After a delightful visit that kept everyone wanting more, ABILITY’s Geri Jewell and David Zimmerman were invited back for day two of an informal interview with television producer and writer Norman Lear. Only this time, they met up at Lear’s LA office—Act 111 Communications—where they joined the crew of PBS’s American Masters, who were filming a documentary of Lear’s exceptional life.
David Zimmerman: I want to thank you for this amazing woman (looking towards Geri), who is an incredible actress—funny and beautiful, too. If it weren’t for you, who discovered her at the Media Access Awards, I wouldn’t have had all the joy I’ve had, so thank you for that. Norman
Lear: You’re welcome. It’s among my blessings also.
Zimmerman: So you two met at the Media Access Awards. Geri
Jewell: Yeah, we did. Fern Field asked me to perform that night. Somebody told Fern that I was doing standup comedy. I started doing standup comedy in 1978. Fern started the Media Access Awards, and she produced a film called A Different Approach [about the positive benefits of hiring people with disabilities]. I know you were involved with it—
Lear: Oh God, I was very involved in it.
Jewell: And that was way before its time. I still remember it to this day how profound it was. And wasn’t Michael Keaton and Charlotte Rae in it? Anyway, I was doing standup comedy, and somebody went to Fern and said, “You’ve got to see this girl. She’s a kid with cerebral palsy, but she’s funny.” And Fern was like, “Oh no, I’m not ready for that. Oh no, I can’t deal with that.” And whoever that was, made her come and see me at The Comedy Store, and she was blown away. And she asked me to perform at the Second Annual Media Access Awards, and that’s where I met you—and Charlotte Rae. That changed my life.
Zimmerman: I have to tell you, I Love Liberty is one of my favorite specials ever. I still have the copy of the VHS tape from that night. With Robin Williams, Barbra Streisand, and one of my favorite moments was this woman named Geri.
Lear: Geri Jewell.
Zimmerman: Tell me about that experience.
Lear: Well, it was an hour-and-a-half special on ABC. The part I think of first and foremost—telling this story at a time when politics was so ugly. When hate is rife in the land and in the Congress. The network wanted to be sure it was non-partisan. I said, “Well, how can I prove to you it is non-partisan? It’s the way we all feel about America.” But the way it worked out, I said, “If I can get a major Republican and a major Democrat to cochair…” “Who?” “Well, like Gerald Ford and Lady Bird Johnson.” President Johnson had passed. And I got them. And it wasn’t hard. I had Barry Goldwater and Jane Fonda on the same stage. Jane Fonda was known at the time for “Hanoi Jane”.
Jewell: And John Wayne.
Lear: And Barry Goldwater had run for the presidency on the Republican ticket, so he was an ultra-conservative. And yes, John Wayne. It was just a delight. A little while ago, you heard me order some flowers. They’re for Nancy Reagan, who turned 94 today. We’re good friends. She invited me to come to her husband’s funeral. It says something about the American possibility. We disagree politically, but we can be close and work things out. We have no ability to do that right now. The Democrats can’t work things out amongst themselves. The Republicans can’t work things out amongst themselves.
Zimmerman: Republicans and Democrats don’t know that we’re all one here.
Lear: Well, we’re not all one here. And we were not all one then. But as humans we all were one. So the Reagan’s and I were very friendly. On I Love Liberty we heard all sides of why we love America from our different political viewpoints.
Jewell: You know, my saving grace was that it was supposed to be live remember?
Lear: Well, it was live, on camera. I Love Liberty was a two-hour special on ABC with 20,000 people live, in the Los Angeles Sports Arena.
Jewell: And I was the only actress in the show that night who wasn’t well-known. I was a newbie. And I was performing alongside celebrities that I had idolized as a kid. It was surreal, like a dream. It was my idea to use crutches that night. The reason I chose to do that was because you wanted me to the play the American disabled person. On the one hand, I thought, “Yeah, I could do that, but am I really disabled enough for this role?” So I had to gimp it up a notch or two. So I walked with crutches and climbed up three platforms of steps to get up there with my monologue. In front of 20,000 people… And I followed Shirley MacLaine that night. I probably followed her in her last life, too. (laughter)
Jewell: I went into the comedy routine and nobody laughed. All of 20,000 people were staring at me. But I couldn’t just quit!
Lear: What you didn’t know was that the microphone wasn’t working, and they never heard you.
Jewell: Yeah, I had no idea. I thought they hated my guts. And I dropped the crutches on the stage and now it looked like a miracle had occurred. And I’m looking out there, and I need help. And you come running up on stage and you’re holding me in your arms. I think you thought I was having a nervous breakdown. I was moving all over the place, I was nervous, and I had tears in my eyes. And I remember you asking me, “Geri, are you alright?” And I said, “Norman, I’m fine, but the material sucks.” That’s when you backed me up and said, “Geri, read my lips. Your mic isn’t on.” A lot of the celebs that night thought that when you came up on stage to grab me, that you were going to politely walk me down the stairs and just cut me from the show. Everybody thought you were going to do that. And what you did was totally the opposite, and I have never forgotten it, ever. You turned around, and you had your arm around me, and you looked out at that audience and said, “How many people out there want to give this girl a second chance?” At that point, tears were streaming out of my eyes and 20,000 people gave me a standing ovation. You gave me a second chance.
