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, “You’ve got to see this new comedian with cerebral palsy. She’s 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: That’s 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 couldn’t do stand-up. I couldn’t go up there and perform something rehearsed.
Jewell: You go into an altered state.
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 there’s a whole new book that I just wrote, I’m 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 didn’t 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 wasn’t 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 I’m 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 manager’s mistakes, turned it down. He felt that after everything that I’d 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 don’t blame him, because he was right. The problem was that he thought I was indispensable, and they didn’t. He figured that they would come back with something better. And—oops!—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. She’s sweet, she’s wonderful, but we already did an affliction story this year.” So I couldn’t get past that, and nobody could see that the disability doesn’t have to be the story. Hollywood was not there yet; we’re barely there now. So things didn’t happen for me.
Richard tried for about three years, and then he had to let me go. He didn’t 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 you’re 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 it’s hard to settle it down?
Jewell: Yes. I’ve heard that’s common with CP. Your body can’t get tired because the brain is going. It’s a constant fight. I’ve learned to get better with it over the years. Maturity and age will do that for you, but it’ll 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 I’d be wide awake at 11:30, when I’d just gone to bed at 8.
Cooper: Have you considered that you might have sleep apnea?
Jewell: I’ve never been tested for it. I find that the restlessness can also affect me when I’m doing a scene that’s highly emotional and it’s very difficult for me to turn off other areas of my body. I can’t just get to the emotions without doing all the movements. I’ve learned to discipline that over the years, so my arms and legs and head don’t go with the emotion.
What’s different today is that I’m centered, not emotionally all over the place, and that allows me to relax more. But in the’80s, when I was struggling with my sexuality, had a crooked manager who stole all my money, a show that didn’t renew my contract and a book out that I hated, I couldn’t handle it. It amazes me that I even lived through those years. I’m lucky I’m 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 emotionally 12.
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 didn’t know why I was even in college. He said, “Why don’t 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 didn’t even know what the Comedy Store was. I didn’t 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 Albertson’s or—
Cooper: A real store. That’s funny!
Jewell: Yeah, I didn’t 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.
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 o’clock on every Monday night and try to get on that way. He didn’t want the owner of the Comedy Store to see me right away.
He said he wasn’t sure how she would react to someone like me, and he didn’t want her to say, “I don’t want her in here,” because I hadn’t 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 o’clock, knock on the back door, ask for Danny, let me know that you’re here, and as Mitzi [Shore] leaves the room, I’ll 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, “That’s 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, “We’re all booked for talent, but you don’t have any problems hearing or writing do you?” “No!” I had big problems hearing, but I wasn’t going to admit it. And he actually asked me this; he said, “How CP’d are you?” (laughs)
Cooper: Oh, my god! (laughs) That’s almost the title of a book right there.
Jewell: He asked it in that order. “How CP’d are you?” and then, “You don’t have problems writing or hearing?” When I lied about not having a problem with my hearing, he said, “Why don’t 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?” (laughs)
Cooper: And I know you love the phones! (laughter)
Jewell: So I had John, Alex’s 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. “I’m Geri Jewell,” I said, “and I’m here to perform in the telethon.”
“What’s your name?”
“We don’t have you on the entertainment list.” I said, “You’re kidding! I don’t 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 can’t count on him for anything. I’m not answering phones. I’m scheduled to perform in 30 minutes!” He didn’t 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. I’m sure they’ll 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 manager’s name and my agent’s name.
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. “What’s the problem?” “Well, we’re expecting someone else around the same time who’s supposed to answer phones, and for some reason she’s not here.” (laughs) I said, “Oh, really? And why is that my problem?” (laughs) I wouldn’t give up.
He said, “We have a problem because we’re a person short on the phones. Would you mind taking some calls until that person arrives?” And that’s when I knew what was going on.
I said, “But I’m going to do stand-up comedy. How can I answer phones?”
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? We’ll put you in the front row in the celebrity panel. Can you please meet us halfway?” Finally, I gave in. But I’m determined to get my way. I’m sitting in the celebrity panel, and I can’t 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 I’m 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 they’ve loaded in the teleprompter, and introduce you. Then you will come up and do stand-up comedy. Don’t you dare abuse this. Don’t 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 everybody’s mouth is just open. They were about ready to wring his neck. They were about ready to kill me. They couldn’t 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. Don’t 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.” Everybody’s 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 don’t know who you are or how the hell you got on my program, but you’re damn lucky you’re funny!” (laughs)
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 you’re not even booked here yet!”
Cooper: You kind of pushed that one, because now they’d have to put you on. Did you know you were doing that?
Jewell: I didn’t even think twice about it.
Cooper: So in a sense, that was more national attention. When was this, timewise?
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 can’t 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 can’t 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 don’t 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: They’re depressants.
Jewell: Absolutely. And I think I mentioned it in the book. I’m pretty sure there was one mention of it, but emotionally, I was just—I 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 it’s 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, you’re Geri Jewell!” And I said yeah. He said, “I love you. You inspire me. You made me laugh. I can’t believe I’m meeting you.” I said yeah. (laughs) And he said, “I haven’t seen you on TV in a long time.” I said, “True.” He said, “You want a television series?” “What?” I said, “Look, just because I’m in a pharmacy doesn’t mean I’m totally messed up! Don’t play with my mind.” He said, “I’m not. In case you don’t 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. I’m doing a new western for HBO called Deadwood. Do you want to do a Western?” I looked up—as far as my neck would allow me—and I said, “God, you have a real quirky sense of humor. I’m 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 don’t know how many pages, probably 20 or so pages of backstory.