It was more than
20 years ago that Chet Cooper and actress Geri Jewell first met at her
home in Southern California, when he went to interview her for this
magazine. They reconnected recently at an assistive technology conference
in San Diego, where she was the keynote speaker. Later, over dinner,
she talked about coming out of a dark chapter in her life, writing a
new book, and looking forward to how her story was yet to unfold.
Chet Cooper: How did you launch your career?
Jewell: I started doing stand-up comedy in 1978. At the time,
Fern Fields was putting together the Second Annual Media Access
Awards, and everybody told her, Youve got to see this new
comedian with cerebral palsy. Shes really funny. So she
came to see me perform, thought I was hysterical and booked me to perform
at the awards. She and her husband, Norman Brooks, introduced me to
Norman Lear that night. In fact, I believe Charlotte Rae was there that
evening also. And then, three months later, I was on Facts of Life.
Cooper: Thats pretty cool. Your audition was onstage.
Jewell: Yeah, exactly. I mean, she could have gone, Ew!
Cooper: The people doing the casting realize that to do stand-up,
you have to be an actor.
Jewell: Most comedians are good actors. (laughs)
Cooper: I joke around a lot, but I couldnt do stand-up. I couldnt
go up there and perform something rehearsed.
Jewell: You go into an altered state.
Cooper: Im already in an altered state, so that wouldnt
work for me!
Jewell: (laughs) You could.
Cooper: There must have been a complete change in your life from doing
stand-up to being on a hit show. You should write a book about it.
Jewell: (laughs) Actually, I did. Two of them, in fact. One,
called Geri, came out in 1984, and it was supposedly my autobiography.
And now theres a whole new book that I just wrote, Im
Walking as Straight as I Can. The first book gave me a tremendous
push to write the second one.
Cooper: A very slow push...
Jewell: Timing is everything. Initially, I wanted to write a new book
right away, because I was so mortified by the first one. But there was
no opportunity to do so, and the universe knew better than I did that
I had a lot of life to live before I was to write my real autobiography.
And I say that because I wrote every single word of this new book.
Cooper: You said you were mortified by your first book. Why is that?
Jewell: I had very little to do with that one. I was interviewed, and
then Stewart Weiner, who was a sweetheart, did the best he could with
my life, but it was not his life. And the words he chose did not reflect
who I was.
The other thing about that book is that when it was released in 1984,
I found out that The Facts of Life was not renewing my contract.
I was broke. My manager got arrested for embezzlement and securities
fraud. My life was in shambles, and I had to go on every major talk
show, promoting a book that had little to do with what my life was really
about. It was perpetuating the myth that I had succeeded, overcome cerebral
palsy and blah blah blah. It was a hypocrisy to the truth of my life
as I lived it.
Cooper: But you used your acting skills to play the role of author?
Jewell: I had no choice, because if I didnt the publisher could
have sued me for sabotaging the book.
Cooper: Plus you needed the income, given that everything else had
gone south. Did you feel there was any value in people reading the book,
even though it wasnt where you were, lifewise, at that moment?
Jewell: It did help children get comfortable dealing with a person who
has a disability, and taught them the value of a good sense of humor,
so Im not going to knock the whole book. But it was such lighthearted
fluff given that I was struggling so much at the time. Like I said,
I had a manager who was a crook. People in my life were manipulating
me and taking advantage of me. Then The Facts of Life did not
renew my contract.
Years later, they offered me one episode during the fifth season, and
my new manager, Richard Lippin, who was trying to fix all the previous
managers mistakes, turned it down. He felt that after everything
that Id done for Facts, it was a slap in the face that
they would only offer me one show. If I had had it my way, I would have
accepted it anyway. But I dont blame him, because he was right.
The problem was that he thought I was indispensable, and they didnt.
He figured that they would come back with something better. Andoops!they
never did. He told me not to worry about it, that I was going to find
other work because I was very talented, and I was the first person with
a disability to break ground in a TV series.
Cooper: So he saw your value.
Jewell: Yeah, and he tried very hard to put me back on the map. I think
he wrote hundreds of letters on my behalf to producers all over the
industry. And the letters we got in return said, We really love
Geri. Shes sweet, shes wonderful, but we already did an
affliction story this year. So I couldnt get past that,
and nobody could see that the disability doesnt have to be the
story. Hollywood was not there yet; were barely there now. So
things didnt happen for me.
