The Cracks of Life – Geri Jewell

geri-jewell
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 Field 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.

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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.

Geri Jewell with Flip Wilson, Fern Fields and Kathy Buckley
Geri Jewell with Flip Wilson, Fern Field and Kathy Buckley

Cooper: I’m already in an altered state, so that wouldn’t 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 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…

(laughter)

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.

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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!”

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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.

Geri Jewell
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 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?

Jewell: Yes.

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!

Jewell: (laughs) 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?” “Geri Jewell.” “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.

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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?

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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?

Jewell: 1979.

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.
He called me within 30 minutes and said, “You know, you are a phenomenal writer.” I said, “Thank you.” He said, “I like 95 percent of what you wrote.” Wow!

Cooper: And then you hung up on him because you wanted him to like 100 percent?

Jewell: (laughs) He said there were a few things he didn’t quite agree with, but he incorporated most of what I wrote into the character. It was funny, because I called my character Crazy Kate and he said, “I don’t like the name.” I said, “What’s the matter with Crazy Kate?” (laughs) He said, “I want her to be named Jewel.” And I was like, “Here we go again. I’m Geri in Facts of Life and now I’m Jewel.” But I took it as a gesture of affection. He loved me and he wanted that character to be named Jewel, so that’s how she was born.

He put me back on the map. I hadn’t had work in this town in years and years and years and years. It was amazing. At the same time I was doing Deadwood, I was asked to be a character on The Young and the Restless. Then I did an indie film called Night of the White Pants, and I did an episode of Strong Medicine. I was auditioning for roles for the first time in 20 years.

Cooper: If I’m hearing this correctly, people should hang out at drug stores.

Jewell: Absolutely. Me, Lana Turner—

Cooper: —I met John Ritter in a drug store. I went in because I saw him go in. He’s standing in line and I stand next to him and I lean into him and say, “John?” because he was wearing sunglasses and a hat. And he leans in toward me, and says, “Yeah?” I lean in again, and say, “I’m Chet.” He leans over again, and says,“Hi!” And we kept this thing going, and finally I said, “I’m with ABILITY Magazine.” He said, “I love the magazine.”

Jewell: That was cool.

Cooper: We never got John in the magazine because he passed away. I assumed he’d always be there, and then he was gone.

Jewell: It was a shock.

Cooper: It was. I know his brother

Jewell: Yeah, Tom. He and I are very, very close.

Cooper: What’s he doing these days?

Jewell: He’s a practitioner now at the Church of Religious Science in North Hollywood [not affiliated to Church of Scientology]. Tom and I share the same spiritual belief. It teaches you to take responsibility for what is happening in your life, by changing your attitude and thought process and being grateful for what you have, instead of always needing more and more.

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Cooper: Almost the opposite of what you were doing for a while there.

Jewell: Oh, definitely… So I was introduced to Science of Mind, and then when I met Richard (Pimentel), we did not share that. And sometimes in a relationship you drop the part of yourself that you can’t share with your husband. Richard must have read five to six books a week, and he was always reading up on religion, spirituality and philosophy. I thought he would come around, but he never did.

Cooper: You haven’t seen him for a while?

Jewell: Oh, no!

Cooper: Well, actually, he’s here today! Come on out!

Jewell: (laughs) We could have been friends, but there was—

Cooper: —a lot of water under the bridge?

Jewell: Yeah, and then he remarried quickly. When they did a movie based on his life called “Music Within“, it was agonizing for me, not because I was jealous that he had a movie and I didn’t, but because of how they chose to deal with certain information in the book. But I have always taken the high road with Richard.

Cooper: I can’t remember the details about you and the movie. Can you remind me?

Jewell: The movie was basically based on a relationship that he had with Art Honeyman, a man with severe cerebral palsy that he met when he came back from the Vietnam War. I met Art when we were living up in Washington. I met him a couple times when we went to see him. So I knew him. The thing that was a slap in the face is that I had been married to this man for 12 years, I was with him for 14, and there was not one mention of me in the film.

