In Part I of our interview with veteran actress Geri Jewell, she talked about launching her acting career, getting her start in stand-up comedy, and coming out as a lesbian. She also discussed her two books, which were published decades apart: The first, ghost written on her behalf, and the current one, I’m Walking as Straight as I Can, which she penned word for word. The latter recently tied for first place in the memoirs category of the Independent Publisher Book Awards. Here she and ABILITY’s Chet Cooper resume their conversation:
Chet Cooper: So this time you insisted on every word in your memoir being your own.
Geri Jewell: That’s right. They said, “We recognize the editor’s writing, and there’s not a word of it in here.” It was all me. They were like, “Oh, my god, it’s a phenomenal book.” So I got this great book, but it missed mainstream, for whatever reason. And I don’t think it’s over yet.
Cooper: When did it actually come out?
Jewell: Ironically, it came out on April Fool’s Day. (laughs)
Cooper: I keep thinking you’re going to get a movie deal. If Richard Pimentel (The Music Within) can get a movie deal, why can’t you get one? Is it hard to pitch your own project, or is it better to have somebody else pitch it for you?
Jewell: There’s no one right way. I think it will eventually be made into a movie. It’s just a matter of time. I think someone has to visualize that book as a film, and it is a very visual book. Who’s going to take it on? I don’t know; I think it will be a good story.
Cooper: It’s got the downs, the ups, the funny—
Jewell: All the elements. The only problem is, who’s going to play me when I’m real young? With the right makeup, I can probably play myself when I was 23 and doing comedy.
Cooper: Are there movies where actors play themselves?
Jewell: Sometimes. Patty Duke played herself, going all the way back. She did it with wigs and makeup. But my question is, let’s say they don’t want to take me all the way back, or they want somebody else to play me entirely; I can’t see it being played by someone without a disability. Or, if they do do that—let’s say they go for a name—they would definitely have to supplement that and have people with disabilities majorly in that film.
Cooper: You know how that goes: You have to get an A or B-list actor so can you get it funded, but then once you do that, like you said, you’ve leveraged getting other actors with disabilities parts. You could have cameo appearances as somebody else.
Jewell: Oh, yes. Right now I’m working on a stage production of my life, a one-woman show. If that is successful, it can evolve into a film. That’s what I’m working on right now. And I can get Richard Livingston to play Richard! (laughs)
Cooper: That would be funny!
Jewell: When I first started writing the book, I was going to make it a fictional story based on my life. I was going to call it The Remarkable Journey of Jennie Gem. And then I tried to pitch it and got rejected several times. Then I pitched it to this company that said, “We’re not interested in a fictional story, but if you want to write the real Geri Jewell story, we’re interested.”
“Argh!” I said. But looking at my financial status, I decided to do it. It’s a small publishing company. There wasn’t a lot of money in it. The trick, of course, was to get enough press to promote it. Media attention is hard to come by; it’s not like the 80’s, where I could get booked on every show across the nation. I’m fighting for mainstream media around the same time that Chaz Bono’s book came out and Meredith Baxter’s book came out. You know the media:“We already did these two.” So it’s been a battle to get this book out there, and it’s frustrating because it’s not a disability story, it’s not a Hollywood story. It’s a story that resonates with anybody who has struggled to overcome and survive and to find peace.
Cooper: They put you into silos.
Jewell: The first routine that I did at the Comedy Store in 1978, the emcee thought I was a guy. He introduced me and said, “Let’s give him a big hand.” So I go onstage and you hear these faint whispers, “That’s a he?” (laughs) So I go up to the microphone and my first joke is: “I don’t know about you people, but I’ve heard an awful lot about the gays that have been coming out of the closet lately,” and you could hear a pin drop.
Then I said, but what you haven’t heard about is all the cerebral palsy people that have been coming out of the closet! But don’t tell anybody. Let’s keep it between us, because I don’t want Anita Bryant to know about me, because she’ll just jump on another bandwagon! She’ll be goin’ all over the country sayin’, ‘We’ve got to stop these cerebral palsy people from teaching in our public schools. They will influence our children, and before you know it, all our children will have CP.
Cooper: That’s great!
Jewell: The irony of it was that unconsciously I think that I was telling people, “Look at me. I’m gay!” But I also chose that opening because Alex (Valdez, a fellow comedian) told me, “If you’re going to talk about cerebral palsy, you can’t just do it from your own little CP perspective. You have to broaden it so that everybody else will get it, too, because nine out of 10 people aren’t going to know what the hell you’re talking about. So go to the newspaper, find a really hot topic, and then mix cerebral palsy into it.” (laughs)
Cooper: That’s funny. And now the joke is so much more meaningful. Do you do any of the coming-out-of-the-closet stuff now?
Jewell: I did my first gay comedy routine last year. I had never done gay jokes before that, except the Anita Bryant one. I was terrified. I was doing it as a fundraiser for LifeWorks here in LA. It was to benefit gay youth, to promote the book and to mark my coming out as a gay woman. I was so scared; you have no idea. People who saw me onstage probably thought I just had CP. I was terrified. And when they were laughing and applauding the gay material, I finally relaxed. With the one-woman show, I try to blend all of me completely into the person who shows up onstage.
