Louie "Lou" Judson Fant Jr.

Louie Fant, an educator and actor who was one of the founders of the National Theatre of the Deaf, has died.  He was 69.

Fant, who wrote books on sign language and, during the 1980s, co-hosted the television program "Off-Hand," died Monday in Seattle of complications from pulmonary fibrosis.

Born in Greenville, S.C., to deaf parents, Fant could hear well but learned sign language virtually before he began to speak.

"I became bilingual at birth," he told a reporter for the San Diego Union-Tribune some years ago, "learning sign language from my parents and [auditory-verbal] English from my relatives."

He went to Baylor University for a bachelor's degree, while initially pursuing a degree in the ministry for the hearing-impaired.  But he changed his vocation to teacher and earned a master's degree at Columbia University.

After teaching elementary school at the New York School for the Deaf, Fant joined the faculty at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., the nation's preeminent school for the hearing-impaired.  While acting as a "voice" for deaf actors in school productions, Fant developed an interest in acting and the theater.

In 1967, he helped found the National Theatre of the Deaf in Waterford, Conn., and toured the country with the troupe over the next three years in the capacity of actor, interpreter, translator, narrator and administrator.

He believed the theater experience that his company offered helped provide a fresh perspective for hearing people.

"Whenever National Theatre of the Deaf performs, 60% of the audience is hearing," he told a reporter for The Times some years ago. "You see, they make a point of saying it's theatre OF the deaf, not FOR the deaf.  And hearing people who don't know what to expect -- they think they're going to watch a bunch of handicapped people on stage -- suddenly, they forget the handicap and realize they're just watching actors working in a different medium.  And they love it...

"It's broken down a lot of barriers," he added, "made hearing people aware of deaf people -- and that they have something to offer in theater, dance, art, literature, all forms of the arts -- that only a deaf person can offer."

Fant relocated to Southern California in the 1970s to pursue his acting career.  He did local theater and found character parts in a number of TV programs and films including "Looking for Mr. Goodbar" and "Little House on the Prairie."  

He also worked as a consultant and sign language coach for numerous actors, including Diane Keaton, Henry Winkler, and John Rubenstein.  He coached actors in the use of sign language on the set of "Children of a Lesser God."

Through the 1980s, Fant co-hosted a program called "Off-Hand" on KHJ-TV Channel 9 in Southern California.

Fant's co-host, the hearing-impaired Herb Larson, would offer his witty commentary in sign language, which Fant would later translate into words for the hearing TV audience.  The show won two local Emmy awards and featured guests ranging from actress Marlee Matlin to ventriloquist Paul Winchell.

Fant also offered seminars on sign language across the country.  The author of several books on sign language, his "The American Sign Language Phrase Book" is still widely used.

Fant is survived by his wife, Barbara Bernstein, and four children.