Fran Drescher’s Fairytale Life
It’s a voice that can speak for itself, but there’s a real person there, too, and a fine actor. Our Tracy Smith caught up with Fran Drescher of "The Nanny" on Broadway:
Even on a jam-packed day at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, one unique voice can be heard above the clatter: "I want to show you in here because this room is dedicated to Picasso."
In a world of artistic copycats, Fran Drescher has built a career on her very distinctive voice, and one very distinctive role.
For the millions who watched the series on CBS, Drescher was, and is, "The Nanny." Thanks to syndication, the show hasn’t been off the air in 20 years.
What some might not know is that she came up with the concept herself, and she sold it to CBS in a chance meeting on a plane.
"I was on a plane to Europe by myself, and the president of CBS came on the plane with me," she told Smith. "And I just cornered him, because where was he gonna go? Coach?
"And he said, ‘You know, you are a Russell, because you have the courage of Jane Russell, the comic timing of Rosalind Russell, and the tenacity of a Jack Russell.’ And I thought, wow, this guy really knows me!"
And in time, so would the rest of the world. For six seasons, Drescher played the nasal-voiced, working-class girl from New York named Fran.
It wasn’t really much of a stretch.
Francine Joy Drescher was born, and lived most of her young life, in Queens, New York. Much of her old neighborhood is unchanged, including her favorite restaurant, Valentino’s Pizza, where she described the happiest childhood imaginable:
"I would lie in my twin bed and listen to the laughter coming from the other side of the wall. My mom would be giggling, my dad would be laughing, and the two of them just were delightfully, joyfully happy with each other."
As a young girl, Drescher dreamed of beauty school, and staying close to home.
"I walked to college," she said. "That’s how co-dependent I was on my parents! I never wanted to leave."
But life beyond Queens beckoned. With the encouragement of her high school sweetheart (and future husband) Peter Mark Jacobsen, she started going out on acting auditions.
Her first notable role was as a girl from Queens in 1978’s "Saturday Night Fever."
It was a bit part, but it was a start. Drescher’s beauty-queen looks and grating voice made her a natural for character work, like in 1984’s "This Is Spinal Tap," as a tough-talking music promoter.
The movie parts got Drescher noticed; "The Nanny," in 1993, made her a household name.
But the grind of making a hit TV show was nothing compared to what she went through off-screen.
In 1985, she narrowly survived a home invasion robbery during which she was raped. Drescher says she forced herself to look at her assailant so she could identify him later. He is still in prison today.
And shortly after "The Nanny" was cancelled, Drescher was diagnosed with uterine cancer.
The treatment left deep scars, inside and out.
"I remember going into the bathroom and looking at my body and seeing how swollen and black-and-blue it was," she said, "and that cruel, red line going across my pubic bone from the hysterectomy. I thought, I’ll never be the Nanny. I’ll never be that woman again, and, you know, life as I knew it was over."
But Drescher went on to make a full recovery — a very full recovery.
"Women think, you know, if they had a hysterectomy it doesn’t work anymore. And it works great!"
She laughs now, but her cancer came at an especially tough time — after ending her 21-year marriage to her husband and producing partner.
Smith asked, "How hard was it to make that final break? Because you’re the one who did it, you’re the one who said, ‘It’s over.’"
"Yeah, it was like walking through fire," Drescher said. "because I had never done anything at the expense of someone else. And he didn’t want it. And he made it tough for me."
And not long afterward, Peter Marc Jacobsen told his former wife that he’d discovered he was gay.
Once again, Drescher’s real life became a TV series: "Happily Divorced," about a woman whose husband comes out of the closet:
"How do you know this isn’t some mid-life crisis thing? You’ve never been with a man. Trust me, it’s not that great!"
But for all the bumps in her life, public and private, Drescher has never been one for self-pity.
"You know, everything has led me to this moment," she said. And how is this moment?
Fran Drescher makes her debut in Broadway’s "Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella" at the Broadway Theatre, February 4, 2014 in New York City. ROMMEL DEMANO/GETTY IMAGES
Talk about a fairytale ending: These days, Drescher is making her Broadway debut in "Rodgers & Hammerstein’s "Cinderella."
As the Wicked Stepmother, Drescher’s wardrobe is spectacular, but also back-breakingly heavy.
"You have to carry yourself with the kind of gait that makes you stiff and uncomfortable after a while," she said, "so they have physical therapists here twice a week. You just sign up and it’s included. So I said, just sign me up for the twice-a-week!"
Watching her on stage, it’s easy to forget that this is her first time on Broadway. After all, Drescher is used to holding her head high, and letting her voice — that voice — ring out.
"When you were little, did you have the voice you have now?
"I think so," Drescher said. "Thank God. ‘Thank you, Lord!’ I’ve never had trouble getting boyfriends. But, you know, I guess they’re all a little deaf."
1.Fran Drescher makes her debut in Broadway’s "Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella" at the Broadway Theatre, February 4, 2014 in New York City. ROMMEL DEMANO/GETTY IMAGES
Interview: Tracy Smith
Graciously Contributed to Theaterlife.com by Merrill Stone