WRITING: RANDI BERGMAN
They say that you should never meet your idols, and while I’ve had more than one experience that proves that theory correct, an exception should be made for phone calls from Malibu that deliver one of the most beloved voices of your childhood on a silver, sparkly platter. That familiar nasal rasp, of course, belongs to Fran Drescher, who from 1993-1999, starred as the incomparably fabulous Fran Fine, a Jewish fashion queen who becomes a nanny to three wealthy children on The Nanny, a show she created, and executive produced alongside her “gay ex-husband” Peter Marc Jacobson.
With her incredible mix of warmth, chutzpah and razzle dazzle, Drescher endeared herself to a generation of aspiring Flashy Girls (from Flushing and beyond) who lay their sequins at her feet in praise to this day. And in an era that celebrates camp, (bolstered by Instagram fan accounts like @whatfranwore and @thenannyart), she’s become the Millennial generation’s patron saint of maximalist style.
Drescher ain’t resting on her legacy, though. In the years since The Nanny went off air and her own battle with the disease, she has become an outspoken activist for cancer prevention and women’s health. She runs Cancer Shmancer, an organization that advocates for early detection, prevention and policy change. “How about, let’s not get cancer in the first place!” she says.
Drescher called me from her California home, where she’d just returned from a whirlwind press tour promoting her new show, Indebted (available in Canada exclusively on GlobalTV.com and the Global TV App). On the show, she stars as Bonnie, the fiscally irresponsible mother of Dave (played by Adam Pally). “In a nutshell, it’s a Baby Boomer meets Millennial show, where the parents go broke and end up on their adult son’s doorstep,” says Drescher. “It’s kind of a question of who’s the parent?”
Over the course of an hour, Drescher and I chatted about everything from her first fashion icon, her first film role and her everlasting effect on Millennial women. As we gabbed, I pictured Drescher in one of Fran Fine’s signature robes. I suggest you do too!
It’s a good thing we’re not on FaceTime or you wouldn’t be saying that (laughs).
I was going to dress up for the call but then I didn’t…
I love phoners for that reason. I just came off a beast of a press tour. I never want to get out of my room again.
Your people need you! You can’t rest too long.
I know, I give it all and then I’m a useless lump.
So, tell me about your new show, Indebted, and what attracted you to the role of Debbie.
We [the parents] are very fun but immature and it’s very fun to play a character like that. This project came along, and the character was written as a ‘Fran Drescher type’ and it got my gay ex-husband, Peter [Marc Jacobson], very jazzed. It was time to get back on network TV, and so here I am!
There are parallels with The Nanny. You’re living with children in a pseudo parental role.
Definitely. It’s not a dissimilar character and I don’t mind that at all. I do kind of miss writing and producing on my own show because I obviously have my own ideas and experience and it’s an area that I’m good at. Part of the reason I became a producer is because I get a little bored just with the acting and I like to wear many hats to keep me stimulated. Maybe that’s why, because I’m so well known as a certain persona that doesn’t necessarily challenge me in the way it would if I was suddenly cast as the queen of England (I’d have to put all my energy into that!) but you know, let go, live and trust, live and love, do other things and see where it takes me. Sometimes you just gotta let the universe lead rather than you swimming upstream all the time, and it kind of just fell in my lap, so I guess on a certain level it’s meant to be.
I’ve read a lot of pieces lately about the impact you have had on Millennial women like myself, what do you think of this persistent wave of ‘90s nostalgia?
I’m happy about it because it glorifies my brand in a way that allows me to speak about the things that I’m really passionate about.
I feel like timing is everything – timing for The Nanny worked out because I happened to be on a plane with the president of CBS and I kind of cornered him and he had nowhere to go because he wasn’t going to go to coach to get away from me. I didn’t even have the idea but I convinced him to let me pitch him ideas and by the time I was done with that trip, I thought of the idea for she show. So that was all about timing, seizing the day, opportunity knocks and you gotta answer.
All the young people that grew up watching me are the founding generation of social media. And so that also is timing because social media spurs an obsession for The Nanny, helping to sustain it over all these decades and to inspire a nostalgia for your generation.
Who were your icons growing up? I know Barbara Streisand was written into the show, did you idolize her as a kid?
Not really. My parents loved her and saw her on Broadway in Funny Girl, which was a bit early for me, but then she started to become more relevant to me when she started doing movies and directing. That I did admire. But I have to say that growing up, watching I Love Lucy, which was reruns at that point, made a big impact on me.
"The whole thing became a fantasy. We insisted that we have that huge staircase, primarily so that I could walk down in gorgeous outfits."
I just re-watched Saturday Night Fever and I can’t believe I forgot you were in it. That line!
You know, I saw John Travolta next to me on the red carpet at I think the Golden Globes and I walked into his interview and I said, “Are you as good in bed as you are on the dance floor?” and his wife’s jaw dropped. She had no idea what I was doing, but he did.
What do you remember about filming?
That was my very first part and we shot it in Brooklyn and my dad worked in Brooklyn at the time and so he came on his lunch break to see me. (I was still living at home with my parents, I was a teenager). And they told him It was a closed set, and he said, “Well, I’m the star’s father!” and they said, “Right this way, Mr. Travolta.” He walked his ass right in.
Do you remember your earliest fashion influences?
In elementary school, I used to watch Laugh In and Goldie Hawn had a very mod look to her – the hair, the makeup, the short dresses – I thought that was very cool. I loved Marlo Thomas in That Girl. I also loved the way Elizabeth Montgomery looked on Bewitched.
