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A trailblazer for deaf actors dies: Devils Lake native won Tony Award in Broadway play, Rough Rider Award

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Phyllis Frelich, a Devils Lake native credited with helping to blaze a trail for deaf actors, has died.

She was 70.

The Deaf West Theatre, based in Los Angeles, made the announcement Thursday night. Frelich had been involved with the theater.

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“You paved so many roads for us, Phyllis,” the group said on its Facebook page. “A leading light of our community has been lost, and we mourn deeply. Our thoughts are with her family.”

Frelich was the oldest of nine deaf children born to deaf parents, but she dreamed of becoming an actress, according to the state’s biography of her and news reports.

Graduating from the state School for the Deaf in her hometown, she went to Gallaudet College, a school for the deaf in Washington, D.C., before seeking a career in acting.

She was one of the founding members of the National Theater of the Deaf in 1967 and, through her involvement there, met playwright Mark Medoff. Inspired by the difficulty of deaf actors to find a suitable role, he wrote “Children of a Lesser God” with her in mind for the leading role.

Frelich went on to win a Tony Award in 1980 for her performance in the Broadway play.

Actress Marlee Matlin, who won an Oscar for her role in the movie version of the play, mourned Frelich’s death on Twitter: “I’m devastated that Phyllis Freilich Tony winner for ‘Children of A Lesser God’ has died. She was a TRUE talent. RIP.”

The state of North Dakota honored Frelich with its highest honor, the Rough Rider Award, in 1981. Her portrait hangs in the Capitol with other award winners.

“Betsy (Dalrymple) and I are saddened to hear of the passing of Phyllis Frelich,” Gov. Jack Dalrymple said in a statement Friday. “She will always be remembered as a gifted actress and an inspiration. Although she was deaf, she never wavered in her pursuit of the theater arts. She was a great example of the power of determination and she inspired many others to pursue their dreams. Our thoughts and prayers are with her family, friends and her many fans.”

Besides Frelich’s work on the stage, an online filmography shows she acted in many TV shows, from the soap opera “Santa Barbara,” in which she played the recurring character Sister Sarah, to “CSI: Crime Scene Investigations,” in which she played the mother of a victim.

She shared the screen with Matlin in that episode.

Frelich was nominated for an Emmy in 1985 for her supporting role in the Hallmark Hall of Fame miniseries “Love is Never Silent.”

An online source said she died in Temple City, Calif. She is survived by her husband, Robert Steinberg, a nondeaf set designer.

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