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Tony Award-Winning Playwright Mark Medoff Dies At Age 79

Playwright Mark Medoff author of <em>Children of a Lesser God</em>, in New York in April 2004.
Justin Walters
Playwright Mark Medoff author of Children of a Lesser God, in New York in April 2004.

Mark Medoff, whose Tony Award-winning play Children of a Lesser God opened the stage for deaf actresses, died Tuesday at his home in Las Cruces, N.M., at the age of 79.

He had been suffering from multiple myeloma and renal failure, The Associated Press reported, citing his daughter Jessica Bunchman.

Medoff wrote 30 plays and is best known for the groundbreaking Children of a Lesser God, the story of a young deaf woman and her love affair with her speech teacher.

The play was inspired by Medoff's encounter with deaf actress Phyllis Frelich who told him that there were no stage roles for deaf actresses. Medoff's response was his promise to write a play for her.

Children of a Lesser God ran for almost 900 performances on Broadway with Frelich playing the part of the strong-willed Sarah Norman. It also earned Frelich a Tony award in 1980 for best actress and a best actor award for her costar, John Rubenstein.

The play was later made into a 1986 movie starring Marlee Matlin and William Hurt. Matlin won an Oscar for her portrayal of Sarah.

"He insisted and fought the studio that the role be played by a deaf actor; I would not be here as an Oscar winner if it weren't for him. RIP Dear Mark," Matlin tweeted on Tuesday.

Medoff first won acclaim as a playwright in the early 1970s with When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder? which won a Drama Desk and Obie award in 1974. That play was followed by The Wager and another strong review from The New York Times.

Medoff, who also wrote, produced or directed 19 movies, co-founded the American Southwest Theatre Company and for nine years was the head of the Department of Theatre Arts at New Mexico State University. He taught there for more than 50 years, the Las Cruces Sun News reports.

He was born March 18, 1940, in Mount Carmel, Ill., and grew up in Florida where he earned his bachelor's degree in English from the University of Miami. Medoff earned a masters degree at Stanford University in 1966.

Medoff is survived by his wife Stephanie, three daughters and eight grandchildren.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Richard Gonzales is NPR's National Desk Correspondent based in San Francisco. Along with covering the daily news of region, Gonzales' reporting has included medical marijuana, gay marriage, drive-by shootings, Jerry Brown, Willie Brown, the U.S. Ninth Circuit, the California State Supreme Court and any other legal, political, or social development occurring in Northern California relevant to the rest of the country.