Let’s just say that if it weren’t for me, he wouldn’t have had a movie, because I primarily connected him with the people who produced this film. They were my connections, and the timing of it was so bizarre, because we were separated; we weren’t divorced. I was in a hospital in a body brace from here to here overcoming surgery, and he’s talking to me about these people producing his life story, people that I knew. He had already moved on. He was with someone else. They weren’t married yet, but he was with someone else, which was fine. And then he was always calling me to get my approval on the script, what I thought about it. And I knew from the beginning that I was going to be nowhere in the film, because he said, “I hope you understand that you’re not going to be in the movie, because it would be really, really awkward to include you when we’re separated.”

I said, “Fine, go ahead. Erase me, Richard, but if you erase people in your life who are a big part of it, then you’ve got to take a real hard look at that.” But it was a good film. I enjoyed the movie, even though I cried through the parts of it where there was this fictionalized woman in his life, the blond, that he supposedly was in love with.

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Cooper: Maybe that’s what I was remembering, because I know there was something in the movie that made me think of you or rather think, where were you?

Jewell: It hurt, because they never touched on the love he had for me. Where did I fit in? It turns out that writing this book is the only thing that gave me healing, finally. What was so embarrassing for me was that everybody in the disabled community knew that we were an item, that we were married, and when I would perform, people would come up to me and say, “Geri, you’ve got to see this movie! It’s called Music Within.” I must have heard that at least three or four times a week.

I was like, “Oh, god, if you only knew!” I thought that he would at least have the decency at the end of the film to write, “Thank you, Geri, for everything.” That would have at least given me validation that I existed. But he couldn’t do that. And so it was mortifying, and the only way I could finally have closure and healing was, in part, to write this book. I also made the decision to come out as a gay woman. I almost chickened out halfway through the book. I called up my collaborator who was working on it with me and I said, “I can’t go through with this. It’s just going to piss a lot of people off. I can’t. I’ve just got to keep it all in, like I always have.”

He told me, “Geri, if you do that, you are not walking your talk, and you won’t be free. If people get angry about what you write, so what? You’re writing the truth.” And that was that. I honestly thought that I would get so much hate mail. I thought I would embarrass Richard, and I didn’t want to do that. I thought that I would possibly never work in Hollywood again. But I knew spiritually that if I didn’t own up to the truth, then I had no right to publish another memoir, because it would be just as phony as the first book in ’84.

What also made it difficult was that I didn’t have a partner to support me at the time. It was just me.

Cooper: Do you have a partner now?

Jewell: I do. We’ve been seeing each other since November, and she’s wonderful. She’s so wonderful, so kind, so intelligent. She supports me 100 percent. She is a reflection of what has changed within me, because I don’t think I could permit any more abusiveness.

Cooper: Do you want kids?

Jewell: It’s interesting that when I had the neck surgery, when I was lying there in the hospital bed in the body brace, my biggest concern, every time a nurse would come in: “Am I bleeding? Have I started my period?” I was so upset because I couldn’t see anything. And I never had a period after the surgery. I went through the change overnight. So not only was I recovering from surgery and on every major drug you could thing of, but I was having mood swings, hot flashes, everything at the same time! (laughs). After I had gone through all that, there was a sadness. I was angry for a little while. I was like, “God, I had this window of time when I could have had a child!”

Jewell: Not anymore. And not because I wouldn’t have; I would have been willing to adopt. What is an issue now is my age and my physical ability.

Cooper: Have you thought about adopting a child that’s older and more difficult to place? Somebody who works with us and is single, adopted two children with disabilities who never have been adopted if it weren’t for her. She’s just done wonders with them. Everyone said there’s no way that one would talk, or that the other would ever go to a mainstream school. She’s proved them wrong on everything. One has Down syndrome and couldn’t speak, and now she’s got him speaking, she started with sign language, and now he’s picking up the words. It’s just incredible what she’s been able to do.

