Deaf actor overcame odds to do what he loves
To order this photo, go to Josh Biggs/Arizona Daily Sun Deaf actor Anthony Natale of "Mr. Hollands Opus" and other television and stage productions gives a speech in sign language at the Cline Library on the campus of NAU.

He was turned down for his first commercial because he was too young to drink alcohol at 21.

But age was hardly a challenge for actor Anthony Natale when other producers would turn him down for parts because an interpreter was too expensive. Natale was born deaf and strives to make it in image-conscious Hollywood.

He gave a presentation at Cline Library at Northern Arizona University Wednesday.

He reads lips and speaks American Sign Language, which he learned at a deaf boarding school in Canada. At some point in junior high he took up acting, at a time when hearing students started integrating at the school.

In his first play, a musical, the characters were paired with a hearing and deaf student in all the roles. He was Tevye, the father, in "Fiddler on the Roof."

Bit by the acting bug, he continued seeking roles in school productions and then pursued drama in college. He finally landed at California State University Northridge after a stint at Gallaudet University.

"I didn't like my freshman year (at Gallaudet)," he said through an interpreter. "I didn't like it because I had been in a boarding school my whole life and I wanted another experience."

It was while at Cal State Northridge he went for his first audition for the wine cooler commercial, which was looking for a deaf actor. But he discovered during the audition he was too young. Hollywood requires actors to be at least 25 years old to appear in liquor ads because 21 years appear to young, he said.

It would be the first of many frustrating encounters in acting, but he'd have some successes, mostly with commercials. In the meantime, he kept with theater, the place his acting started.

In his early 20s, he was getting tired of trying for television roles and being turned down. He planned to head to New York and Broadway. As he headed out, his agent pushed him to audition for a movie role in "Mr. Holland's Opus." He relented by submitting a video tape and continued on his way east, he told the audience.

He kept up with his skills, honing them at a summer workshop at the National Theater of the Deaf in Connecticut. At the time they offered him a job touring with them, he also received the part in "Mr. Holland's Opus." Scheduling allowed him to do both.

But people may better know Natale for the elevator scene in "Jerry MacGuire" in which he signed "You complete me." Or, so that's what Hollywood wanted people to believe.

The script wanted him to sign that sentence, but a more direct translation is "you make me whole." He's had conversations with ASL translators about a better way to say it in ASL because sometimes the signs are not there to get the meaning of the English words across and there were many ways he could have done it, he said.

Some of the members of the audience Wednesday were NAU students learning sign language. They asked Natale for advice to improve their ASL skills.

"You can go to classes," said Natale, who is an ASL teacher. "But the way you learn is by socializing with deaf people."

He also had advice for future speech pathologists: learn sign language. He said it is easier to get the point across to a deaf person if they can use the language the deaf person understands, yet many speech pathologists do not know ASL.

As for acting in Hollywood, it involves constantly educating people about deaf actors. He challenges himself and others by auditioning for hearing parts, he said.

Reporter Sara Kincaid can be reached at 556-2250 or

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