Audree Norton, a deaf actress whose fight to be cast on a television show in the late 1970s effectively ended her career in the medium but greatly helped the careers of deaf actors who followed her, died on April 22 at her home in Fremont, Calif. She was 88.Her death was announced by her alma mater, Gallaudet University, in Washington. At her death, Ms. Norton was an emeritus professor at Ohlone College in Fremont, where she taught English, psychology and drama.Ms. Norton was a founding member, in 1967, of the National Theater of the Deaf. The company’s formation was a watershed moment in the employment of deaf actors, who had enjoyed steady work in the silent-film era but had been marginalized with the coming of talkies.The National Theater of the Deaf was the first company to present regular productions in American Sign Language. Today used by hundreds of thousands of deaf people in the United States and parts of Canada, A.S.L. arose spontaneously among deaf Americans in the early 19th century. But by the 1960s, it had long been stigmatized as a crude pidgin English. At the time, its myriad grammatical complexities — as rich as, though quite different from, those of English — were only dimly understood.Ms. Norton acted in many of the company’s productions, including two evenings of one-acts that came to Broadway in 1969. The first included an adaptation of “The Tale of Kasane,” a Japanese work, in which she played one of a pair of lovers on whom the action centers; the second included signed renditions of poems by William Blake, Lewis Carroll and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, with Ms. Norton signing Browning’s “How Do I Love Thee?”In both productions, narrators translated the action into spoken English for the benefit of hearing audience members.Ms. Norton, often described as the first deaf actor to be cast on a network television show, had guest roles on several staples of the 1960s and ’70s. Among them were “Mannix,” on which she played a deaf woman who reads the lips of a man in the act of plotting a kidnapping; the long-running sitcom “Family Affair”; and “The Streets of San Francisco.”In the late 1970s, she and her husband, Kenneth Norton, who is also deaf, auditioned for the roles of the mother and father in “Mom and Dad Can’t Hear Me,” an ABC Afterschool Special about a hearing teenager (played by Rosanna Arquette) with deaf parents.As Ms. Norton recounted in “Hollywood Speaks: Deafness and the Film Entertainment Industry” (1988), by John S. Schuchman, the show’s casting director told her, “Of all the people, you and your husband won the roles,” but added, “But you are out because the director is afraid to use deaf actors and actresses.”The show was broadcast in 1978, with the parents played by two hearing actors, Priscilla Pointer and Stephen Elliott. The Nortons responded with a public battle, filing a complaint with the Screen Actors Guild and rallying other deaf actors to the cause.The protest was of no direct help to Ms. Norton, who — possibly as a consequence — did not work in television again. But by raising public awareness of the work of deaf actors, it demonstrably helped pave the way for the generation that followed, including Marlee Matlin, who won an Oscar in 1986 for “Children of a Lesser God.”In 1989 The Los Angeles Times reported that before the fight over “Mom and Dad Can’t Hear Me,” only 33 percent of deaf characters on TV were played by deaf actors, compared with 78 percent a decade later.
Audree Lauraine Bennett was born on Jan. 13, 1927, in Great Falls, Mont. When she was 2, a bout of spinal meningitis left her deaf. With her mother, she moved to Minnesota, where she attended what is now the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf in Faribault.She earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Gallaudet College, as it was then known, in 1952, and married Mr. Norton, a classmate, that year. She received a master’s in rhetoric and public address from California State University, Hayward, in 1976.Ms. Norton began her acting career at mid-century as an on-camera model, appearing in TV commercials for Kodak and Royal Crown Cola, accompanied by a hearing actor’s voice-over.Besides her husband, Ms. Norton’s survivors include a daughter, Nikki; a son, Kurt; two grandchildren; and a great-grandchild. Another son, Dane, died in 1990.She was awarded an honorary doctorate from Gallaudet in 2012.