Jewell: How old is she?

Cooper: Now she’s in her late 30’s, I think.

Jewell: See, that’s what I’m saying. I’m 55.

Cooper: Today’s 55 is yesterday’s 32.

Jewell: (laughs) That might be something.

Cooper: Think how cool it is to have a mother who’s an actress.

Jewell: Maybe. I’m at the beginning of a relationship.

Cooper: She’s a pediatric nurse. What better—

Jewell: I know, I can see where that goes! Maybe in a couple years. We don’t even live together. What’s interesting is that in 2008, I had four cats in Vegas. And they were about the closest thing that I could have ever had to kids; they were my babies. Three of the cats died in 2008, and I had one left. Deadwood had ended, and I couldn’t pay my rent. I couldn’t release my car, so I didn’t have a car. And the only thing I had was this little kitty left from when I was with Richard, and she was pushing 17. Her name was Norma Jean. Right when I lost the apartment and couldn’t renew my car lease, I got a book deal! Unfortunately, with the economy, the deal wasn’t huge. (I’d gotten a nice advance with the 1984 book.) But my last cat, Norma Jean, died before the book was finished.

Cooper: So she never got a chance to read it?

Jewell: (laughs) No, she never did! I think so many things were taken from me so that 100 percent of my focus would be on this book. I put my heart and soul into it. And I needed everything that I identified with, that gave me security, that gave me identity, that gave me a sense of love, like Norma Jean was a kitty that I loved, that I could hold every night and feed and take care of. I wasn’t in a relationship, I hadn’t been in a relationship for a long, long time. I had really forgotten what it was to really be in a committed, loving relationship. I was just struggling, struggling, struggling.

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My life was that book for a year and a half. The only thing I did career-wise, besides write the book, was to drive up to LA once a week and do an Internet radio show with Kathy Buckley and Toby Forrest. That was it. And I thank God for my sister, Gloria, because I didn’t have anywhere to live, and she was in another home while her original home was being remodeled, so she said, “I guess you can stay there, stay in the bedroom, and you can bring up a few of your things.” So I brought up a few books, a few clothes, and a computer.

I would email everything that I wrote every day to Ted, and he would look at it and critique it and e-mail it back with his comments. And I told him from the beginning, “I will not work with you if the writing becomes your writing, if you take that from me.”

Cooper: A good editor can be hard to find.

Jewell: He kept his promise, and he was extremely valuable. He also knew how to write a book proposal. I didn’t. I wouldn’t have gotten this book deal if I didn’t have the proposal. And what was interesting is that when we finally turned in the manuscript, the editor called me and said, “You wrote this whole book yourself, didn’t you?”

And I said, “Yes, I did.”

Part II of Geri’s interview will appear in the next issue of ABILITY Magazine.

Geri Jewell

EXCERPT:

I did enjoy performing at one of the Austins’ big galas. Bill’s wife bought me a glamorous dress and shoes and arranged for my nails and hair to be done. I wasn’t totally comfortable dressed like that to perform, but it was a black-tie event, and they wanted me to shine. After my performance, I was approached by Robert Goulet’s manager, who informed me that Mr. Goulet loved my act and wanted to hire me down the road to open for him. About three months later, he brought me to Tulsa, OK. He was truly one of the most easygoing, fun people you would ever want to be
around.

He knocked on my dressing room door shortly after I arrived at the theater, wanting to personally welcome me. When he looked at my dressing room, he laughed. “Sorry about the dressing room . . . it looks more like a closet!” I laughed and told him that it did, but I was accustomed to closets, and it made me feel secure. I am positive he had no idea what the hell I was talking about and thought I was just being polite. Then he came back 10 minutes later, saying that he was moving me to his dressing room (with his wife, of course). He said his was big enough for a whole orchestra, had a lot of good food, and great company. He was right – it had all of that and more. Most importantly, it brought me into his world. My little dressing room was equivalent to special ed, whereas being able to hang out in his dressing room was the acceptance I always longed for.

