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Remember when one of our own in the Diabetes Community ran for president? OK, it was a joke, but a great one by none other than Jim Turner, the actor diagnosed with type 1 diabetes as a teenager in the 1970s who’s had many memorable roles over more than three decades.
Jim starred in a live comedy show on NPR and appeared in vignettes in 1980s movies like The Lost Boys and St. Elmo’s Fire. He’s also been on shows through the years like Grey’s Anatomy, Castle, and Criminal Minds, and even got a mention in Stephen King’s updated book The Stand. Jim’s been in numerous TV commercials and played Larry “the boss” in the 2005 movie version of Bewitched. On top of all that, Jim co-hosted the CNBC D-Life diabetes TV show for many years before that series eventually ended.
And he ran for president! Sort of…
That was part of his shtick as his signature persona Randee of the Redwoods, a fictional MTV character in the 1980s that went viral and led to a spoof candidacy for president, eventually getting a fun resurrection in a voter registration ad leading into the 2018 election.
While Jim’s make-believe hippie Austin Powers-style persona may not ring bells for some, his oft goofy work over the years qualifies him as one of the world’s funniest (and most fun) diabetes advocates. At least in our eyes. That includes his part launching and co-starring in Clown Town City Limits, a wacky long-running dark humor stage production in Los Angeles.
Jim’s largely retired these days, but just recently in September made an appearance on the popular half-hour sitcom, Mom. He’s also writing a book about his life with diabetes and acting career, which he hopes to publish in 2020.
We chatted with Jim recently to learn his whole story, from diagnosis in the ’70s to his acting and comedy career, through to his latest travels around the country as a diabetes advocate speaking at events dubbed, “Sex, Pods, and Rock N’ Roll.” Read on…
DM) Thanks for taking the time to talk, Jim! Can you start by sharing the skinny on how you got type 1 diabetes? (see what we did there?)
JT) I was diagnosed in 1970 as a junior in high school, in Des Moines, IA. Certainly back then, diabetes management tools were much different and slim compared to what they are today. You basically just took a shot or two, and there was no blood sugar testing. So I spent 10 years just guessing. I had urine testing, though that tells you almost nothing, and there were no insulin corrections or carb counting like there is now.
I was put on this Exchange List for meals, where in the morning I had two bread exchanges, three meat exchanges, and one milk and a fruit exchange and you’d look at this book to see what foods could be exchanged. You’d do all this stuff, and then go to your doctor and on that one day you’d get your actual blood sugar number. It could be anything, without really knowing what had happened. There were crazy lows, and it was all fraught with so much worry and uncertainty. Those first 10 years were really a crapshoot on how to do anything with diabetes.
How did you fare in those early years?
I got really good at guessing my blood sugar, and am still pretty good at it. The doctor I had when first diagnosed was one of those really into allowing his patients to do whatever they needed to manage diabetes. So in 1972-73, within a few years of my diagnosis, I hitchhiked to Vermont and lived there for several months — until it got cold and the cabin I was living in without any heat made me leave.
I was working at this soul-sucking job at a toy farm, and so I hitchhiked back with two cats. And nine months later, I went to Europe and rode my bike all around Europe for almost three months — never once knowing what my blood sugar was and just flying by the seat of my pants! I ended up in the hospital in Southern Italy, around the time of the cholera epidemic there in ’73. I don’t know if I had cholera or something else, but I was in the hospital for five days with a high fever and hallucinating.
Yikes, what was that overseas hospital experience like?!
They wouldn’t let me take my insulin and weren’t feeding me, because they were trying to starve out of me whatever this thing I had was. So I had one syringe, and would take small doses of insulin. I would sleep with the syringe under my leg, so the doctors and nurses wouldn’t find it and take it away. I’d also walk around hospital and ask for food from people if they weren’t eating it, and I got to know the cook who’d give me a cup of soup.
