Bernard Bragg, a trailblazer for deaf performers who in 1967 became a founder of the National Theatre of the Deaf in Connecticut, died on Oct. 29 in Los Angeles. He was 90.
The actress Marlee Matlin, a longtime friend, confirmed his death.
Mr. Bragg, who was born deaf to deaf parents, began carving out a performing career in the late 1950s after studying with the mime Marcel Marceau. He appeared at clubs in the San Francisco area like the hungry i, working in a style of his own invention he called sign mime, which combined elements of American Sign Language with the tools of mime.
In the mid-1960s he joined up with Edna Levine, a psychologist who worked with the deaf and for some time had been thinking about a professional company of deaf actors, and David Hays, a set and lighting designer. Together they formed the National Theatre of the Deaf, which gave its first public performance in 1967 at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn.
The company won a special Tony Award in 1977.
Mr. Bragg performed with it for 10 years, including in several Broadway shows, before becoming a visiting professor at his alma mater, Gallaudet University in Washington, which serves deaf and hard-of-hearing students. A 1979 article in the Washington Post called him “the man who invented theater as a professional career for the deaf.”
One who followed the career path that Mr. Bragg opened up was Ms. Matlin, an Oscar winner for the 1986 film Children of a Lesser God.
“I have known Mr. Bragg since I was 8 years old, when I took a class which he was teaching at Chicago’s Center for Deafness,” she said by e-mail. “Always curious and always with questions, particularly because he was the first Deaf person I had met who was an actor, I remember asking him, ‘Can I be an actor like you?’ To which he responded with a warm smile, ‘Yes, you can!’ That stuck with me.”
Bernard Nathan Bragg was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Sept. 27, 1928, to Wolf and Jennie (Stoloff) Bragg. His father had created an amateur acting group for deaf performers.
With deaf parents, and a deaf aunt and uncle living in the same building, Mr. Bragg was surrounded by sign language. In Lessons in Laughter: An Autobiography of a Deaf Actor, he recalled the revelatory moment when, as a young boy, he was sent to the store with a note and money to buy his mother cigarettes.
“I gave the coin and the note to the proprietor and he looked at me and started to move his mouth,” Mr. Bragg wrote. “He did not sign at all, and I became visibly disconcerted by the strange movements of his mouth under his heavy mustache.”
The man read the note and gave him the cigarettes, and he went back to his fifth-floor apartment.
“It was thus that I made the discovery of my deafness, all by myself,” Mr. Bragg wrote.
He graduated from the New York School for the Deaf in 1947 and enrolled at what was then Gallaudet College, studying theatre there and acting in school plays. Though he enjoyed performing, there was no obvious career path in show business for a deaf person; instead he took a teaching job at the California School for the Deaf in Berkeley, occasionally performing skits and directing small shows at conventions and clubs for the deaf. Then, in 1956, he made a life-changing trip to see Mr. Marceau perform in San Francisco.
Mr. Marceau’s ability to hold the crowd’s attention without words so struck Mr. Bragg that he sought Mr. Marceau out after the show and, with a note, introduced himself and asked where he could study mime. Mr. Marceau asked him to return the next day with a sample of his work, which he did: He performed two original sketches, one in which he played Noah and all the animals on the ark, the other in which he depicted all the instruments of an orchestra. Mr. Marceau invited him to study with him in France.
He spent the summer of 1956 doing just that and, when he returned to the United States, he began performing at nightclubs, schools and universities in the San Francisco area. His routines were generally a mix of set pieces and improvisation.
“He told me a funny story about one night in the hungry i,” Michael Schwartz, a longtime friend who met Bragg when he participated in the National Theatre of the Deaf’s summer school in 1976, said by email. “When Bernard finished his act and exited the stage, the audience applauded, but the manager ran out on the stage and said, ‘Stop, stop applauding, it doesn’t matter, Bernard is deaf, he can’t hear your applause.’ When someone told Bernard, he ran back to the stage and mimed, ‘I am deaf, but with my eyes, I see your applause. Keep applauding.’”
From 1958-61, Mr. Bragg had his own television show on KQED in San Francisco, The Quiet Man, on which he would perform mimed stories, among other things. He also continued to teach, and in 1959, earned a master’s degree in special education at San Francisco State University.
Mr. Bragg moved back east in 1967 to help start the National Theatre of the Deaf. Its fundraising efforts were given a boost that year when NBC broadcast an episode of the series Experiment in Television called “Theater of the Deaf,” featuring Mr. Bragg and others who would become core members of the National Theatre. The group mounted national tours and appeared several times on Broadway in the late 1960s.
In 1973, Mr. Bragg was an artist in residence with the Moscow Theatre of Mimicry and Gesture, and in 1977, he went on an international tour sponsored by the State Department and other groups, appearing in 25 countries.
His projects after leaving the National Theatre included serving as a technical adviser for the 1979 television movie ... And Your Name Is Jonah, about a deaf boy who is wrongly labelled as intellectually disabled. He also appeared in the film.
He leaves no immediate survivors.
In 2014 two students at the Rochester Institute of Technology, Jean Pietrowski and Allison Thompson, curated an exhibition there that focused on Bragg’s career.
“Watching him sign,” Pietrowski said at the time, “is like a small religious experience. The way he moves is so expressive, you can’t help but be entranced.”
That expressiveness remained with him even in his final months. Bragg made a cameo appearance in March in an article in The New York Times about immigrant workers in the United States who fill low-wage, low-skill jobs. The article focused on one such worker, Irma Mangayan, from the Philippines, a personal care aide in the assisted-living center where Bragg occupied a room.
“In Room 411,” the article said, “she improvised sign language to communicate with Bernard Bragg, an 89-year-old who achieved fame decades ago as a deaf actor.
“Mr. Bragg, asked what he thought of Ms. Mangayan, pointed to her, placed his hands over his heart and smiled lovingly. He then flapped his arms to suggest she was an angel.”