MICHAEL O'LEARY, WHO PLAYS Dr. Rick Bauer on CBS's Guiding Light, remembers chasing after Amy Ecklund on the soap's Manhattan soundstage one August afternoon last year. Ecklund, 26, had just beaten out 50 other deaf and hearing-impaired actresses for the role of Abigail Blume, a deaf Amish girl who settles in the fictional town of Springfield, and the producers delegated O'Leary, who had done a screen test with Ecklund, to break the good news.
"I followed her to the elevator," he recalls. "I'm saying, 'Amy! Amy!' Then I tapped her shoulder and she turned around. I said, 'Uh, Amy, the producer would like to see you.' And she said, 'Oh no, don't tell me I have to sleep with him already?!' "
Executive producer Michael Laibson laughs. "Amy's funny and she's quirky," he says. "When she came in [to audition], she brought a vitality to the scene that was stronger than the others'." Ecklund soon began lobbying to make sweet, sheltered Abigail more feisty and self-sufficient, and GL's writers granted her wish. Now, Ecklund boasts, "Abigail is Jackie O with a hearing problem."
Which is not unlike how Ecklund perceives herself. Professionally she has never lacked confidence, which isn't as remarkable as it might seem, says the actress, relaxing in the one-bedroom Manhattan apartment she rents with stage actor Jon Ecklund, 27, her former high school classmate and college sweetheart whom she married last April. For one thing, she explains, "I'm really proficient at reading lips." Moreover, says Jon, "she memorizes everyone else's lines." And she displays barely a hint of her disability when she speaks. "It comes off like dialect," says her husband. "People just end up asking where she comes from."
And the answer is: Reno. That's where Amy, the second of three children of C. Robert Cox, a trial lawyer, and his wife, Shirley, a graphics designer, was born. When Amy was 6, her parents divorced, and Shirley moved with the children to Austin in her native Texas. There doctors discovered that Amy's hearing loss, first suspected at age 3, had worsened considerably. (It has since deteriorated to the point where she is now deaf.) But they could only speculate as to the cause. "They think it's because I took penicillin and I was allergic to it," Ecklund says, "or because I [once] had a really high fever. They are not sure."
Shirley, who married Fred Delph, a Motorola employee, in 1978, was certain about one thing: She would not send her daughter to a school for the deaf. "I wanted her to be able to function in a hearing world," she says. "She had to immediately start wearing hearing aids to keep up." Shirley also enrolled her in acting classes after school, says Ecklund, "so that I wouldn't have a speech impediment. My mother is one of the main reasons why I am as independent as I am."
She was certainly a free spirit at Austin's Westwood High School. "When I met her," says Jon, "she was wearing View-Master discs for earrings. She had orange lips."
Ecklund performed in plays at West-wood as well as community theater, sometimes costarring with Jon. It wasn't until both were in college (she at USC, he at the University of Texas) that a long-distance romance blossomed. "We were faxing each other for a whole year," she says. "We've got boxes and boxes of 35-page letters."
In 1993, just before she earned her B.A., Amy and Jon learned they had both won berths at the Williamstown (Mass.) Theater Festival company. "It gave us a chance to spend a summer together," she says. That winter, they set up housekeeping in New York City, where both made the casting rounds. Last spring, following their wedding, Jon learned he had been accepted at Yale Drama School in New Haven. Amy visits him on weekends.
Meanwhile she is broadening her horizons. Not long ago the casting director on a made-for-cable movie asked her to test for the role of a character who wasn't hearing-impaired. Though Ecklund didn't get the part ("It was too old for me," she says), the experience buoyed her. "I can play those [deaf] roles," she says, "but I don't want people to think I can't play others." She sighs: "I don't want to be known as the next great deaf actress."
MICHAEL A. LIPTON
CYNTHIA WANG in New York City
- Cynthia Wang.