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‘The Fonz’ inspired Marlee Matlin to follow her dream

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Marlee Matlin, left, and Henry Winkler, second from right, pose with Annette and Lionel Goldman at the Combined Jewish Appeal launch.

MONTREAL — The 2013 Combined Jewish Appeal (CJA) was launched with an inspiring message from two well-known American actors who had to overcome disabilities before embarking on successful careers.

Henry Winkler, most famous for his role as The Fonz in the 1970s TV series Happy Days, and Marlee Matlin, who won an Academy Award for her performance in the movie Children of a Lesser God, were the guest speakers at the Aug. 21 kickoff at Place des Arts’ Théâtre Maisonneuve.

Winkler, 67, and Matlin, 48, have been friends since she was a 12-year-old growing up in Illinois with the dream of becoming an actor. There was one problem: she had been deaf since infancy. Hoping to shield her from disappointment, her parents tried to dissuade her from acting as a profession.

Winkler was already established in his career, married and a father, when he first saw Matlin performing at the Center on Deafness in Chicago. She was dancing on stage to music she could not hear, but sensed it through the vibrations on the floor.

Winkler knew right away she had a talent, and although Matlin’s mother pleaded with him to speak to her and tell her she could never be an actor, he refused.

Instead, he encouraged the young Matlin to follow her dream. Winkler understood that disability can be overcome with enough willpower.

The New York City native had grown up with severe dyslexia, but in those days it was thought he did poorly in school because he was “stupid and lazy.” He only understood what afflicted him when he was 31.

On top of that, his parents were strongly against him going into acting, which he had known he wanted to do since age seven. His parents, German-Jewish immigrants who came to the United States on the eve of World War II, wanted him to go into the family lumber business.

“I was the king of negative thinking: I can’t, I won’t, I’ll never,” Winkler recalled, until he learned that, “When such thoughts come into my mind, I say, ‘Sorry, I have no time for you now.’”

Eventually, he made it into the Yale School of Drama, and a starring role in a popular TV show. In the past 10 years, he has co-authored a series of 24 children’s books about a boy who is dyslexic.

Matlin communicated in sign language, which was interpreted for the audience, in a humorous and sometimes poignant dialogue with Winkler.

This was Winkler’s first time in Montreal. Not so for Matlin, who, was the guest speaker three years ago at Choices, the CJA women’s division’s major campaign event.

When young Matlin learned that Winkler was going to visit her centre, she was determined to meet him, and they did backstage.

“I saw right away there was something in you touched by God. ‘If you want it, you will be an actor,’ I told her,” he remembered.

But after winning an Oscar at 21, Matlin suffered a setback.

Hollywood columnist Rex Reed claimed she had received the “pity vote” and that a deaf person playing a deaf person was not really acting.

Heartbroken, she fled to Winkler’s home in Los Angeles for solace. An offer to spend the weekend turned into two years while she rebuilt her career. It was at Winkler’s house that Matlin’s wedding took place 20 years ago. The couple now has four children.

“It’s 26 years since the Hollywood critics said my career was DOA – deaf on arrival – and I’m still here,” she said.

“No matter what barriers we have, everyone has the right to be included. Each has unique gifts to share.”

Matlin is forever grateful to Winkler for the confidence he gave her. She concluded: “You may think I live in a world of silence, but silence is the last thing in the world you will hear from me.”

The campaign’s motto is “I am here/J’y suis” suggesting both a readiness to contribute to the community and a determination to maintain a strong Jewish presence in Montreal.

“No other gift impacts as many Jewish lives as a gift to CJA,” said general chair Jeff Segel.

He noted that campaign expenses in Montreal  – at 9.7 per cent of funds raised – are among the lowest for any major charity in North America, due in large part to corporate sponsorships.

For the third consecutive year, more than $1 million has been raised among corporations to help offset the overhead, Segel said.

The evening opened with a spectacular acrobatic performance by Cirque du Soleil artists, especially created for CJA, and closed with five Israel Defence Forces soldiers singing spiritedly in Hebrew.

The campaign, which mobilizes over 1,00 volunteers, officially winds up in November.

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