A bout of roseola infantum rendered actress Marlee Matlin almost completely deaf at the age of 18 months. Never permitting her affliction to impede her ambitions, Matlin launched her stage career at age 8, playing Dorothy in the Des Plaines Childrens Theatre of the Deaf production of The Wizard Oz. She put her theatrical aspirations on the back burner while studying criminal justice at William Rainey Harper college, but by her early 20s was back on stage, playing a minor role in the original Chicago Immediate Theatre Production of Children of a Lesser God. By the time this community-theatre effort went "professional" and was transplanted to New York, Matlin had been promoted to the leading role of Sara. She repeated this role in the 1988 film version of Children of a Lesser God, and in so doing became the first deaf actress to win the Academy Award. During this same period, Matlin was involved in a well-publicized romance with her Lesser God co-star William Hurt.
In her talk-show appearances, Matlin is invariably accompanied by an interpreter, who relays the meaning of her sign language to the studio audience; from the 1989 TV movie Bridge of Silence onward, however, the actress has endeavored to speak as often as possible. From 1991 through 1993, Marleen Matlin starred as assistant district attorney Tess Kaufman on the weekly TV series Reasonable Doubt and in 1995 and '96 she played Mayor Laurie Bey on the Emmy Award-winning Picket Fences.
Moving into the new millennium Matlin continued to be active in television and film, frequently essaying recurring roles in such popular shows as My Name is Earl, The West Wing, and The L Word and turning up as the lead in the existential documentary What the #$*! Do We Know (2004).