Phyllis, who at 70 recently passed away in her Los Angeles area home, was a very talented actress. But like other deaf actors, most of her work, when there was any work to be had, was confined to small showcases performing in plays for the deaf.
Until Phyllis, for deaf actors rarely was there ANY mainstream acting work to be had. If she and her husband hadn't convinced a top playwright to write what became an extraordinary play for her, deaf actors might still be invisible.
Deeply frustrated by her lack of work and seeing no possibilities on the horizon, Phyllis appealed to playwright Mark Medoff to whom she had been introduced by her husband, Robert Steinberg, to create a play for her as a deaf person.
"She was so animated and vivid, she made me immediately want to be able to converse with her," Medoff told The New York Times. "I was swept away. Within 20 minutes I told her I was going to write her a play."
Phyllis Frelich Photo: Justin Walters/AP
Medoff worked closely with Phyllis and her hearing husband Steinberg, to write what became a classic play and movie, "Children of a Lesser God," about an intimate relationship that develops between a deaf woman and her speech teacher (who can hear), at a school for the deaf.
Medoff told the Associated Press, shortly after Phyllis' passing:
"The play opened and I really thought, 'I'm working with as good as an actor as I've ever worked with in my life. And I've got to take advantage of it.' "
Phyllis and the other cast members were so talented, and the play so powerful, that in 1980, Phyllis won Broadway's prestigious Tony Award for Best Actress, for her performance at the heart of "Children of a Lesser God."
The play also won the Tony Award for Best Play, and co-star John Rubinstein won the Tony for Best Actor.
Phyllis' success opened the doors for other deaf actors.
Among them was deaf actress Marlee Matlin, who won the Best Actress Oscar in the 1986 movie version of "Children of a Lesser God."
Phyllis never stopped working, and reunited with playwright Medoff in various Broadway plays.
Her acting career also took her to Hollywood, where she landed key roles in such television shows as "Barney Miller," "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," "ER," "L.A. Law" and "Santa Barbara."
"She was extraordinary, the finest sign language actress there ever was," her husband Robert told the Huffington Post. "We were married for 46 years. I would have been happy with 46 more."