We all love her as The Nanny named Fran from Flushing, Queens, who tawks with an accent, knows her way around a miniskirt, and can put a wealth of meaning into the phrase, "Oh, Mr. Sheffield." But Fran Drescher, who created and produced The Nanny, is so much more than just a comedic actress. She is an author, model, producer, activist and women's health advocate.
Since The Nanny wrapped in 1999, Drescher hasn't stopped for one minute. She starred in the short-lived series Living with Fran and produced and starred in Happily Divorced, wrote two New York Times bestsellers about her life, Cancer Schmancer and Enter Whining, and became a highly sought-after speaker on women's healthcare and LGBT rights.
Now, with this week's release of The Nanny: The Complete Series by Shout! Factory, an effervescent Drescher chatted us up about the release of the DVD, her role as the wicked stepmother in Broadway's Cinderella, how cancer made her activist, her new husband, and why she believes in turning lemons into lemonade!
The Nanny was your breakthrough role, which you also created and executive produced. Before that, did you have a hard time getting roles because of your accent?
No. I did at least one pilot a year and, with the voice and being funny, there's always the role of the nutty neighbor, as I like to call it. Not necessarily the centerpiece, but the Rhoda in the story. I never felt like I was a second banana and I always felt like I was more of the star, so I think it took me and my partner, Peter Jacobson, to come up with the perfect situation that would show off my strengths and still put me into the center of the sitcom. So that was what The Nanny did for me. But, I had already done quite a number of movies and television pilots, I had a short-lived series on CBS called Princesses, with Twiggy and Julie Hagerty. So I didn't get The Nanny out of the blue. I was building a career, I was working and gaining momentum slowly.
What was the high point of The Nanny for you?
Being able to wear all the hats I was able to wear, because I like doing more than just acting. I like to write, I like to produce, I like to have opinions about sets and casting and costumes. Everything. What was extremely gratifying for me was that I was able to make a contribution on all those levels and, ultimately, the success of the show itself. It was validating of my talent and it has afforded me a certain lifestyle, as a result, global fame, and a distinction in the landscape of comedy actors in television.
You just finished appearing in Cinderella in Los Angeles as part of the road company. But before that, you starred in it on Broadway. Was that your first time to do a Broadway show?
It was. It was the first time I was on Broadway, and I did it for six months plus one month rehearsal. I was out of it for nine months when they called and told me that the actress playing my part on the tour suddenly needed knee surgery, so would I do six weeks in Los Angeles? I said yes and that's what I'm just coming off of now.
Being on stage is different than filming because there are no do-overs. Is that a scary thing?
I'm not so scared by it anymore. I did a bit of theatre off-Broadway prior to having done Cinderella, but Cinderella has definitely covered all the bases. It was working with an orchestra, it was a huge theatre, lots of costume changes, wig changes, and running around learning choreography. It was everything that I hadn't really experienced before, so now, I know I can do it and do it well. I know that I can also sell tickets on my name, so all that's really wonderful.
But, it's definitely flying without a net. If something bad happens, you've got to figure it out right on the spot and get back into where you need to be. Whatever you fear might happen, invariably does at one point or another when you're in a show, and it all works out in the end.
You've lived your life very much in public. When you were diagnosed with cancer, you wrote the book Cancer Schmancer. Then you did a TV series, Happily Divorced, about your break up with your husband Peter Marc Jacobson. Why go public? Was it to beat the media to it, or did you feel you really want to tell your story your way?
Happily Divorced was inspired by my story — it wasn't my story at all. I never lived with my husband after we split up. We didn't actually split up because he woke me up in the middle of the night and said, "Honey, I think I'm gay," like it happened in the series. I think that as a writer and a creator, I'm always looking to my own life for inspiration and, I think, that when you write about what you know, it has a more authentic quality to it, and it's richer in specificity and details. So that's why I often go down that path because I write about myself, too. I've written two New York Times bestsellers that were autobiographical, and I will do more of that. I have another book in me, I even have another series that I would like to explore when the time is right.
I was just appalled when I read Cancer Schmancer that it took you so long to get a diagnosis. One would have thought you had the best doctors and that you would have been able to get a diagnosis much earlier. Is that why you are so motivated in the work that you do on behalf of women and cancer?
Well, definitely the inspiration for getting so engaged in a philanthropic and activist way was because, if this could happen to me, what about the average person, or the immigrant for whom English is not their first language, or the woman that's a single parent and just trying to get food on the table and really is marginalized and doesn't have the access that I have to health care? These were all the things that motivated me to go further. The book was my own cathartic journey and my desire to not have what happened to me happen to other people, but when I went on my book tour, and then on the lecture circuit, I realized very quickly what happened to me has happened to many, many people.
So I thought, "Okay, the book is not the end but just the beginning of what's become a life's mission." If everyone were diagnosed in Stage 1 like I was, almost everyone would live. The reason why we lose loved ones to cancer is almost always due to late-stage diagnosis. That's what I started to think about, talk about, and then started to transform patients into medical consumers. Doctors aren't gods. They're people and they have busy lives and their own stresses. So it's really up to us to take control of our bodies, to know what the early warning whispers are for cancers that may affect us, and then to know what tests are available.
What makes you happy in your life right now?
Well, my husband [inventor Shiva Ayyadurai]. I'm a newlywed, who married in September. I'm enjoying being married and building a life with this new and wonderful man. I'm learning a lot about myself. I've put myself into therapy with a shaman, who is helping me to get in touch with myself. It's a very different approach from the Jungian psychotherapy that I did for more than a decade, which was very helpful, but this is now more inclusive of the other things that I have over the years have incorporated into my life, namely spirituality, energy, metaphysics, meditation, and chakras.
You once said, "My whole life has been about changing negatives into positives." Do you still feel that way?
Definitely. Lemons into lemonade, baby. That's what it's all about, and the more you can do that, the easier it is to get through life because no one leaves this planet unscathed. One Wednesday afternoon when you least expect it, life's going to bite you on the ass, and whatever you thought was, is no longer, and you're going to kick and scream and cry and say, "Why me, Lord? Why did this happen to me? Why did this have to happen to my loved ones?" Then, eventually, you have to ask yourself a question: How long can I keep being bitter about what happened before I start hurting myself more than I've already been hurt? At that point, you stand at a crossroad. You either continue down this unhealthy path that's going to cement you into an angry, dark, perpetual state of bitterness, or you choose life, and you face it with all the elegance and courage you could possible muster.