Lear: But then you killed. You killed.
Jewell: I did. And I even ad-libbed, and you told me not to.
Lear: It was a great moment.
Jewell: It was amazing. And I remember the first celebrity backstage that welcomed me when I walked offstage was crying. It was Patty Duke, and she hugged me and she said, “I knew you could do it. I told them you could do it. Norman was right on.”
Lear: That’s lovely. I loved that show. Then you knocked them out.
Jewell: That was a night I never forgot, even to this day. The first minute I thought my career was over, and the next minute I got a standing ovation. You created that experience for me.
Lear: It was a great evening.
Zimmerman: Now what was it about this woman that made you say, “I have to have her in my life?”
Lear: Look at what she has struggled with to become this woman. It’s a life lesson. She gives life lessons, just walking into the room, on how to be a human being. That’s what she teaches.
Zimmerman: (To Geri) When, after the Media Access Awards, did you get on the show, The Facts of Life?
Lear: Was The Facts of Life before I Love Liberty?
Jewell: Yes, it was before I Love Liberty. The Facts of Life came after the Media Access Awards performance. You came up to me in the elevator and told me, “You’ll be hearing from me, kid, so don’t forget the name Norman Lear.” I said, “Okay, I won’t.” And you know Hollywood. A lot of people say a lot of things. And you were a man true to your word. You called me three months later, and you wrote Cousin Geri, Blair’s cousin. And that changed my life 180 degrees.
Lear: People still remember that, don’t they?
Jewell: Oh God. I did 12 episodes of The Facts of Life in four years. And that’s not a lot of episodes. To this day… I mean, I did 24 episodes of Deadwood, and I can go anywhere and nobody recognizes me from Deadwood. They come up to me and go, “Oh my God, from Facts of Life.” Thirty years ago. That’s a hell of an impact that you gave me.
Zimmerman: Did you know it was going to have such an impact, to have the first person on TV with a disability? Or was that just you being you?
Lear: No, I don’t think I was thinking about that. I was thinking about what an attractive human being, with the ability to do what she’s doing. And wouldn’t America love to know this person?
Jewell: You know, I’ll tell you something, Norman. In the ‘90s, I was doing a lot of colleges, and these college students were The Facts of Life audiences from the ‘80s. And the college students were coming up to me in the ‘90s and telling me how my character on The Facts of Life changed their lives. I had so many people tell me that they were bullied, that they were suicidal, that they were dealing with so many things, and then they saw Cousin Geri. “Oh my God, you changed my life.” And you know what that was? And I know you do. That is God working through me. I just happened to be the vehicle. You opened the door for the vehicle, and God did the work.
Lear: Well, I believe you did both. Somebody created the universe. I’d just as soon call that somebody God, as anything. But also responsible for you having the palsy—that you needed like a hole in the head. But you accepted it, and you have worked through it and taught us all how meaningful life and every breath is. You’re a life lesson, and I repeat, you give how to be a human being lessons by just being. You do that with the help of the universe, and you can call it God or anything you want.
Jewell: Yeah, Higher Power or whatever you want to call it.
Zimmerman: Thank God both of you have a book on tape, because to hear the voice is amazing. I remember when Katherine Hepburn came out with her autobiography, “Me”, and it was like, oh my God, to have that! Geri almost didn’t get hers on tape. They were saying, “We’re going to audition people.” For her book!
Jewell: For my own life story.
Zimmerman: It’s like, why would they want to have somebody else?
Jewell: What was said is that they had celebrities who do this for a living. “So we might want to have a celebrity read your autobiography.” And my response was, “So what you’re telling me is that a book I wrote, in my own words, my life story—you’re going to have a celebrity slur their speech to sound like me? Why waste the time? Just use me.”
Lear: I was very glad I did mine, too. I loved doing it. I didn’t know I would, but I did.
Zimmerman: You had fun doing it. I could hear it in your voice.
Lear: I had a great time doing it.
Jewell: But it was different from writing it, wasn’t it?
Lear: It’s very different. I had a very experienced guy who has directed book readings for 30 years. So he was very helpful.
Jewell: Oh really? But when you write a book—and I say this from my own experience—it’s a different energy to write your life story. And then to read what you wrote is a whole different emotional experience. Was it for you?
Lear: Oh sure. I’m still dealing with it, experiencing it, growing with it.
Jewell: Because there were sections, when I was reading what I wrote, and I actually had to stop reading because I was crying. I thought, “Where did that come from? I thought I emotionally overcame this.”
Lear: Yeah, I had that experience also. Just living through something again.
Zimmerman: You had your shows all at once in the Top 10.
Lear: We had five in the Top 10 for several weeks.
Zimmerman: That’s pretty nice.
Lear: Six in the Top 15.
Jewell: That’s amazing.
Zimmerman: That is amazing. What about “The shit in your head,” as you say? I love that quote.
Lear: I call the writer’s block “shit in the head.” It says it better than “writer’s block” to me.
Zimmerman: And you were scratching your head, and that’s how the hat came about?
Jewell: I never knew the significance of the hat.
Lear: Well, that’s how it started. The significance is not the same as how it started. The significance is over time. It just became, “Where’s your hat?” If I went somewhere without it, people would ask me, “Hey, wait a minute, where is the hat?” So it became significant.