US Playwright Mark Medoff dies aged 79

Playwright Mark Medoff, who has died aged 79, with Children of a Lesser God actor Phyllis Frelich.
Playwright Mark Medoff, who has died aged 79, with Children of a Lesser God actor Phyllis Frelich.

Mark Medoff, a provocative playwright whose Children of a Lesser God won Tony and Olivier awards and whose screen adaptation of his play earned an Oscar nomination, has died in Las Cruces, New Mexico, aged 79.

Medoff died on Tuesday in a hospice surrounded by family, according to his daughter, Jessica Bunchman. He reportedly had been battling cancer.

Medoff wrote 30 plays and wrote, produced or directed 19 movies. He found his greatest success with Children of a Lesser God, the tale of a troubled love affair between a speech teacher and a deaf woman who struggle to overcome the communications gap between their two cultures.

Phyllis Frelich won a Tony in 1980 for her Broadway portrayal of Sarah Norman, the deaf woman at the heart of the play, which ran for almost 900 performances.

Children of a Lesser God was later made into a movie, which won an Academy Award for actress Marlee Matlin opposite William Hurt. Medoff co-wrote the screenplay, according to a family statement released on Wednesday.

"He had a way of making every creative heart with whom he worked feel as if their work, or their part in his work, was the single most important thing to him in the moment. In turn, hundreds of writers, actors, directors and creatives all over the world consider Mark Medoff a mentor," the statement said.

Matlin tweeted on Wednesday: "Mark Medoff, the brilliant mind behind the Tony Award winning play, Children Of A Lesser God, has passed at 79. 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."

A Broadway revival last year of Children of a Lesser God starred Joshua Jackson and Lauren Ridloff, a former Miss Deaf America who earned a Tony nomination.

Medoff's work often tackled social issues, from animal testing and AIDS in the play Prymate, to American myths and disorders in the Obie-winning stage work When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder to poverty in India in his screenplay for the 1992 film City of Joy.

His 2015 play, Marilee and Baby Lamb: The Assassination of an American Goddess, is about the last days of Marilyn Monroe.

"Everything I do probably starts more from a social-issue impulse than anything else," the playwright told The Associated Press in 2004.

"I went to a psychologist when I was 18 or 19 and he said I was the first kid he'd ever met who was rebelling against a happy childhood. So when I started writing, I began to expropriate social issues and quickly roped myself out of my angst."

Medoff was inspired to write Children of a Lesser God after meeting Frelich and her husband, Robert Steinberg, a lighting designer.

"I told him there were no roles for deaf actresses," Frelich recalled.

"He said, 'OK, I'll write a play for you.' He did. He went home and wrote Children of a Lesser God. He wanted to write a good play."

Australian Associated Press