Actress and comedienne Geri Jewell marked a first: the first performer with a life-altering physical disability to hold a regular part on a primetime network sitcom. Despite a permanent condition of cerebral palsy that impacted her speech and physical coordination, Jewell clung steadfastly to a dream of establishing herself as a stand-up comic, a dream realized with a successful series of engagements at L.A.’s hallowed Comedy Store in 1978, then the Media Access Awards in 1980. Witnessing great talent and tenacity, producer Fern Field sensed Jewell’s potential and introduced her to television mogul Norman Lear, whose work creating such programs as All in the Family, Good Times, Maude, and The Jeffersons had put him at the top of his game during the 1970s. Deeply impressed by Jewell, Lear tapped her to play Geri Warner, the 23-year-old cousin of Blair Warner (Lisa Whelchel), on the all-girls prep school sitcom The Facts of Life. Though not a regular, Jewell appeared intermittently on the program from 1981 to 1984, and via her disability helped the series explore issues theretofore unaddressed in primetime programming.
Following the end of Jewell’s run on Facts in 1984, she turned up on an episode of 21 Jump Street and in the Gail Singer all-female stand-up documentary Wisecracks (1991), but found her most substantial audience as cleaning woman Jewel on HBO’s 19th century western drama Deadwood (2004-2006). Meanwhile, Jewell continued to tour as a comedienne, a motivational speaker, and a disability trainer for such organizations as the U.S. Army and the CIA. She also opened for musical acts including Robert Goulet and Judy Collins and landed a major role as Aunt Lolly in the 2006 comedy The Night of the White Pants, co-starring Tom Wilkinson and Nick Stahl.