If you're of a certain age, or just an aficionado of classic ’80s television, then you know Blair, Jo, Natalie and Tootie aren’t AfterEllen’s newest bloggers. We wish. They are, of course, the girls from The Facts of Life… The Facts of Life. (I’m physically unable to say the title just once. Damn you, catchy theme song!)
The ’80s were a very good decade for all-female ensemble sitcoms. The Golden Girls and Designing Women both ran for seven hilarious seasons. And The Facts of Life lasted an unbelievable nine. Nine years for a show starring only young women. Take that, Remington Steele.
During its run, the cast of Facts included Cloris Leachman, Molly Ringwald, Jami Gertz, and some dude named George Clooney. Then, television history was made when Geri Jewell was added to the cast as Blair’s cousin, also named Geri. “Cousin Geri” marked the first time an actor with cerebral palsy was featured on a TV series.
Jewell went on to appear in the HBO series, Deadwood, hone her stand-up comedy act, come out as a lesbian, and just recently published her second autobiography.
(This interview was originally published in AfterEllen and written by Dara Nai)
Why did you want to write your autobiography again?
I had an autobiography [with ghostwriter, Stuart Weiner] in 1984 called Geri. And it wasn’t a bad book, don’t get me wrong. It was just very, very premature. I hadn’t lived yet. When I got Facts of Life, even though I was chronologically 23 years old, I would say emotionally, I was 13. I became an instant icon for people with disabilities, but emotionally, I was a child. And sexually, I hadn’t decided what I was.
This new book deals with the Hollywood stuff that Geri didn’t even touch: I had so much drama around me, I was struggling with my sexuality, my manager was arrested for $1.3 million embezzlement and security fraud, and people were lying to me from left to right. I was so sheltered and in special ed for most of my childhood. I had no understanding that some people can look at you straight in the face and lie.
But I think that had I not gone through all that, I wouldn’t be here today having this conversation with you. If I never hit rock bottom, I would have been so spoiled and so superficial. I look at all of my obstacles and ordeals [and know] I went through them because I had to. I was supposed to come into this life and deal with them.
So, you believe everything happens for a reason?
Absolutely. No question in my mind. I believe that cerebral palsy was intentional.
Oh yeah. Absolutely. The CP in itself has been the greatest blessing in my life. I don’t look at cerebral palsy as a negative or a positive. I look at cerebral palsy as a neutral. It’s part of the human condition. We all have adversity so we can grow and evolve and learn. And CP, for me, has been a tremendous teacher in prejudice, discrimination and–
What? Being a gay woman didn’t teach you any of that?
You come out in I’m Walking As Straight As I Can, which by the way, has the best title ever. Was that a difficult decision?
My foundation in disability empowered me in my foundation in the gay world. I’ve met a lot of people with disabilities who are gay. And what I found interesting is that for most people with disabilities who are gay, the gay issue is a piece of cake.
What’s your ideal woman like? Smart, funny, something like that?
Someone who loves me for me. And someone who is sensitive and patient and can deal with the disability and because, let’s face it, I mean, that’s a fact of my life. And I want someone who has depth.
No matter where you are, people know you as Cousin Geri. You’ve been spoofed many times. Does it bother you? Do you think they’re making fun of people with cerebral palsy?
I don’t like when it’s mean-spirited and just malicious. Online, a lot of people have made fun of me. I don’t like that. But I’ve also been spoofed on Mad TV, Family Guy, South Park, The Big Gay Sketch Show. I don’t have a problem with [those] because I don’t believe that they’re mean-spirited.
Plus, they’re actually funny shows written by real writers. Which spoof is your favorite one?
I have to say it’s when they spoofed Deadwood on Mad TV. It cracked me up. I couldn’t stop laughing. That was a good one.
The Big Gay Sketch Show did a parody of Facts of Life and played up the lesbian subtext between Jo and Blair. Back when you were shooting, did anyone on the show acknowledge that Jo and Blair did seem a little like girlfriends?
I will say this. There were all these rumors that Nancy McKeon was gay. And there’s not a shred of truth to that.
Did that bother her?
Yeah. If you’re not gay and everybody assumes that you are, I would say that that’s painful for a teenage girl. I don’t blame her.
Also, there were so many cracks about [all the girls’] weight. There were jokes about “The Fats of Life” instead of The Facts of Life. These girls were really hurt by that. They grew up in front of millions of people, and to be made fun of or have rumors about them that weren’t true? Yeah, I would say it was painful.
Even though you hadn’t figured out your sexuality yet, did you have a crush on anyone on the show? A lot of girls had crushes on Nancy or Lisa Whelchel.
No. Never. And Lisa and I were roommates. We lived together for about eight months.
Lisa is a born-again Christian. How did that fact mesh with your life and the direction it was taking?
