The famous actress who literally changed the face of television in the 1980s

I remember watching The Facts of Life as a child all the time.

The iconic 80’s sitcom and drama was always entertaining and left an impression on me and audiences everywhere well into adulthood.

There weren’t many shows back then that lasted close to 10 years, but the Different Strokes spinoff was one of them and with good reason.

Many of the show’s characters and plot lines are still loved today.

But there’s one character in particular who really stands out to fans…

Watching the reruns of The Facts of Life still brings back so many wonderful childhood memories. The show began in 1979 and was immediately popular.

It focused on Edna Garrett, a housemother at an all-girls boarding school in New York. Viewers watched Edna guide the girls through their ups and downs as she navigated her own life.

While Charlotte Rae, an experienced actress, played Edna, there was a recurring side character that still inspires viewers everywhere.

Geri Jewell played a recurring side role during the show: Geri Tyler. The fictional Geri was a cousin of Blair, one of the girls on the show. Other than being remembered for her wit and cleverness, the character was also groundbreaking – Geri Jewell was the first actress on television with a physical disability: cerebral palsy.

Even today, many agree that Geri’s cerebral palsy was represented realistically. It was likely helpful that Geri Jewell, the actress playing the role, also suffered from the condition in real life.

According to Mental Floss, Jewell was actually approached by showrunner Norman Lear before The Facts of Life was ever on television. After performing a stand-up comedy routine, Lear came up to Jewell.

Jewell explained:

“I got a standing ovation, and I ran into Norman in the elevator. He said, ‘You’ll be hearing from me really soon, kid.’ Three months later, he called me with the ‘Cousin Geri’ episode [in season two].”

With a role written especially for her, Jewell was able to represent her own condition and represent handicapped people everywhere. As mentioned, the role of Geri was actually the first time a recurring disabled person was featured on primetime television.

Geri was born on 13 September 1956 in Buffalo, New York, USA. Sadly, Geri’s mother was involved in a car accident while pregnant with Geri, which resulted in her being born three months early. At eighteen months old, she was diagnosed with cerebral palsy.

”It was very devastating. I knew a lot about cerebral palsy, so I knew what I was in for,” Geri’s mother, Olga, shared in the only television interview she ever gave in the history of Geri’s acting career.

Growing up, Geri was treated exactly the same as her brothers and sisters. Geri was one of the bunch – she played, fought, and laughed together with her three siblings. Of course, she needed special attention like any child.

However, Geri’s special attention lasted longer and she also received physical therapy from an early age. Her parents wanted Geri to be as independent as possible – she was encouraged to eat with a spoon taped to her hand and her arm sandbagged to steady the shaking.

That kind of mentality permeated her entire upbringing.

”They thought if I didn’t learn to fight when I was young I wouldn’t when I was older,” Geri said in 1984.

In her autobiography, she explained what the fight was all about:

”Your mind knows what your body is supposed to be doing, but the brain’s message aren’t getting through…. By learning the way your muscles would work if half your brains weren’t on vacation, we can minimize the visible aspects of our disability”.

Up until Geri graduated from eighth grade, she didn’t realize that she was ”different.” When she went to high school and wanted to do the same things as her classmates and sisters, go to ballgames and dances, it didn’t happen.

The only thing her brokenhearted mother could do was offer her support.

Luckily, Geri found a way to catch eyes through comedy and acting.

She started doing stand-up comedy in 1978 – it all came very naturally to her. Geri had always been a clown, she even wrote fan letters to her idol Carol Burnett as a kid.

Geri was discovered through her stand-up at The Comedy Store and in 1980, she was offered her career-defining role on The Facts of Life. After appearing in twelve episodes over four years, she got fired in 1984.

The popular actress was a well-known name in Hollywood, but the producers decided not to renew her contract.

”I was broke. My manager got arrested for embezzlement and securities fraud. My life was in shambles, and I had to go on every major talk show, promoting a book that had little to do with what my life was really about. It was perpetuating the myth that I had succeeded, overcome cerebral palsy and blah blah blah. It was a hypocrisy to the truth of my life as I lived it,” she told Ability Magazine.

Fortunately, Geri Jewell managed to pick herself up, and she had continued success after The Facts of Life ended. She was in other major television series, such as 21 Jump Street and The Young and the Restless, both shows with a long run and lasting impact.

One of her most recently memorable roles was in the series Deadwood where she played another role that portrayed a character with disabilities. Jewel, the character, also was featured as having cerebral palsy.

Geri, who is gay, now works as a motivational speaker and advocate for those with disabilities.

”What’s different today is that I’m centered, not emotionally all over the place, and that allows me to relax more. But in the’80s, when I was struggling with my sexuality, had a crooked manager who stole all my money, a show that didn’t renew my contract and a book out that I hated, I couldn’t handle it. It amazes me that I even lived through those years. I’m lucky I’m still alive,” she says.

I absolutely loved Gerri on The Facts of Life – she was one of my favorite characters, and I loved her humor on and off the show.

I am so impressed by Jewell’s impact! What about you? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *