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Veteran TV actress sheds light on disability, personal strife

Submitted by Liz Fox on October 16, 2013 – 3:38 pmNo Comment

Stand-up comedian, actress and activist Geri Jewell made the journey to UALR Oct. 8 to provide stories of encouragement to students struggling with sickness and sexuality.

For those unfamiliar with Jewell’s background, the 57-year-old actress is perhaps best known for her role as Geri Tyler on “The Facts of Life,” a sitcom that aired on NBC from 1979 until 1988. She earned the role on the back of her promising stand-up comedy career, which proved to be groundbreaking as it marked the first primetime appearance of a regular character with a physical disability.

But while she was pampered and often invited to A-list events, Jewell spotted a hint of trouble in the way she was treated in much of the industry.

“Hollywood did not know what to do with me and I was a token in that day and age,” Jewell said. “I was totally aware of this … In time I thought I’d be accepted into the mainstream, but NBC milked me for all I was worth.”

Jewell later learned her manager had embezzled most of her funds, leaving her practically penniless when she left “The Facts of Life” in 1984. An autobiography titled “Geri,” which sought to document her struggle with cerebral palsy, was also published with heavy edits to her prose. Despite these setbacks, she later adopted an activist attitude, touring the country and speaking at conferences about her experiences.

“I deal with a lot of ignorance about disability,” Jewell said. “Sometimes it has nothing to do with me.”

The actress found herself in dire straits again when she underwent spinal cord surgery after breaking her neck in a nasty fall. Her mental health also fell into steep decline, masked by depression and a prescription drug dependency.

“I hit rock bottom. I also had to go to drug rehab,” Jewell said. “My marriage had ended, my identity had ended … I didn’t know what I was going to do. It was a long time back to psychological health, emotional health, just good health in general.”

But as she was waiting for post-injury botox injections at a California clinic, she was approached by writer-producer David Milch, who later offered her a recurring role on HBO’s “Deadwood.” Though the show was cancelled after a mere three seasons, it helped Jewell regenerate her career as well as herself.

In 2011 Jewell published her second autobiography, “I’m Walking As Straight As I Can.” The book, which serves as a rightful replacement for the first, is an inspiring tale about her triumph over cerebral palsy and her experience as a homosexual woman. Disclosing details about the latter was among things that scared her the most.

“The biggest fear of writing that book and coming out as a gay woman was that I thought it would discredit all the work I did with disabilities for all those decades,” Jewell said. “I thought the children with disabilities would resent the hell out of me for that. I was stunned when the book came out and parents were asking me to be friends on Facebook.”

Now universally known as an actress, comedian, advocate and survivor, Jewell continues to tell her story through prose, television and on the lecture circuit. But she noted that, above all else, faith accounts for her best successes.

“After all I’ve been through in life … one of the reasons I survived is because I always had a spiritual foundation,” Jewell said. “Even in my lowest of lows, I would analyze it and say, ‘there’s gotta be a reason for this.’ I believe that everybody has the freedom to believe whatever they want to believe. But, I also believe that we are all connected in some way. I also believe disability is part of the human condition. It’s not that I’m special because I have cerebral palsy; it’s that I experienced this physicality to learn and evolve and grow.”

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