Up close and personal with out actress, comedian and TV Academy Archive inductee Geri Jewell

On the heels of last night's Primetime Emmy Awards, GLAAD has an exclusive conversation with comedian, actress, disability rights activist and lecturer, Television Academy Archive inductee, and out LGBTQ author Geri Jewell

Geri Jewell and The Facts of LifeBest known as Cousin Geri on the NBC sitcom The Facts of Life, she broke ground by becoming the first person with a visible disability to have a recurring role on an American primetime television series, and is still recognized wherever she goes for her work on that classic sitcom.  The character was tailored to Geri, a real-life stand-up comic, and at times incorporated jokes from her own comedy routines. Geri Jewell as Cousin Geri literally changed the face of television in 1980.

Beginning her career doing stand-up at the Comedy Store in 1978, she has appeared on such shows as the Emmy award winning movie Two of a Kind21 Jump StreetThe Young and the Restless, Strong Medicine and the HBO hit series, Deadwood, which she also received Emmy consideration for.

Here is Geri's appearance on Sesame Street back in1985, as she talks about being a child with cerebral palsy and learning how to handle food with her hands.

On September 13, 2016, Geri Jewell became the latest inductee into an archive featuring many of TV's legends, from television's earliest days to its latest stars and visionaries.  Founded in 1997, the Television Academy Foundation’s Archive of American Television has conducted over 800 oral history interviews (over 4000 hours) with the legends of television, focusing on the people involved in broadcast history, and to that end, interviewing TV artists in all categories of the profession. These interviews chronicle the birth and growth of American TV history as it evolves. The Archive continues to produce new interviews every year covering a variety of professions, genres and topics in electronic media history.

Shortly after the announcement of her induction, Geri spoke with GLAAD about her life, her career and the intersection of LGBTQ and disability rights.

 

Geri Jewell

 

GLAAD:  For anyone that reads your second autobiography, I'm Walking as Straight as I Can: Transcending Disability in Hollywood and Beyond, it’s apparent that you’ve had several turning points in your career and personal life.  Is there one that stands out above others in defining who you are and how you live in the world?

I'm Walking As Straight as I Can

JEWELL:  I imagine it was when I wrote the book itself, because my attitude was that I had nothing to lose at that point.  I was back at square one again, and I at least wanted to create an accurate account of my life.  If my being gay would hinder employment, I would just have to deal with it - but at least I was living my truth, and that is what matters in the end.

GLAAD:  You’ve said that “for most people with disabilities who are gay, the gay issue is a piece of cake.”  Can you elaborate on that?

 

JEWELL:  Meaning two things actually.  I have met so many people who have disabilities and who are gay.  And for the most part, are much more comfortable in their own skin than I was.  What set me apart from that "comfort level" was the fact that I acquired fame early on - long before it was okay to be "out".   I was juggling a g-rated television image, my obvious physical disability and the discrimination for that, and not even having the maturity or life experience to know what I really was anyway.  Had I not had such early surreal fame, I would have had an easier time defining who I was.

GLAAD:  For many of us, you’ll always be known for your breakout role in the 80’s sitcom The Facts of Life, as the first actor with cerebral palsy to have a recurring role on primetime television.  What was that moment in your career like, and did it pigeonhole you in any way?

JEWELL:  I will always be "Cousin Geri” and there are pros and cons to it. I am 60 years old now, and I am still thought of as that character - and therefore, casting directors don't always consider me for other roles.  I have had maybe 37 auditions in 38 years!!  However, I am very proud of my role on Facts and it has a special place in my heart. Most importantly, is seeing over the years how it has made a difference in so many people's lives and that there are so many people with disabilities going after their own dreams. I am very grateful indeed.

GLAAD:  Another standout performance is as Jewel, the Gem Saloon’s cook and maid in HBO’s hit series Deadwood.  Since that show had its share of lesbian and gay characters, what are your thoughts on how they were written and has Hollywood gotten any better in the last decade?

JEWELL:  I think Deadwood was a masterpiece all the way around!!  To have gay storylines in a period piece was brilliant.  I was only bummed because my character was asexual, they chose not to go there with "Jewel".  Maybe if the Deadwood movie becomes a reality they will explore Jewel's sexuality in an era where people with disabilities were pretty much hidden from society.

GLAAD:  Why do you think the intersection of LGBTQ and disability rights, especially for those working in the entertainment industry, is so strong at the moment?  And how are you involved in creating change?

JEWELL:  Quite frankly, we are at a point where it is imperative to embrace ALL diversity, and to become more evolved through our differences so that we are able to survive as a human-kind.   It is only through our differences that we can realize and appreciate our sameness. We're at a point in time where either HATE will destroy us, or LOVE will give us life.  Throughout history we have arrived at this place many times over, but now there is more at stake than ever before.

 

From the first story told on old black & white television sets to streaming digital series that break the mold with every production, entertainment media has the power to change lives by showing lives ... the entire range of lives we see all around us.  Acceptance of all our communities is accelerated when entertainment platforms reflect the rich and wonderful diversity of creative artists in our midst, providing them a platform and amplifying their voices.  BRAVO Geri Jewell on your induction.  Keep on walking!