I’ll never forget when I performed at the Kennedy Center; I was petrified. President Reagan was in the audience, and it was a huge event honoring Ted Kennedy, Jr. I was asked to do five to seven minutes of stand-up. Backstage, everybody kept coming up to me saying, “Now, Geri, don’t do that orgasm joke, please!” I had one orgasm joke that I told on national television in the 80’s, and it would not let go of me. And it wasn’t even that raunchy.
Cooper: That’s a long orgasm!
Jewell: (laughs) I had a long orgasm, let me tell you! This is the joke I told: “You know, I went out on a date last week with a famous producer, and I wanted to impress him, so I told him that I didn’t really have cerebral palsy, that I was just having a continuous orgasm. Funny thing is he never knew whether I was coming or going.” That’s it! You would think I was saying something horribly raunchy. I got letters, tons of letters saying, “I can’t believe you told an orgasm joke, and you’re a role model for people with disabilities.”
Cooper: Maybe they were suggesting that people with disabilities do not have orgasms?
Jewell: (laughs) I know. So I’m getting all these warnings about the orgasm joke. I wouldn’t have said it. I’m not an idiot. So I go up on stage, terrified, and I open my mouth, and I could perform maybe for a minute and a half, and I had no voice. My voice started to squeak. And I walked off the stage. I went into the green room. I was devastated. I had tears in my eyes. And I was sitting there all by myself, feeling horribly humiliated that the president just saw me screw up onstage at the Kennedy Center, and who comes into the room but Ted Kennedy, Jr., who is the one being honored! He came down and sat down next to me, and I’ll never forget what he said to me. I was so embarrassed, and he said, “Jewell, I’ve known you a lot of years, and I’ve never known you to be speechless before!” (laughs)
Jewell: He was smiling. And I said, “Oh, god, Ted, I screwed up horribly! What an idiot!” He said, “Geri, let’s get real. I know you screwed up. (laughs) You know you screwed up. But I guarantee it, these people in this audience—they don’t think you screwed up. They’re sitting there going, (in a very high voice) ‘Oh, isn’t she just adorable?’ ”
And he said, “Don’t ever worry about what people think because of what you didn’t say. What you’ve got to worry about is what people think because of what you did say.” That was so sweet of him.
Cooper: We all have our moments.
Jewell: These days I have a wonderful manager who got me booked on the show Alcatraz.
(Editor’s Note: It was recently canceled.)
Cooper: They’re finally putting you away!
Jewell: He actually set up a meeting with the three vice presidents of casting for Warner Bros. Television, and they basically pitched me to all their Warner shows on the air. One of the reasons I got seen for Alcatraz was because of Elizabeth Sarnoff, who created the show. My manager called and said, “You really owe this job to Elizabeth. She’s a huge fan, and she’s writing the episode for you.” And I knew the name. Why did I know that name?
“She worked with you on Deadwood,” he said. But I know the name from somewhere else. So I looked through my Facebook (laughs) and I saw Elizabeth Sarnoff. This was after I got Alcatraz, and I saw that I’m friends with her. And then I got another chuckle: I’m reading her information and it says her favorite book is I’m Walking As Straight as I Can, her favorite radio show is This is Life! with Geri Jewell, Kathy Buckley and Toby Forrest.
I thought, “Wow, she really likes me!” I had no idea. There are so many people who want to be friends with me on Facebook. It’s new territory. And I look at the mutuals—like who does she know that I know—and she knew all my Deadwood friends. So I thought, “She must be OK.” I didn’t put two and two together, because when you’re working on the series, you don’t hobnob with the writers; you hobnob with the actors.
Cooper: You got to hobnob with the executive producer.
Jewell: Right! And I had no idea that I had such incredible support in my corner. When I did the episode, when I was done filming, it was about one o’clock in the morning, and I emailed her and I said, “I know I should be in bed, but I didn’t want to go to sleep without thanking you personally for making this happen. Thank you, Elizabeth. I will never forget this. I love the writing, I love the lines. I am so grateful that you’ve created this for me.” She wrote me back and said, “You deserve it, it was so fun working with you again, and I so delighted in it.”
Cooper: What role did you play?
Jewell: I was the sister of the warden on the show. He was played by a wonderful actor, Jason Harner Butler. Shortly around the Christmas holidays, in December, there was this whole big article in the industry trade publications that Elizabeth Sarnoff had resigned from Alcatraz due to creative differences. That was shocking to everybody. I don’t know what happened. I e-mailed her once on Facebook and haven’t heard back, but I’m glad our paths crossed. Spiritually, there are no accidents.
Cooper: Some day you’ll meet up with her and do something again.
Jewell: Who knows? I’m just grateful, and it was so funny to find her on Facebook and find out that she even read my book.
Articles in the Geri Jewell Issue; Humor — Adulthood is Overrated; Ashley Fiolek — Balancing Work and Play; Sen. Harkin — The Affortable Care Act; China — A Teacher Who Moves Mountains; Saudi Arabia — A Princess Seeks a World of Change; George Covington — The Thing About Getting Old; Derek Amato — He Sees Music; Joe Pantoliano — He Puts the ‘Fun’ in Dysfunctional; Asylum — Book Excerpt; Geri Jewell — A Good Act to Follow; Brad Hennefer — Loves His Tee Time; Equine Therapy — Horses Help Vets to Heal; ABILITY’s Crossword Puzzle; Events and Conferences…