One day, I woke up and the syringe was on the floor without the cap… and the floor of this hospital was like a locker room, to put it nicely. So at that point, I had to beg and fight them to get a new syringe that was a different, large glass syringe where I had to guess how much I was taking. Eventually, they let me out and I took the train from Southern Italy to Munich, and later found my way home.
What a nightmare! How did things go when you got back to the U.S. and started doing comedy shows?
In the late ’70s, I was touring non-stop with a comedy group and we were always on the road because that’s how we made our money. I (was) eating breakfast at 6 a.m. and sometimes at noon — every meal was completely different, and it was really hard for me to stay in control.
I went to the Mayo Clinic and this doctor told me to change my lifestyle. ‘I’m not going to,’ I said to him. ‘This is what I do. I’m not going to change my lifestyle. Isn’t there a better way?” He left in huff and came back in with an older doctor, who didn’t understand why we had this problem. I flipped out and was furious, and went back home to where I was staying with my aunt and uncle, and told them it was horrible.
Then a year later, I went to San Francisco and found a doctor who started me on multiple daily injections (MDI). He himself had type 1 diabetes for decades, and he was great. He got me testing my blood sugar and injecting regularly, and that changed everything. He was my doctor for a few years before moving to New York in 1987 for three-and-a-half years.
I had met two writers: June Biermann and Barbara Toohey – June was type 1 and Barbara was not, but they wrote children’s books before they started writing diabetes books. Back then, diabetes books were miserable affairs, just dry and not fun to read. They wrote about 15 books over the years, but the first one was the Peripatetic Diabetic (in 1984), and it changed my life.
They were funny, raucous and just completely changed how I thought about diabetes. I wrote them a fan letter and they wrote back within the week. They were always at the forefront and were the first to write about Dr. Richard Bernstein’s low-carb approach. They’d also started what was known as the Sugar-Free Center, supposed to be a place you could go get products and advice, but it didn’t take off and they closed it. We had become friends when I was still living in San Francisco, so I called them up once I got to LA and asked them if they knew of any doctors in LA… They told me most were all full of sh#t, but Dr. Michael Bush was not. So he became my doctor only because they told me to see him, and he’s been my doctor now for 30 years. And I like him.
And you’ve upgraded your diabetes technology too, right?
Before A1C, the original blood strips that I used in the early ’80s were the Chem-Strips, where you’d put some blood on and wait before wiping it off. If it was a certain color you had to wait again and compare colors, where it’d just be a guess on where the numbers were based on the particular color. And the strips were so expensive. There was a company that made a little device that would slice these strips in half. But I cut them into thirds, sitting and slicing each blood test strip into three strips so I had even more.
I didn’t wear an insulin pump forever, until I eventually saw an Omnipod at one of these diabetes conventions. There were no tubes, and I thought maybe I could wear one… but I didn’t. Much later, one day I was admiring one and tried it, and after two weeks thought, “WTF, was I waiting for?!” I loved it and have been wearing the Omnipod ever since, along with my Dexcom CGM. And soon, I’m going to be getting a lesson on Afrezza inhaled insulin… because I had a bad high maybe due to bad insulin. That’s motivated me to explore Afrezza more for corrections, because it’s so fast, more than regular correction bolusing. I am looking forward to trying it out.
How did your comedy career actually get started?
Growing up, we moved all the time so I was always the class clown, from age 5 and on. My show biz career really began in college when I was doing a play, one that I really didn’t want to do but a friend had signed me up to audition for. I got cast, and the director and an actor were going to do a show in a bar… this was 1974 in Iowa City, so no one did plays or shows in bars or clubs. They asked me to be in it, and it was widly successful. We did more shows and other bars signed us, and eventually we did a Monday/Tuesday/Wednesday with four sets of comedy. We were writing constantly, and so much of it was horrible, but some was great.