Richard tried for about three years, and then he had to let me go. He
didnt know anything else to do to break down those barriers. It
was hard because everywhere I went back in the 80s, everybody
recognized me from Facts. People were coming up to me, Oh,
I just loved you on the show. How come youre not on it anymore?
Cooper: And to hear that over and over again
Jewell: Yes, and my life was in a downward spiral. I also became addicted
to sleeping pills.
Cooper: You were trying to become an E! True Hollywood Story.
Jewell: (laughs) It was interesting. I was having a hard time
sleeping, but sleeping has always been difficult for me my whole life.
Cooper: Does your mind just continue to go at night, so its hard
to settle it down?
Jewell: Yes. Ive heard thats common with CP. Your body cant
get tired because the brain is going. Its a constant fight. Ive
learned to get better with it over the years. Maturity and age will
do that for you, but itll always be a little bit of an issue.
From the time I was a little kid, my mom used to just want to pull her
hair out, because Id be wide awake at 11:30, when Id just
gone to bed at 8.
Cooper: Have you considered that you might have sleep apnea?
Jewell: Ive never been tested for it. I find that the restlessness
can also affect me when Im doing a scene thats highly emotional
and its very difficult for me to turn off other areas of my body.
I cant just get to the emotions without doing all the movements.
Ive learned to discipline that over the years, so my arms and
legs and head dont go with the emotion.
Whats different today is that Im centered, not emotionally
all over the place, and that allows me to relax more. But in the80s,
when I was struggling with my sexuality, had a crooked manager who stole
all my money, a show that didnt renew my contract and a book out
that I hated, I couldnt handle it. It amazes me that I even lived
through those years. Im lucky Im still alive.
Cooper: When did you realize that you might be gay?
Jewell: I struggled with my sexuality in college, even before I went
into the entertainment industry. I was intelligent, but I had huge gaps
socially and academically because I spent so much of my life in special
ed and being sheltered. So even though I was in college, I was probably
Cooper: So you were about a year behind most college students?
Jewell: (laughs) And then I dropped out of college after three
years and moved to LA. And by the way, I went to college with (comedian)
Alex Valdez. We went to Fullerton Junior College together. And Alex
is the one who got me into stand-up.
Cooper: I did not know that.
Jewell: Yes. We were sitting in Disability Support Services, and I was
complaining to him that I was having a hard time passing courses like
anatomy, physiology and algebra. State Rehabilitation was putting me
through school, even though I really just wanted to be an actor, a comedian
and a writer. I said that I didnt know why I was even in college.
He said, Why dont you do what I do? I go to the Comedy Store
every week and tell blind jokes. Really!
Cooper: So your first jokes were blind jokes?
Jewell: (laughs) Hah! I didnt even know what the Comedy
Store was. I didnt comprehend stand-up comedy. In fact, when I
went to the Comedy Store the first time, I was thinking it was going
to be an Albertsons or
Cooper: A real store. Thats funny!
Jewell: Yeah, I didnt get it. And then I walked in and saw a nightclub
and people drinking, and I was like, Oh, my! And Alex came
with me every Monday night to support me.
Cooper: This was in the LA area?
Jewell: Yeah. And what was interesting is that he introduced me to Danny
Mora, who ran the room, managed it, and he told me that he did not want
me to stand in line from three oclock on every Monday night and
try to get on that way. He didnt want the owner of the Comedy
Store to see me right away.
He said he wasnt sure how she would react to someone like me,
and he didnt want her to say, I dont want her in here,
because I hadnt had a chance to polish my act.
Cooper: So he was trying to protect you?
Jewell: Oh, yeah! He did me a big favor. He said, Come around
every Monday night around 11 oclock, knock on the back door, ask
for Danny, let me know that youre here, and as Mitzi [Shore] leaves
the room, Ill put you on. So he did that for quite a while.
He did me a big favor.
Cooper: Is he still around? Did he watch your career take off?
Jewell: He did. In fact, I ran into him recently, and I gave him a copy
of my book.
Cooper: Is he mentioned in it?
Cooper: Then I trust that there are pictures of me in it as well.
Jewell: (laughs) You know, in the early years of my stand-up
career, I crashed a UCP telethon to get television experience.
Cooper: Never thought of crashing one of those things.
Jewell: (laughs) Crashing a telethon definitely gets you exposure!
I had opened up the TV Guide and it said, Weekend with the stars!
Cerebral palsy telethon with John Ritter! I thought, Thats
for me! I can do that. So I called up the executive producer and
I said, I want to be on your telethon this weekend. He told
me, We book months and months in advance. I said, But
wait a minute, I have cerebral palsy! I thought you said
you wanted to be on the telethon. I do. I do stand-up comedy.
