Nearly 700 people in the Omaha area were enthralled last week by the joint performance of two veteran actors — Marlee Matlin and Henry Winkler.
The setting wasn't a stage play, but rather a “humanitarian dinner.” And the humanity of the pair — who have enjoyed a fascinating personal connection for decades — shone through.
They spoke at the annual honors banquet of Inclusive Communities, the pro-diversity organization that started in Omaha 85 years ago as the local chapter of the National Conference of Christian and Jews.
To say that Oscar-winner Matlin spoke, of course, is to say that she used sign language; her interpreter, Jack Jason, spoke her words aloud. Deaf since she was 18 months old, she is now 46, married and the mother of four — and with a long list of acting credits.
What you may not have known is that Winkler — at the time he was hugely famous for having created the “Fonzie” character on the 1970s TV sitcom “Happy Days” — discovered Marlee as an actress when she was 12.
She grew up in the Chicago area, began acting at age 7 and attended the Center on Deafness. Winkler and his wife visited and were impressed by the youngster, who wanted to be an actor.
Her parents were always supportive, and yet they feared she would face disappointment if she went to Hollywood.
As Winkler said Thursday evening at the Embassy Suites LaVista, recalling the first time he saw her, Marlee's soul fairly jumped out at the audience. “This,” he told her, “is what you were born to do.”
Henry himself had faced challenges. Growing up in New York, he was told he was “lazy and stupid.” Only as an adult, he said, was his problem finally diagnosed — dyslexia.
At 21, Marlee won a best-actress Academy Award for “Children of a Lesser God.” Oscar in hand, she soon showed up on the doorstep of Henry and Stacey Winkler, who invited her to stay with them. Years later, she was married on their front lawn.
Marlee, 46, and Henry, 66, now tell their story together — adroitly interrupting each other or completing the other's thought — with humor and insight.
They urge acceptance of those who are different, and encourage people, especially the young, to dream, work hard and not underestimate themselves.
“You don't know how much power is in you,” Winkler said, “until you just try.”
The pair received a standing ovation. So did Inclusive Communities 2012 honorees Evelyn Adler-Zysman, Ronald Moore, Michael and Susan Lebens and Dr. Stanley and Dorothy Truhlsen, and student speaker Jackson Gzehoviak, a Millard North graduate who will attend Harvard University.
The last ovation went to Barb Angelillo, who is leaving after 12 years as Inclusive Communities executive director and 35 years in Omaha. She is moving to her native San Francisco to be closer to her adult children and other family members.
A speaker noted that signs in her office say “Nobody is born a bigot,” and “To end racism, start small.”
In her farewell to the audience, Angelillo said she has especially enjoyed working with young people. She added: “Do your little bits of good wherever you are.”
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