forward as long as she can remember. And really, that's what the handshake, the steady gaze, the warm and concerned reception given a stranger all add up to.

"I say, 'Hey, look, I'm a human being, too,' " Matlin said. " 'I'm standing right here. I'm not invisible.' "

"Reasonable Doubts" premieres Thursday at 10 p.m. and moves to its regular time slot Friday at 10 p.m. on NBC.

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