Well, what kind of jokes do you tell?
Cooper: Blind jokes!
Jewell: Blind jokes! No, I told him that I would tell cerebral palsy
jokes. He said, Let me get back with you. And the executive
producer called me about half an hour later and was very curious about
me. He said, Were all booked for talent, but you dont
have any problems hearing or writing do you? No! I
had big problems hearing, but I wasnt going to admit it. And he
actually asked me this; he said, How CPd are you?
Cooper: Oh, my god! (laughs) Thats almost the title of a book
Jewell: He asked it in that order. How CPd are you?
and then, You dont have problems writing or hearing?
When I lied about not having a problem with my hearing, he said, Why
dont you come down as a volunteer; you can answer phones and takes
pledges, and then our host will interview you about what you do and
where you perform. I said, Okay. And I hung up, going,
Oh, my god, I have to answer phones and takes pledges?
Cooper: And I know you love the phones! (laughter)
Jewell: So I had John, Alexs driver, drive me down to the studio.
I got to the gate and I said my name. I was all dressed up in a tuxedo,
ready to perform, not answer phones. Im Geri Jewell,
I said, and Im here to perform in the telethon.
Whats your name?
We dont have you on the entertainment list. I said,
Youre kidding! I dont believe it! He says,Let
me look at another list. We have you on the list to answer phones.
I cannot believe my agent screwed up! Oh, my god! I cant
count on him for anything. Im not answering phones. Im scheduled
to perform in 30 minutes! He didnt know how to handle it,
because he was like, Oh, my god, she has cerebral palsy!
(laughs) All right, he said, just go into the greenroom
with the other celebrities. Im sure theyll take care of
you. So I walked in. They had a form that I had to fill out immediately
with my Social Security number, my managers name and my agents
Cooper: And the manager would be the driver?
Jewell: Yes, and I told them that I had once done Carson and I was a
member of the Screen Actors Guild and Equity. (laughs) So this man comes
over to me after I filled out the form and handed it in; he basically
said, Gee, we have a problem here. Oh yeah,
I said. Whats the problem? Well, were
expecting someone else around the same time whos supposed to answer
phones, and for some reason shes not here. (laughs) I said,
Oh, really? And why is that my problem? (laughs)
I wouldnt give up.
He said, We have a problem because were a person short on
the phones. Would you mind taking some calls until that person arrives?
And thats when I knew what was going on.
I said, But Im going to do stand-up comedy. How can I answer
He comes back five minutes later and shows me this big postcard with
Geri Jewell on it. He said, Geri, will you please answer the phones?
Well put you in the front row in the celebrity panel. Can you
please meet us halfway? Finally, I gave in. But Im determined
to get my way. Im sitting in the celebrity panel, and I cant
hear a darn thing. Every time a phone rings, somebody says, I
want to pledge blah blah blah. You want to pledge what?
I ask, frustrated. And I would give my phone to another celebrity and
say, Can you take this call? (laughs) Actor Greg
Mullavey came over to me and he said, Are you doing OK?
I said, Greg, do I look like Im doing OK? Come on, this
is supposed to be the cerebral palsy telethon. You are supposed to accentuate
my strengths, not my weaknesses. Come on! I want to do stand-up comedy.
He goes away, comes back and says, Listen to me. I am putting
my reputation on the line here. I am going to break away from the script
theyve loaded in the teleprompter, and introduce you. Then you
will come up and do stand-up comedy. Dont you dare abuse this.
Dont you go over three minutes. I agreed.
So he breaks away from the script and John Ritter and everybody, including
the executive producer, is wondering, What the hell is going on?
What is he doing? And I go up to the microphone and say, Hi,
I just want you to know that I have cerebral palsy. (laughs)
And everybodys mouth is just open. They were about ready to wring
his neck. They were about ready to kill me. They couldnt figure
out how I did what I did.
Cooper: Do you remember your first joke?
Jewell: Yes: I have cerebral palsy. Just think of it as CP. Dont
confuse it with MD, MS, VD, AT&T... (laughs) That was
my first time. After people were laughing, the phones lighted up like
crazy with people saying, I want to donate because that girl has
cerebral palsy. I want to donate. Everybodys attitude changed.
It was like, Really? Wow! So the executive producer came
downstairs after I was done. I thought he was going to kill me, because
I knew that I crossed the line.
Cooper: Several times.
