Geri Jewell with Ted Nichelsen. I’m Walking as Straight as I Can: Transcending Disability in Hollywood and Beyond. Toronto, Ontario.: EDW Press, 2011.
The author, who has cerebral palsy, was been one of the few people with physical disabilities to have recurring roles on network TV shows. In themes on her own name, she played Geri on “The Facts of Life” and Jewell on “Deadwood”,
Jewell’s mother was hit by a car while pregnant with her. The doctors thought she had died and removed her in a premature birth. She was, of course, alive and weighed less than three pounds when born. She developed pneumonia, was not expected to live more than a day, yet survived. Her mother had cared for a child with cerebral palsy and named Geri after that child. Whether the naming was a premonition or coincidence, Geri’s mother’s previous experiences with cerebral palsy led her to recognize before doctors could tell that Geri indeed also had cerebral palsy. Her family moved to California where cerebral palsy care was known to be good.
Jewell was teased by neighborhood children for her physical condition while growing up, which made her feel ashamed. As a child, she loved reading about famous actors. In high school, she took a Drama class. In her first time of stage, she accidentally fell, ran onto stage when she wasn’t supposed to, and had her kimono costume fall off while dancing. She learned that making people laugh helps resolves some problems.
Jewell wrote poetry and sent it to her hero Carol Burnett. She went to a taping of the “Carol Burnett Show” and was surprised when Carol Burnett went into the audience to meet her and tell her that her poetry has hanging on Carol Burnett’s walls.
Jewell told her guidance counselor she wanted to be a nun, actor, or psychologist. After graduating from high school, she was placed in employment with Goodwill Industries to learn keypunching. She then went to Cypress Junior College where she loved Theater classes. The State Rehabilitation office would not let her major in Theater, so she left Cypress and later transferred to Fullerton Junior College yet failed some classes. She tried stand up comedy. She appeared in the Bely Room, the smallest stage at the Comedy Store. Female comics were mostly assigned to the Belly Room. The owner Mitzi Shore only let her perform in the Main Rom once. She loved how the audience enjoyed her performances. She got laughs wearing a t-shirt that reads “I don’t have cerebral palsey (sic), I’m drunk”. She joked the t-shirt cost 30 cents per word, so she wished she had polio instead.
Jewell learned how to respond when audiences did not respond. Jewell also found a manager who took 25% of her earnings as management fees and another 50% in a partnership clause for creating Jewell Productions. Her manager claimed he kept her earnings low so she could continue collecting Social Security disability benefits. She knew this was illegal, which frightened her into trusting her manager. Her manager was later convicted of stealing $1.5 million of funds from others.
Jewell got a role on the PBS series “The Righteous Apple”. She then got a role in the movie “Nice Dreams”. She broke a finger and thumb on the set. The cast led to her role being cut from the film. The three weeks of working on the movie earned her a Screen Actors Guild membership.
Jewell auditioned and won a role on “The Facts of Life”, She found the cast as very supportive. Lisa Whelchel helped her rehearse and worked with her on her role. Jewell ad-libbed “I love you” to Whelchel’s character, but in appreciation of Whelchel’s help. The ad lib was kept on the show. Whelchel and Jewell became friends and then roommates. Lisa, an activist in a fundamentalist religious community, and Jewell, who belonged to another religion, grew apart yet Jewell is proud of what Whelchel has done in life,
Jewell once received a $45 check for working of “Facts of Life” She learned her manager took advances of funds from her paycheck. She never got the money back.
Jewell befriended actor Charlotte Rae’s assistant. Jewell learned this assistant was a liar who stole $7,000 from Rae.
Jewell’s character name on “The Facts of Life” was changed from Geri Warner to Geri Tyler. Jewell was never told why, although she believes people on the show no longer wanted her character to be Lisa Whelchel’s character’s cousin after Jewell began a romantic relationship with Charlotte Rae’s assistant. Some gay double entendres were written into her scripts. Her character was cut back to one line in an episode. Charlotte Rae advised her they were writing Jewell off the show.
An autobiography was ghost written for Jewell, “Geri”. Jewell skimmed the book. This led to problems when she was interviewed on “The Phil Donahue Show” and had trouble answering questions about what was in the book.
Ed Simmons wrote a pilot for Jewell called “Sid’s Kid” with Sid Caesar and Jewell. Jewell writes it was a great pilot but it never sold. Ed Simmons was supportive and paid for a hearing aid for Jewell when he observed she had trouble hearing.
Being disabled meant Jewell’s acting work was always for roles centering on her disabilities. She was on “Sesame Street”. She accidentally skated in Carroll Spinney, who is Big Bird, so hard that Big Bird’s head fell off, to the horror of nearby children. Jewell found work in extremes, from children’s shows to “Good Sex with Dr. Ruth.”
Jewell faced a life of bad relationships, coming to grips with her sexuality, and depression when her career stalled. Jewell’s career revived with a role on the TV series “Deadwood” on HBO. The show’s primary actors were on contract with HBO. She was not. She was paid only on days she was filmed. She found all the cast as very supportive. The role renewed her career and more work followed.