The Sweet Story of How Marlee Matlin Lived with Henry Winkler After Getting Sober
The Oscar winner, who stars in the new movie CODA, on how a chance meeting with Henry Winkler and his wife Stacey helped Marlee Matlin find and keep her footing in Hollywood
Marlee Matlin's Hollywood success story began three decades ago when she won an Oscar at age 21 for her first-ever movie role in 1986's Children of a Lesser God. But the actress was struggling behind the scenes with addiction.
Matlin, who is now 55 and stars in the Apple TV+ coming-of-age drama CODA, learned of her historic nomination after she checked herself into rehab. She was the youngest and first deaf winner in Oscar history.
"It was the best ever place I could be, the best decision I ever could've made because it worked," Matlin tells PEOPLE via her interpreter and longtime friend Jack Jason. "To this day, I've been sober for 34 years, so it was what I needed at the time. Who knew, at 21? To make a decision that I would have to make, not from or for anybody else, but just on my own. I pat myself on the back for making that decision."
Since then the actress has appeared in numerous films and TV shows, Seinfeld, Law & Order: SVU, The West Wing and Dancing with the Stars to name a few, and has been a part of groundbreaking work for the deaf community.
Her latest film CODA (the acronym stands for Child of Deaf Adults) follows a teenage girl who is the only hearing member of her family. The film (available to stream on AppleTV+ Aug. 13) won the two top awards at the Sundance Film Festival and has received rave reviews from critics.
Matlin's success hasn't come easy, of course. The actress, who has been deaf since she was 18 months old after a childhood illness, is a self-described "open book" about the ups and downs she's experienced in life and in Hollywood—one being the fact that she is proudly 34 years sober.
Part of her success story includes her longtime friendship with fellow actor Henry Winkler and his wife Stacey—with whom she lived after leaving rehab and winning her Oscar.
"They gave me a foundation to build my career on," says Matlin, who first met the Winklers when she was just 12 years old and was part of an after-school program at the International Center on Deafness and the Arts outside Chicago.
Winkler, 75, who tells PEOPLE Matlin is like "our second daughter," happened to be in Chicago and had been asked to go visit the International Center on Deafness and the Arts.
"Stacey and I went to a talent show at this place. A young girl came out, 12 years old, couldn't hear, and danced to a song from The Pajama Game," he recalls. "And Stacey and I wept, not because it was a little girl dancing who couldn't hear, but because her spirit jumped out of her body and into everyone's hearts. You couldn't miss it if you had a pulse."
After the performance, Winkler and his wife met Matlin.
"I went up to him and I said, 'Hi, I'm Marlee, and I want to be an actor in Hollywood, just like you,'" Matlin recalls. "And he said, 'Sure. Don't let anyone tell you no.' And eight years later, I was standing on a stage with an Oscar."
For much more on Marlee Matlin and CODA pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE on newsstands Friday
The Winklers kept in touch with the actress over the years and watched her win the Oscar.
"Cut to, there is a knock on the door," says Winkler. "It's Marlee. And she said, 'Look, I just left my boyfriend. I have no place. Can I just stay with you for two days?' Two-and-a-half years later, she finally moved out."
Matlin says the Winklers welcomed her into their family and helped her grow as a person and an actor.
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"They said, 'Stay as long as you need to.' And I said, 'Fine.' They let me do a self-examination, explore Hollywood, set up meetings with production companies, set up my own production company," she says. "And they are both part of my professional life and my personal life."
"We had dinner together every night with the family," she continues. "All the way, I was trying to respect their boundaries as a family, because I was living in the guest house, but they always insisted that I join them for meals. And at the same time, they always gave me words of support and advice. After dinner, Henry and I would sit there over his glass of tea, and he always made sure that my dates were appropriate that came to pick me up."
Matlin says the Winklers are "one of the most loveliest families you'll ever, ever meet. Accommodating, genuine. You couldn't find a more genuine family in Hollywood."
CODA is available to stream on Apple TV+ Aug. 13.
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