TELEVISION STARS, even when their roles are small and irregular, as Geri Jewell's is on "Facts of Life," are not often found on the streets of Washington. Outside the WTTG studios on Wisconsin Avenue, a group of junior high school kids spots Jewell. It's not hard. Her walk is raggedly angular, her speech slighlty slurred; hard of hearing, she leans forward to catch what's being said.
One of the kids is still trying to place her, and it finally hits him.
"You're that lady that's retarded!" He tries to pull the word back into his mouth, but it's too late.
Jewell looks up from the scraps of paper she's signing. "No I'm not!" she says.
Later, preparing for an appearance on "Panorama:" "It doesn't bother me," she says. "I understand it."
Geri Jewell has cerebral palsy, a disabling condition resulting from brain damage and characterized by loss of muscle control. Twenty-six, but looking a decade younger, she started out four years ago as a stand-up comedian in a Los Angeles club, poking fun at herself and her handicap. Last year she made what was intended to be a one-shot appearance as "Cousin Geri" on Norman Lear's family sitcom "The Facts of Life." She was a hit and has returned to the series on a part-time, continuing basis.
It's a breakthrough role for handicapped actors and actresses on television. "I don't know the survival of this character," Jewell says, "but it is the first time that a real disabled person has taken on a regular role." Since then, Jonathan Hall Kovacs, a deaf child actor, has joined the cast on "The Family Tree," and Melanie Watson, who has multiple sclerosis, has made several appearances on "Diff'rent Strokes."
Geri Jewell uses no crutches, no wheelchair. Jewell maintains her strength through exercises, jogging, biking and video games, which help her coordination. Around her neck she wears a locket depicting the comedy/tragedy mask. It's a symbol of her life.
"Carol Burnett used to say that 'comedy was tragedy plus time,' and now I know what she means by that," Jewell says. "It's true. It's not going to be funny at the moment that it happens, but in a while you can see the humor in it.
"I always knew how to make people laugh. I was very insecure, and it was the only way that I thought that I could be accepted in a social gathering. If I could make 'em laugh, then they'd like me. And I would always be the butt of my own jokes." (Example: "I've been pulled over once for speeding and four times for walking."
She weighed three pounds when she was born in Buffalo, and spent the first three months of her life in an incubator. The cerebral palsy was not diagnosed until a year later. Raised in Southern California in a family of four children, she studied at both regular and special schools, and tried a year of college before dropping out. Her father worked at a cemetery; her mother was a mail carrier.
"My parents didn't allow me to wear braces; they were going to make me strong whether I wanted it or not. But I did want braces, and I did want a wheelchair; without them, it was automatically assumed I was retarded. My sister and I used to play house and school with our dolls; we would take shoe boxes and make wheelchairs, take Popsicle sticks and make braces. Even our Barbie dolls had braces.
"Psychologically I didn't fit in anywhere.
"If I wasn't accepted on the 'regular' side, and I wasn't accepted on the 'special' side, where was I accepted? I was walking in the middle, sometimes deciding to be handicapped, sometimes deciding to be regular. It was like a game: Today I'll be crippled; tomorrow I'll walk."
Like most adolescents, Jewell had idols. In her case, it was Carol Burnett, whom she started writing to at age 14.
"We've never met face to face, but I read an interview where they asked her why she kept writing me back. She said that 'Geri had a very unique way of writing, a way with words,' which was very true.
"When I wrote her my first letter, I don't think consciously that I wanted her to think I wanted to be a comic. My main concern was that she write back so I could get a letter from a celebrity. I remember writing, 'Dear Carol Burnett--If your secretary is going to write me back, then don't bother!' The nerve of me to do that.
"But she wrote back and said, 'I'm sorry, I don't have that much time, but I'll try to write you personally every time.' I always felt like I owed her something, that if I really made it as a comic, a lot of my motivation was for her."
The upswing began in 1978 when Jewell channeled her irreverent humor and made her way to an open stage at Los Angeles' Comedy Store.
