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Star of series marvels at Thomas' lip-reading skills

Sunday, October 13, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

PASADENA, Calif. -- When Deanne Bray, the actress playing Sue Thomas, met the real Sue Thomas, she was instantly impressed.

"There she is," Bray whispered, sighting her from about 50 feet away.

No matter. Thomas knew what Bray had said. She read her lips.

"I was just amazed," Bray said. "I used to think that lip reading was a myth because it's hard. The difference between 'mall,' 'Paul' and 'ball' -- the 'M' and 'P' and 'B' starts with your mouth together -- how can you distinguish that? But Sue has an amazing gift."

Bray, like Thomas, is deaf, but her hearing loss is not as profound as Thomas'.

"I'm severely deaf. I have a little hearing, but without a hearing aid, I cannot hear," Bray said. "With Sue Thomas, a hearing aid does not help. She has a gift to read lips and speak well."

Bray stars in the new Pax TV series "Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye," which is based on Thomas' real experience working for the FBI. Pax doesn't have a local station in Pittsburgh, but it is carried on most AT&T and some Adelphia cable systems in the area (see cable conversion chart in TV Week for channel numbers). Pax TV is also available to Dish Network (Channel 181) and DirecTV (Channel 255) satellite subscribers.

"Sue Thomas" creators Gary Johnson and Dave Alan Johnson met Thomas seven years ago when it was suggested they write a movie about her. Thomas impressed them, but they were busy on other projects. Still, they stayed in touch.

After "Doc" became a success for Pax, network executives asked them what they'd like to do next. The day they'd set up a meeting with the network, Dave Johnson received an e-mail from Thomas.

"She told me in it that she has MS and she's going blind," Dave Johnson said, his voice cracking, at a Pax news conference in July. "This woman is an amazing woman and I could tell she was a bit down. And as I went through the thing, her spirit just comes through."

At the end of the e-mail, Thomas suggested that, given the success of "Doc," they might think about turning her story into a TV series. That set the wheels in motion.

"For us, [this series] is really about making a bridge," Dave Johnson said. "In that deaf world, there's often been the deaf culture and the hearing culture. Sue Thomas will tell you, she never really quite fit in either one. Deanne, interestingly, fits in both. We want to have that progress that says we can be a bridge to those two worlds. We want to be respectful and communicate properly the deaf culture and language in the world and things that we don't understand completely yet because we've never been exposed to them."

Bray, who previously taught math and science to hearing-impaired high school students in East Los Angeles, had been acting on the side, mostly on stage but as a guest star on a few TV shows ("CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," "Ellen," "Diagnosis Murder").

She said she misses her students, and when the series ends she'll probably return to teaching, which she called "my passion." But she sees opportunities to educate viewers about the deaf world with "Sue Thomas."

"It's going to be about the FBI, but in subtle ways you'll see a deaf individual working in the hearing world, and you'll see the obstacles she faces and you'll see the hearing point of view and how some of them are not sensitive to her needs," she said. "You'll see how a deaf person views the world through her eyes."

Originally, the series was titled "Lip Service," but that didn't fly for two reasons. The term is frowned upon in the deaf community, Bray said, and a Web site with that name is pornographic, something family-friendly Pax TV obviously wanted to avoid.

"Also, when I'd say to relatives, I got the role in 'Lip Service,' it sounds kind of dirty," she said. "I like saying 'Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye' better."

Rob Owen can be reached at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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