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Jack Jason gives voice to, but doesn't talk over, Marlee Matlin

The sign language interpreter, who has worked with the actress for more than 20 years, has been highly visible on 'Celebrity Apprentice' but insists that the attention should be on Matlin.

May 21, 2011|By Rick Rojas, Los Angeles Times

His isn't a household name. But if you know who Academy Award-winning actress Marlee Matlin is — if you've seen her on "Ellen" or caught a recent episode of "Celebrity Apprentice" — you're likely to recognize Jack Jason: He's the short man with close-cropped hair, lending his voice to her words.

He stands at her side at movie premieres and shares the stage with her on talk shows. When Matlin won the Oscar in 1987 for her role in "Children of a Lesser God," it was his emotive voice adding sound to the young deaf actress' signs of appreciation. And as Matlin became one of the final two contestants on "Celebrity Apprentice" (which has its finale Sunday night), he's dutifully had to convey such things as reality TV star NeNe Leakes' snide wisecracks or Gary Busey's boardroom ramblings (before those two were, well, fired).

Jason's appearance on screen — often tucked off to the side — belies the crucial role he has played in Matlin's career. He's not simply an interpreter for hire. He's a confidant, a business advisor and, in a sense, serves as the voice for Matlin, whom he calls the "most visible deaf person in the world."

It's commonplace for an entertainer to have a legion of fixers and sycophants, always on standby. But Jason's role is one of a kind — which makes a kind of sense, as Matlin herself is unique. There may be other deaf actors in show business, yet none have the profile (or the Oscar) that she has.

For more than 20 years, Jason has served as Matlin's conduit to an industry and a viewing public that sometimes doesn't grasp the concept of a deaf actress. Behind the scenes, he pitches her to casting directors and tweaks roles built for a hearing actor so that she can be a contender.

Jason remembers the moment when the balance between being an interpreter and advisor shifted. It was in a long-ago meeting with movie executives in which he blurted out an idea for a version of "Wait Until Dark" with a deaf character. That moment, Jason says, was when "I broke the mold. I stepped out of my interpreter role."

On "Apprentice," he's worked mostly as her interpreter but has also conferred with producers on how to accommodate Matlin on the show, specifically in Donald Trump's boardroom, says Page Feldman, an executive producer for "Apprentice."

As he trudges alongside Matlin on the intense reality show, he's gotten his fair share of airtime and has garnered something of a following. On Twitter, viewers sometimes comment on his "handsome" looks and note what an "amazing" team he and Matlin appear to be.

Some have countered that having Jason at her side has been an advantage for Matlin: Maybe that extra hand or set of eyes on the grueling, backstabbing circus of a show could mean the difference between winning and losing.

Matlin disagrees. "An interpreter is not an advantage; an interpreter is access," she insists. "He's not a Tempur-Pedic mattress. I don't need comfort from him. I need to be working."

For nearly as long as she's been in the industry, he's been working with her. Jason was hired after Matlin finished shooting "Children of a Lesser God," her 1986 film debut. William Hurt, her costar and boyfriend at the time, was doing interviews in his New York City apartment. He wanted Matlin to go out, but the young actress didn't know the city. She needed a guide as much as an interpreter.

Hurt called New York University looking for one. Jason, a poor film student in grad school, offered himself up. The child of deaf parents, he considers sign language to be his first language.

At the outset, neither thought such a long, close partnership would develop between the budding if unique starlet and a PhD student who aspired to tenure. But their senses of humor just clicked: for both, it's a wicked sensibility — sometimes childish, sometimes scatological — that harks back to their Jewish roots. (Jason said there are plenty of cries of Oy! and plaintive moans between the two of them.)

"They have almost their own language," Feldman says. "They're connected in so many ways because they just go back."

Jason makes it clear that it's Matlin who's boss and the one on whom the spotlight should shine. He instinctively ducks out of a photographer's shot. More than once in a recent conversation over a cappuccino and croissant, he says, "It's about Marlee," though never defining what it is.

A month from his 55th birthday, Jason is single with no children, and appears quite content to have his identity so seemingly intertwined with Matlin. (Indeed, his father keeps a scrapbook of Matlin alongside one of Jason.)

"I grew up a short, fat, Jewish kid," he says. "It's not in my background wanting to seek that kind of attention."

But he points out that he learned to speak by watching television, and the time spent watching left him enamored with show business. He remembers writing in a journal that he hoped some day his voice would be heard by millions.

It seems that Matlin has also served as a conduit for him, offering a circuitous route to a glimmer of the spotlight.

"It's an odd life," he says, with a quick laugh. "I don't think there's anyone quite in the position I'm in. But I'm lucky I'm in it with such an exceptional person."

rick.rojas@latimes.com

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