We did that for a year until we were burning ourselves out, and talked about NY and LA or Pittsburgh, but we ended up going to San Francisco. This was also before the big comedy boom there, and I thought we were going to rule the city because our stuff was so much better. When we moved there, it didn’t happen like that and it took a few years to make any kind of living. Two of the other guys did stuff for NPR, and we got really known on All Things Considered. That led to us touring anywhere with an NPR station in the late ’70s and early ’80s. There were five of us guys doing a live act. We were good, really good. We didn’t make any headway in films or TV, but in the mid-80s we were doing a show in NYC and a guy we knew wrote for MTV and brought a whole bunch of MTV people there. They loved the show and that led to what was next for me.
So you appeared on MTV, and created crazy Randee?
They asked me to do this character named Randee of the Redwoods, as a host of this 20th anniversary of the Summer of Love (in 1967). He was kind of a hippie who played guitar. I went out and we shot 20 spots and a music video in two days, racing all around New York. They became enormously popular and ran on MTV all the time.
Then in 1988, MTV asked me (as Randee) if I’d run for president. So I moved to New York, where my girlfriend lived – she’s now my wife, Lynn. I moved in with her, and Randee ran for president. We made all these “Randee for President” spots and put on this live show touring all around the country, and there was even talk of a movie but that fell apart.
Years later, I even found out that I got a mention by Stephen King in The Stand… when he rewrote the original ’70s book The Stand as a longer version, it’s in there. I remember we had just moved to LA and I was so broke that I went to a bookstore to look at the book and skimmed through it and found it on page 763 of the hardback version. Two people were talking and a woman starts crying and says, “I’m just thinking about things the way they used to be, like Fourth of July, Frank Sinatra, and that stupid guy on MTV, Randee I think his name was”… I almost started crying myself, that I’m in a Stephen King book. I’d love to meet him someday and have him sign my book. I’m not sure if (the mention) ever made it into the TV movie mini-series, but I may have to watch it and find out.
What came next on acting?
At that point, we were tired of New York and had moved to LA and that’s where we have been ever since. I ended up as a regular on a show called “If Not For You” with Elizabeth McGovern from Downton Abbey, and so many others in that show and other shows: Hank Azaria, Debra Jo Love from That ’70s Show, Peter Krause from Six Feet Under and tons of things, with Sandra Oh, and just lots of people and guest stars. It lasted seven episodes and I then went out for the HBO show Arli$$ about a sports agent for seven years. That was a great run, and my character was Kirby and I even became a verb from sports agents who would say “Don’t pull a Kirby.” Over the years, there have been so many other fun TV and movie spots. I became known as the sort of king of one-day guest stars — because most of my parts on TV shows were small so I’d only have to work one day.
I really enjoyed the Criminal Minds one, because that show was huge and I was present throughout the whole episode. I played a local sheriff helping the FBI team, and got to run through the woods with a gun pulled and kick down a door. All of this really fun stuff, and boy, I loved doing that show!
Any stories from the movie side of your career?
There have been a number of them, from those early parts in The Lost Boys and St. Elmo’s Fire. In 2004, I did the Kicking and Screaming movie about soccer with Will Farrell, and even though most of it got chopped down (in editing) to almost nothing, I got to spend 10 weeks with Will Farrell.
A month later, I went out and got a really big part on the movie Bewitched, where Stephen Colbert and I were writing partners pitching the idea to Will Farrell’s character about doing a movie-remake of the ’60s TV sitcom. That was another 10 weeks with him and other people like Nicole Kidman, Steve Carell, and Shirley McLain. My God, that was a blast.
Most recently, you were on the TV show Mom. How did that come about?
I was at my dad’s memorial and a text came at the very moment I was sitting there holding my mom’s hand. I saw later it was from my manager who wanted to see if I’d be able to do a small role on that show the next day. I couldn’t, because I was there with my mom. But they agreed to wait, and when I got back I did the role. I played a bartender working in a bar where Anna Farris is trying to change the management. It’s not a huge part, but I got a bunch of little jokes and starred with them, and it might come back.
Will we see you in anything else soon?