As I stood behind the curtain waiting for my name to be announced, panic began to set in. Robert walked over to me on the dark stage and asked if I was okay. I told him I had never opened for anyone before. “If I bomb, I’ll ruin your show!”

He laughed and said, “No Geri, you can only ruin your show, not mine…and besides, they are going to love you. You must believe right now that you already have them in the palm of your hands.” He cupped his hands to give me the visualization, and then started laughing again, waving his hands in a jerking motion. “Okay, maybe you have the audience more like this . . . but nevertheless, you still have them!” When the curtain opened, Robert beamed, waving his arms jerkily from the wings. The beauty of that story illustrated how comfortable he was around me, no phoniness or bullshit. I appreciated his kindness more than he ever knew.

I finally met my idol, David Cassidy, in 1985. My friend Keith found out that he was going to be on Good Morning LA He called the producer and said that I was a huge fan of his and asked if I could possibly come watch the show and meet David. No problem. My name was left at the gate and we were told to come straight to the greenroom to meet David beforehand. It was another dream come true, but as usual, I was an anxious mess over it. I changed my clothes at least six times that morning, and when we got to the gate at abcstudios, I told Keith I didn’t want to go through with it. If Keith had not fought me, I probably would have chickened out. But Keith knew how long I had wanted to meet David, and he refused to allow me to sabotage my opportunity.

We arrived before David, so it gave me a little time to relax. Whatever composure I was able to conjure up in the 15 minutes of waiting for him went out the window when he walked in the room. Keith leaned over and whispered for me to introduce myself to him, but before I could even think of what to say, David extended his hand to me and said he loved my comedy. I was floored that he knew who I was! I thanked him and said that I loved his work as well. Then he asked me if I wanted to get makeup first. I told him thank you, but he could go first, as he was at the top of the show. He thanked me and left the room.

Keith was furious with me. “Why did you let him believe that you were doing the show too? You’re not doing it, and he’s obviously going to figure it out!”

“Okay, then let’s just leave now. I met him, c’mon, let’s go.”

“Geri, why are you acting like this? You’ve wanted to meet him since 1971!”

“He’ll think I’m a groupie!”

“You have to be a groupie for him to think you’re a groupie! When he comes back, I want you to tell him the truth!”

When David returned, he thanked me for allowing him to go first, but before he could continue, I interrupted him. “David, I lied. . . I mean, I may need makeup, but I’m not doing the show this morning. My friend Keith found out that you were going to be here today and arranged for me to be here to meet you.”

David smiled sweetly, and said it was okay.

“No, you don’t understand . . . I have been in love with you since 1971!

When I was in high school I didn’t have a boyfriend or go on dates or anything, I was so lonely. But I had this crush on you, and sometimes that gave me a reason not to give up.” By this point, tears were trickling down my cheeks. He grabbed both of my hands and held them in his own. He told me to calm down, that he wasn’t Jesus Christ. At this point I was feeling so embarrassed that I had emotionally melted in front of him.

Still holding my hands, David said, “Geri, I have beaten my head against the wall time and again wondering why I ever did The Partridge Family in the first place, and then I meet people like you. You remind me of the good things that came out of it. If I was able to give you hope and joy, then I am grateful for that. Thank you for being honest with me. You are so sweet, don’t lose that quality.” He kissed me on the cheek and was rushed onto the stage by a production assistant.

Unbeknownst to both of us, a part of that little talk went over the airways before David went onstage. He was pre-miked, and somehow while the host, Christina Delorean, was talking about David, her mike turned off, and David’s mike was on. I never did find out if it was done intentionally, or by accident, or through some sort of cosmic interference, but I do have a copy of the show on a VHS tape, and David and my voices are heard very clearly while Delorean moves her lips.

Excerpted from I’m Walking As Straight As I Can: Transcending Disability in Hollywood and Beyond by Geri Jewell ©2011 – Published by ECW Press.

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