Geri Jewell told the sweetest story from behind the scenes of one of The Facts of Life's most popular episodes
The TV cousins eventually became real-life roommates!
For the second season of The Facts of Life, the series had begun focusing in on its star Lisa Whelchel and sought to surround her with characters who could truly round out how Blair Warner was perceived on TV. First came Jo, performed to perfection by Nancy McKeon, throwing attitude that challenged Blair and serving as her foil to help Blair come to important epiphanies (and vice versa).
Next came Cousin Geri, played by Geri Jewell, a stand-up comic with cerebral palsy whose performance at The Comedy Store so struck Norman Lear that the famous TV show creator many times over sought to help her find a home on television. The Facts of Life would be the first to feature her, making her one of the first visible disabled characters in TV history, and when Jewell told the Archive of American Television how that casting came to be, the actor said it was in many ways to help "humanize" Blair beyond what Jo could do. Jewell said:
"Norman suggested that I be Blair’s cousin, which is brilliant, because Blair was so stuck up and snooty … and my character gave her heart. And I think that was the intention. To put someone like me right up to Blair, you’ve got to humanize Blair somehow, and this will do it."
In case there was any doubt, she added immediately after, "And it worked!" According to Jewell, "I was told that 'Cousin Geri' was the highest Nielsen ratings that Facts of Life had ever gotten.”
The plot of "Cousin Geri" finds Blair preparing for a visit from her cousin, a comedian named Geri who has cerebral palsy. In the episode, Geri performs stand-up, and what you may not have realized is that for Jewell's TV debut, they used her actual jokes from the Comedy Store that so impressed Lear. "Those jokes were mine from the Comedy Store. They just incorporated it into the scripts. .. And basically I was just playing me. It wasn’t a huge role to take on. I was just being Geri."
But there was one obstacle for Jewell that she just didn't see coming in "Cousin Geri" until it was much too late. It's actually what drove her to feel insecure on the show and found her knocking on Lisa Whelchel's door for help.
According to Jewell, The Facts of Life writers weren't especially familair with working with disabled actors, and they wrote a scene that was deceptively challenging for the comedian. The scene in question is a little dance number that Lisa and Geri did to "Tea for Two," and Jewell explained why seeing it in the script sent a panic through her, as she said she read it and with dread thought, "No! Not a dance number!"
"I was so nervous about it that I couldn’t do it, because what people don’t understand about cerebral palsy is that in order for me to function, my brain operates on several different tracks," Jewell explained. "It’s not just one track. When I’m speaking, that’s one track, but what’s going on in another track is, ‘Don’t move that hand that way. Don’t walk this way. Don’t move this way.’" So in trying to control the way her brain functioned, the dance moves added another element that made the dance number much more complex to execute for Jewell.
So what did she do? She went and knocked on series star Lisa Whelchel's door. Jewell said, "I knocked on Lisa’s dressing room door and I felt very insecure, and I said, ‘Lisa,’ I said, ‘Can you please please help me with this dance number? And go over the lines and the dance movements.’ And she did. She spent hours with me until I was comfortable with it. That’s how big of a heart she has.”
That first day bonding together led to what Jewell described as a supportive friendship with Whelchel that went beyond the set of The Facts of Life. Jewell said, "It was an amazing cast to work with. Lisa Whelchel who I became very very good friends with. We were even roommates for a little while."
Of her friendship with Whelchel, Jewell said that beyond this instant bond from that first episode, it was a natural thing because Lisa was closest in age to Geri at the time. Jewell as 23 and Whelchel 17, whereas Fields was 11 and Cohn and McKeon just 15. Jewell remembered, "Truthfully, I didn’t spend a lot of time with the other girls. There was a huge age difference. Lisa was closer to my age. I was 23 and she was 17 when I did the first episode. So we became fast friends."
Like all the young stars on the show, Jewell also recalled a cherished friendship with Charlotte Rae who she said, "Charlotte Rae was very supportive of me. I remember she gave me a book after we did the first episode … and it was a book on love and she wrote inside, ‘I’m very proud of you. We love you. Your friend Char.’ I still have that book."
Jewell appeared as a recurring character on The Facts of Life across 12 episodes, and they even planned to create a spin-off show with Jewell as the series lead, but it never came together, unfortunately. Still, it's readily apparent to Jewell how many people her character on the show actually touched, because in the interview, the comedian said that beyond a single episode or scene, fans of The Facts of Life who recognize her often approach her to explain the impact of a single line she delivered in "Cousin Geri." Jewell said of "Cousin Geri":
"My favorite of all the episodes, and the line I said in that episode was ‘Questions don’t hurt. Ignorance does.’ That was a profound line that I can’t take credit for. Joel Kimmel and Ann Gibbs wrote that line, and to this day, people remember that one line. It was a brilliant line."