You know, I’m 66 and am kind of retired. I don’t get crazy about pursuing stuff, with my pension and social security and insurance for the rest of my life. We’re renting out rooms in the house we bought 20 years ago, so I really don’t need to work. That’s why I don’t pursue it a lot. I love it when I get a job, but I don’t go crazy now and call up my manager for new parts.
Can tell us about your time on D-Life?
I was on from the very beginning with the pilot episode where Dr. Bernstein was a guest to several years later when it was taken off TV and D-Life went online-only. When we first did the show in 2005, it was a blast doing that with a live audience. We’d cram a few shows in at a time and the audience would be people with diabetes who took the bus to NYC and sat in for the show.
At first, they had me as a host on the show, but eventually they let me do more comedy rather than the interviewing, which I was not as good at — the other hosts like Nicole Johnson and Mother Love were great at that. I told them I’d felt the show lacked something, and made a short video about a low blood sugar I’d had and took that to them as an example of the goofy, personal stuff that I wanted to do to show people what it was really like living with diabetes. It was fun doing that, and I was on for a total of 8 or 9 years. But one by one, everyone left, and I don’t even know where it is now.
What’s your main passion these days?
Most of my focus is on the diabetes events that I’m doing, and working on a diabetes book that I’d really like to get out. This will be a book with stories on my life with diabetes, incorporating that with show biz stories in an alternative comedy kind of way. I’d eventually like to move into TV and films, and try to use the show biz aspect to make it more fun to read.
Again, keep in mind that the books I grew up wth were dry and not fun to read. I would like for this book to be something that people with diabetes could hand to other people or parents, saying ‘OK, this is what it feels like. This is what I go through.’ I want to have some fun stories in there. I’ve filled up two notebooks of stories that I’ve experienced, and my editor will determine what works and the order they go might go in. We’re also working to find the link between my show business and diabetes lives, and when we get a rough sense of that format, I’ll go back and try to sharpen the stories. I’d hoped to have everything turned in to my editor by the time of my birthday on Oct. 28, and that’s still my plan. For now, I am hoping the book can be published in Spring 2020.
How do you balance the seriousness of diabetes with humor, especially with scary hypo situations?
The thing I tell people about diabetes is that it’s pretty all-encompassing. I think about it all the time. It’s always at the forefront of my brain. I’ve always called myself a ‘diabetic,’ because that’s what I am first—before I do anything else, before a dad, husband, an actor, a comedian. That’s what I am first. It’s like being on an airplane and needing to put on your oxygen mask first. You have to take care of the diabetes first, and then the rest of life falls into place. Engagement is the number one thing, and I’m engaged with it all the time.
With that said, it can be really freaky and frightening at times, but every once in a while it can be hysterically funny. It’s hard to describe what happens to your brain when you have a low blood sugar, as well as when you have a high blood sugar. It’s coo-coo.
What are the ‘Sex, Pods, and Rock n’ Roll’ events all about?
These are put on by (Boston-based) Insulet that makes the Omnipod, and in recent years we’ve done probably about 15 of them. Usually, they are for healthcare professionals and the aim is talking about things that might not come up easily in their practices. I’m actually getting ready to head to Florida to do one there, with Nicole Johnson and the local JDRF.
We’ve actually never done one of these for teen patients or those in their 20s or 30s, so this will be the first time for that. I’m usually the moderator and we have an advocate and provider. I’m most looking forward to the Q&A, to hear what they want to discuss — body image and those kind of issues, the uncomfortable kind of stuff, is what this is about.
I personally have a powerful story about pot use, when I was 17 in 1970. You have to be careful with these topics, especially on drugs and alcohol, to not just say ‘Don’t do it.’ Because that’s not helpful. Parents and doctors often want to say that, but teenagers and young adults are going to do those things. It’s important to address that, and not make these topics just something else they can’t do. At the same time, it’s important for them to understand what the diabetes impacts will be and they need to be prepared.
What a fascinating career… Thanks for your dedication to helping our Diabetes Community, Jim!