They had to sneak her on stage. "Are you kidding? I couldn't have gone to the owner; I never would have gotten on. I was different; I was new.
"The first night I got a standing ovation, and I know damn well it wasn't because I had good timing. I was stepping on my lines from left to right. But when I went back the following Monday with the same material, it was awful. People were screaming stuff at me like 'Get off the stage! . . . You're retarded! . . . Go back to the insitution!' I just broke down into tears and thought, 'This is it, I do not want to go back, no, no, no!'
"I knew I had to be funny consistently instead of being brave consistently. If I'm going to get a standing ovation for being strong, then I don't want it. If I'm going to be a comic, I'm going to be a good comic. I know the difference when I've made them laugh and when they're being polite."
Although she still does a lot of talk shows, Jewell has, for now, left the comedy stage.
"All the while I was doing stand-up comedy, I never stopped being scared. I had thrown away school, and what could I do except make it in comedy? It was better than sitting at home, collecting Social Security and watching soap operas.
"I developed an ulcer from stand-up comedy. When they rejected me the nights that I flopped, I took it so personally. It would just rip me up inside. But I blocked it all out so I could keep doing it. For me to hold the microphone still, to not let my nervousness affect my speech or my involuntary movements more, the fact that I'm hard of hearing and couldn't hear my hecklers and couldn't say anything witty back because I never heard what they said--all that contributed to a lot of pain.
"What I've been working on is to forget the fear and to go back to the Comedy Store and get away with not doing any CP jokes. I grew out of CP comedy before everybody else did; that's what happened. It's out of my system; I don't even think about it.
"In a way it was great therapy. Now I don't feel that I have to entertain. I can walk into a room and say 'hi' and get into a conversation about anything, and I'm not afraid of being rejected. And comedy has made my skin very very tough."
On her sexual awakening:
"It's a common myth that disabled people are asexual. I on the other hand . . . no, no, just kidding. The reason they pick on me is that I'm cute, and I don't look asexual.
"When I was in high school, I did not date; nobody asked me out, not even to the prom. When I got to college, nobody dated me. When I was a struggling comic, nobody dated me. It wasn't until I was celebrity that I started dating, okay?
"It's so hard to grow from being a handicapped child to a sexually mature adult. I have been asked to speak at many organizations, including Parents of Handicapped Children, about sexuality. I'm sitting there once a week with my psychologist talking about sexuality and then suddenly I'm sitting in front of 500 people talking about sexuality. But I'm still dealing with the fact that I'm a sex symbol. Well, some people got it, and some people don't."
"I have so much to learn about sex, yet experts are calling me for answers. I'm going to write a book, 'Everything You Wanted To Know About Sex and CP and Were Afraid To Ask . . . Or Afraid To Do.'
"I've always had this feeling that somehow CP has made me less of a woman. Gosh, if I could only walk into a room gracefully and be like a mountain lion . . .
"I've suddenly become very popular in the dating area. Before, I didn't get any dates. It's really a weird feeling to go from one extreme to the other. I've never had a normal life; I never will, period.
"I'm very attracted to people who are bright and who can fill my mind with all kinds of things--and that's often overlooked in me because of the way I look, the way I walk. So many times I've wished that my body could be equal to my head, then people would understand me better . . . but there's such a drastic difference between the two.
"I know the beginning of my sex life. I was 22 and just starting when Oui magazine called to do a little story. It was the first time I ever wore makeup, the first time they made me look like a woman.
"When I started doing comedy, I came on in a T-shirt, overalls and tennis shoes . . . I felt the only way I could do comedy was as a cute poster child.
"When I did Oui, I'll never forget it--they put me in satin pants and makeup, they curled my hair, and I wore a shirt that said 'I don't have CP, I'm drunk.' And I sat on the stool with my legs crossed like this. It was the weirdest feeling when they wrote that I was a sexy 22-year-old who comes 'swaying up to the microphone.' It was the first time I'd ever been viewed that way, and that's when I knew I had . . . potential."