Jewell: And he said, You know, I dont know who you are or
how the hell you got on my program, but youre damn lucky youre
Cooper: And the telethon raised more money because of your performance?
Jewell: It did. After I finished my performance, Greg came up to me
and put his arm around me and said, So, where can people come
and see you perform? And I said, At the Comedy Store!
The next week, at the Comedy Store, Danny Mora said, Thank you
for the advertising, but youre not even booked here yet!
Cooper: You kind of pushed that one, because now theyd have
to put you on. Did you know you were doing that?
Jewell: I didnt even think twice about it.
Cooper: So in a sense, that was more national attention. When was
Cooper: And when did The Facts of Life start?
Jewell: In 78. I started in October of 78, and this was
probably May of 79. But after the show was done and the book was
done and my manager had let me go, I came home off the road to this
teeny-tiny single off of Hollywood Boulevard, and I called a dear friend
of mine and said, I cant do this anymore.
Cooper: This meaning life?
Jewell: Yeah. I had $400 in the bank and I had given my landlord 30-days
notice, which gave me two days to get out. I had nowhere to go. My one
option was to call my parents and to move back home with Mom and Dad.
But I was trying to protect them and my false pride. I wanted to prove
that I was a capable adult and that I could live like anybody else.
So to call them up and say, I cant do this, Mom, Dad. Can
I move in? was worse than committing suicide to me because it
would be right in my face that I was a failure.
I dont think I was ever really suicidal. I wanted help more than
anything. And I believe that the sleeping pills I was taking were probably
making the situation worse.
Cooper: Theyre depressants.
Jewell: Absolutely. And I think I mentioned it in the book. Im
pretty sure there was one mention of it, but emotionally, I was justI
was getting Botox injections [for my CP]. I still am. Occasionally I
will take a muscle relaxer, but I have to be very, very careful, because
of the past drug addiction. There are some times when my muscles are
so spastic its just hard. But most of the time I do really well,
like 98 percent of the time I do pretty darn good when you consider
where I came from.
In 2001, I was at a pharmacy in Santa Monica, picking up Botox to deliver
it to the physician to inject it, when this man turned around and said,
Oh, my god, youre Geri Jewell! And I said yeah. He
said, I love you. You inspire me. You made me laugh. I cant
believe Im meeting you. I said yeah. (laughs) And
he said, I havent seen you on TV in a long time. I
said, True. He said, You want a television series?
What? I said, Look, just because Im in a pharmacy
doesnt mean Im totally messed up! Dont play with my
mind. He said, Im not. In case you dont recognize
me, my name is David Milch.
I was like, David Milch, the executive producer of NYPD Blue?
He said yes. I shook his hand. I said, But a cop? (laughter)
He said, No, I just signed a contract with HBO. Im doing
a new western for HBO called Deadwood. Do you want to do a Western?
I looked upas far as my neck would allow meand I said, God,
you have a real quirky sense of humor. Im standing here with cerebral
palsy, a titanium neck, dependent on Botox, and Mr. Milch here wants
me to ride a horse? (laughter)
He wrote his phone number on an anti-depressant ad and told me to call
him. I did, and we met at his office at Paramount, and he had me write
the backstory to a character that I wanted to create with the show.
I did all the research, tons of research, into Deadwood, South
Dakota, and the era and Wild Bill Hickock and Calamity Jane and all
those people and tried to figure out how someone like me could have
existed in that era. I faxed I dont know how many pages, probably
20 or so pages of backstory. . .....
in ABILITY Magazine
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from the Geri Jewell Issue Apr/May
A Charter School With Its Thinking Cap On
Cleaning Up Explosive Remnants of War
ABILITY and China Press Join Forces
Accesible Taxis Several Cities
Get New Wheels
Jewell The Cracks of Life
Heart Care Expert Advice From a Surgeon
in the Geri Jewell Issue; Ashley Fiolek When CNN Came Calling;
Sen. Harkin Education Determines Income; George Covington
Introducing Dan Quayle; Accesible Taxis Several Cities Get New
Wheels; Of Two Minds Film Probes Bipolar Disorder; Book Excerpt
Silent Voices; CHIME A Charter School With Its Thinking
Cap On; Libya Cleaning Up Explosive Remnants of War; China
ABILITY and China Press Join Forces; Geri Jewell The Cracks of
Life; Transitions Aging With Cerebral Palsy; Heart Care
Expert Advice From a Surgeon; Disability Rights Legal Center
The Health Care Act; ABILITY's Crossword Puzzle; Events and Conferences...