Her response, because of her religious background, was that I had to find Jesus and she would take me to church. I have nothing negative to say about that because her intention was absolutely in a good place.
But unless you have that same religious background, it’s hard to be a close friend. It’s like she loved me, but she doesn’t accept my lifestyle. And that’s OK. Lisa was so supportive of me as a friend. I wrote about her in the book.
Have you heard any feedback from her about the book?
I have not. I’m hoping that she will like what I wrote. You know, in writing a memoir, one thing that you have to be sensitive about is boundaries and what is off-limits. I’m not writing about her life. I’m writing about my life. But I wanted to write about her and how I perceived Lisa. I have nothing but respect and love for her.
Let’s talk about Deadwood for a bit. Creator David Milch saw you in a store and offered you a role, on the spot.
Yes. This was 2001. And I had had spinal cord surgery in ’99. I didn’t know that I would be able to walk again, or ever do standup or acting or anything. I thought that my career was over. That morning, I went into a pharmacy. I’m standing in line and this man turns around and he says, “Oh my god, are you Geri Jewell?” And he said, “I absolutely love you.” So I said, “Oh. Well, thank you.”
You didn’t know who he was?
Right. And he said, “You’ve inspired me, you’ve made me laugh, I love you.” And this little tinge of sadness went through me because although I was glad I was able to inspire people, after my surgery, I thought, “I can’t do that anymore.”
And he said, “You want a television series? My name is David Milch. I just got a contract with HBO. I’m doing a new Western called Deadwood. You want to do a Western?”
I was the very first cast member on Deadwood. Before Ian McShane. Before any of them.
Deadwood question. Was Calamity Jane raised by wolves or what?
I’ll tell you an inside story. When I met with David at Paramount to discuss how I was going to be written into Deadwood, I looked at everybody at the table and I said, “What about Calamity Jane? I can be Calamity Jane?” And David looked at me. “You’re too cute for Calamity Jane.” Because she was rough! Oh my god, have you seen pictures of her?
That’s why I’m thinking maybe she was raised by wolves. And she had a lesbian relationship of some kind with one of the women, right?
She had relations with Joanie Stubbs.
It was a very well-written relationship. Speaking of the writing, I’m pretty sure Deadwood had more f-bombs per minute than any other TV show ever made.
I didn’t realize Deadwood was going to be DEADWOOD. I thought it was going to be like Gunsmoke and I was going to be something like Miss Kitty.
Do you have any behind-the-scenes stories?
One day, I found this contract in my dressing room. There was never any discussion with the producers prior to it – it just was sitting on my table, waiting for me to sign it. And it said, “I, sign your name, give the right to simulate sexual activity and to full frontal nudity.”
And I looked at it. Oh my. I thought, “Hmmm, how badly do I want Deadwood?” [laughs]
I sat there and I looked at this contract for over an hour debating in my mind, “Let’s see, what good can come out of this?”
And then I thought, “Yeah, yes, I am finally going to be recognized as a woman! Yes! I am going to show that people with disabilities are sexual beings!” And I really psyched myself up. It’s not Playboy. It’s Deadwood! So I signed it.
Your entire journey in show biz started with stand-up comedy. How did that come about?
After my third year in college, my special ed gap was really closing in on me; I was flunking Algebra and Anatomy and Physiology. The AP instructor was really upset with me because I think I dropped a skull in lab. I mean, can you imagine me on CSI? “Oops! Sorry!”
Well, my friend Alex, who’s blind, said, “Why don’t you do stand-up comedy? I go to the Comedy Store every week and tell blind jokes.”
I didn’t know anything about stand-up comedy, so I said, “What do I do? How do I do it?” Alex told me to tell jokes about CP, and also integrate them with what’s hot at the time. He said, “You have to have the audience relate to you. If you do just CP material, you’ll lose a lot of people. So you’ve got to read the newspapers.”
It was 1978. The hottest topic in all the papers was Anita Bryant [and her anti-gay crusade.] So, the first line out of my mouth was, “You’ve heard a lot lately about gays coming out of the closet. But what you probably haven’t heard about are all the cerebral palsy people coming out of the closet. But don’t tell anybody that I have cerebral palsy, OK?”
So basically, you went into comedy to get out of going to college.
Looking back 30 odd years later, I’m stunned that I even had the courage.
Let’s see. Stand-up to a wildly successful network TV show, to writing books and advocating for people with disabilities, to an HBO series. Courage sounds like just the tip of the Geri Jewell iceberg.
I believe that my success partially had to do with the theory of the bumblebee. Have you ever heard that before? The theory of the bumblebee is that, scientifically and technically, a bumblebee’s body weight is too heavy to fly with those tiny little wings. But the bumblebee doesn’t know any different. So he flies away.