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Lori Frankian, compassionate actress, volunteer, and consultant, dies at 52

After a fire devastated a block in the Fens, Ms. Frankian organized artists to paint murals on the facades until the owners could rebuild.
After a fire devastated a block in the Fens, Ms. Frankian organized artists to paint murals on the facades until the owners could rebuild.(John Tlumacki/Globe staff/File 2010)

“All they see is what I’m sitting in,” Lori Frankian said as she waited in 1990 for the dress rehearsal to begin for a play that was her theatrical stage debut.

“I’m going to prove to society I’m capable, and everyone is capable of attaining their goals,” she told the Globe that day.

As an actress and acting consultant, and as an activist whose compassion comforted the homeless and children at risk, Ms. Frankian spent her life attaining goals many might have thought impossible for someone who used a wheelchair to get around.

She was 52 when she died Jan. 28 of pneumonia, a complication of spinal muscular atrophy. When Ms. Frankian was diagnosed at 1½, doctors had predicted she might die within a few months and surely would not live past the age of 6.

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Instead, she acted on stage, on TV, and in films; she ran her own consulting agency for actors; and she volunteered for years with groups and agencies that advocated for the homeless and for children.

She also was a vibrant, visible part of the Fenway neighborhood in Boston, which was her home for much of her life.

Living life in a wheelchair was its own lesson, though Ms. Frankian was usually the teacher.

“I am more confident today because I’ve had to deal with people’s reactions to me,” she told the Newbury Street and Back Bay Guide in 1998.

“I’ve had to overcome everyone else’s insecurities. I try to help people get through their stuff,” she added. “When they see that I’m just like them, only sitting down, they become more comfortable. I have found that if a person is more comfortable in their own skin, they are more apt to be comfortable with me.”

Ms. Frankian’s first experience in the spotlight came at the end of the 1970s, when she was the Easter Seals Child of Central Massachusetts and began appearing in telethons.

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“As soon as they said, ‘You’re on,’ I felt it,” she told the Newbury Street and Back Bay Guide. “There’s nothing like knowing I was affecting so many people, that I was touching their lives.”

That experience inspired her to inspire others the rest of her life, as her mother noticed when she visited Ms. Frankian at Northeastern University.

“When she was in college, I would go in fairly regularly to spend a day with her. At that point, I think there were 17,000 students at Northeastern, and I figured she knew about 10,000 of them because we couldn’t walk anywhere without people stopping us, including the homeless,” said Janice Ritz Fiske of Millbury.

“I’ve never been hugged and called ‘mom’ by so many homeless people in Boston as when I was with her,” Janice added. “She was always giving them food and setting them up in shelters and reaching out to make their lives better and giving them encouragement.”

And though Ms. Frankian was unforgettable to all she met, she also was invested in her family, including being a devoted, attentive aunt to her nephews, Tanner and Riley.

“She was a lot of things to a lot of people, but to me, she was just a normal, regular sister,” said her brother, Brett, who lives in Shrewsbury. “She was a truly amazing person.”

Born in Worcester in 1966, Lori A. Frankian grew up in Shrewsbury. Her father, Robert Frankian, died in 1997. She was still a baby when she was diagnosed with Werdnig-Hoffmann Disease, a neuromuscular disorder.

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“At the time, I was pregnant with my son, and the neurologist told us that she had six months to live, and we should institutionalize her, because he didn’t feel I would be able to take care of her needs and a new infant,” her mother said. “Which, of course, we never did.”

As Ms. Frankian outlived her doctors’ predictions, she fit in easily with other children.

“When other kids were out riding their bikes, her brother included, she was on her little battery-operated car, going through the neighborhood,” her mother said. “And she always was a part of everything that we could possibly make her a part of, trying to prepare her for a time when her father and I would not be around.”

Even as a young girl, Ms. Frankian exhibited the compassion that would define her as an adult.

“I remember the day her brother started walking. I was so worried about that day and how it was going to make her feel, being unable to walk,” her mother said. “But she was so excited for him. She just sat there clapping and encouraging him, with the biggest smile on her face.”

Ms. Frankian graduated from Shrewsbury High School and went to Northeastern, from which she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in communications.

An internship at the Bain & Co. management consulting firm led to a job after graduation, in a variety of administrative positions. Ms. Frankian also had worked from the late 1980s through the late ’90s as a sales and research assistant at radio stations, hosting her own talk show, and directing publicity for a community theater and for an alliance of theater artists and directors.

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Meanwhile, she plied the acting trade in Boston, New York, and Los Angeles, landing some parts and notching a number of what she called “almosts” for larger roles. On her acting résumé, she listed among her talents “finger dancing” – she used her hands expressively while speaking — and “wheelchair stunt driving.”

“I want my own sitcom. I have to make my mark,” she told the Globe in 1990, and she later became a member of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, an actors’ and artists’ union.

She packed her résumé with just as many volunteer endeavors, including her association with Easter Seals telethons that stretched for nearly two decades.

Ultimately, Ms. Frankian turned her attention back to Boston’s acting community, where she ran her own consulting and casting company. “There was a huge need for someone to guide actors in the business of the business,” she said in the Newbury Street and Back Bay Guide interview.

“You’ve got to be the master of every aspect of this industry. Knowledge is power,” she said, adding that her goal was “to educate, motivate, and inspire.”

A gathering in Boston to celebrate Ms. Frankian’s life will be announced.

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In addition to her mother, brother, and nephews, she leaves her stepfather, David Fiske of Millbury.

“It’s not going to be the same,” Brett said of his family’s life, now that Ms. Frankian is no longer around to offer encouragement. “I talked to her every week. I still find myself reaching for that phone.”

Whether helping the homeless, working to preserve the best aspects of the Fenway neighborhood, or guiding actors toward success, Ms. Frankian “always put others first. She collected hearts through her life — literally and figuratively,” her mother said.

“People were just drawn to her,” she added. “I was so lucky to be chosen to be her mother. I learned so much from her — how to be strong. She taught me many lessons.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BryanMarquard.