I also recall from a very early age (and I come from a very humble background in a working-class neighbourhood), I was impressed by the look and style of Audrey Hepburn. I wasn’t old enough to watch Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but I must have caught her in pictures or maybe on TV. Something about her really impressed me.
My parents always described my sister as “buy me, gimme, take me” and I was always the one who said I didn’t need. And they tell this story of this tweed coat that had a built-in jewel collar. And they really couldn’t afford it, but I absolutely flipped over it. I don’t think I was more than eight-years-old at the time, but they bought it for me because I never asked for anything. I loved it so much and when I wore it, it wasn’t like what the other kids in the neighbourhood were wearing. I felt sophisticated in it, I felt that I looked like Audrey Hepburn.
So, you always loved fashion?
I think my eye was always sensitive to fashion, so when we were creating the series, it was important that we respected the fact that it’s a visual medium and that I should be an absolute clothes horse – change as many times as possible. And the whole thing became a fantasy. She supposedly bought everything on sale at Loehmann’s, but everything was couture. We insisted that we have that huge staircase, primarily so that I could walk down in gorgeous outfits. When I was little, my mom used to watch the The Loretta Young Show and she walked down a massive staircase in beautiful dresses.
"Catherine Deneuve said that at a certain age, it’s either your ass or your face, and go for the face. Who am I to question Catherine Deneuve?"
So many designers that had heydays during that period – Todd Oldham, Isaac Mizrahi, Moschino Cheap & Chic – the images that immediately come to mind are of you, and I think that speaks to the power of a good coordinate. How much attention to detail was paid to every outfit?
We gotta give the costume designer, Brenda Cooper, a shit load of credit. She builds a woman from the inside out and she was just on top of all the undergarments – how to pull the stockings up so your butt was higher – I mean forget about it! She has a special eye for perfection and she’s a colour genius. And also, she has a sense of humour, so she can read the script and already be thinking of how she can complement a joke or a scene with an outfit. Like the scene where me, Sylvia and Yetta are all wearing leopard and then we’re all drinking out of the leopard tea cups (laughs). So, it was a collaborative effort between all the departments. She would pull stuff and then we would have 3-hour sessions and narrow down the outfits, and then we’d modify them. She made my eye more sensitive too.
Do you still have any of the outfits?
Well, first of all, I am nowhere near that size anymore and I don’t want to be. I was really thin as that series progressed. My marriage was breaking apart, I had cancer and kept being undiagnosed and I think I was not as emotionally stable as I am now. I’ve since let go of wanting to be a size that doesn’t come naturally to me. Catherine Deneuve said that at a certain age, it’s either your ass or your face, and go for the face. Who am I to question Catherine Deneuve?
I do have a couple of coats, but I’m not gonna be wearing miniskirts or hot pants anymore. I wish the studio kept [the costumes] but people have been collecting them and I always hope that we can get an exhibition going. Maybe in the Met costume department.
That would be the best, but in a way the exhibit is already online because everyone already documents what you wear all the time on Instagram.
Yes, that’s true (laughs). There’s @whatfranwore and also @thenannyart, which is sublime. I remember when I was working with Brenda and I wanted to put together orange and pink – I’m an art collector and I spend a lot of time looking at art in museums – and she said “orange and pink? They clash!” and I said, “No they don’t, they’re Gaugin colours.” If you look at a Gaugin Tahitian period painting, you will see those two colours and you will understand why they work. From then, art became a big influence on her.
Fran! Guess what the colour of the logo of our website is?!
Orange and pink? Alright! Good for you!
"I feel very blessed that all these Millennial women who are making it now want to work with me because they had a connection to me and feel an affinity for what I did."
What would be in your time capsule from your time at The Nanny?
The “Shades of the Orient” makeup case that I knocked on the door of Mr. Sheffield’s with and probably a great big fall for my hair (I wore a lot of hairpieces). There was actually an urn that sat for years on the mantle in the Sheffield living room and I took that. I also have the pressed wedding bouquet and invitation from the wedding. And maybe some of those video montages: of me walking down the steps in different outfits, me with all the celebrities that graced the stage, me with all the kisses between me and Mr. Sheffield.
So much history…
I also think an interesting part of the show’s history is that in the mid-nineties, there weren’t really a lot of sitcoms that integrated different races and people of colour. I felt like the show was too white. So, we had Ray Charles as a recurring guest as Grandma Yetta’s boyfriend. He sat at the piano and sang, “My Yiddishe Momme,” and we brought in his family too. Bryant Gumbel played himself, Whoopi Goldberg played his niece and Coolio was somebody that was related to him and trying to play someone trying to get into showbiz. You didn’t see that on Will and Grace or Mad about You…
You were also unabashedly Jewish. I don’t remember anything else like it at the time.
When CBS green-lit us to write a pilot script, they pre-sold the show to P&G based off the concept that the nanny was Italian. Peter and I knew that this was a break, but we also knew how awful it would feel if we compromised our vision and the show didn’t fly. So, I mustered up my chutzpah and I said, “The nanny must be Jewish.” We couldn’t write it with the richness and specificity and my style of performing any other way. I’m not Italian, I’m Jewish. So, they let us do that. Subsequently, I became the first Jewish character in a lead role in prime time played by a Jewish actor since Molly Goldberg in the 1940s.
I can’t believe that.
There was a fear, and I think this was post-WWII mentality, that the best kind of Jew was an assimilated one. You knew that Seinfeld was Jewish, but he didn’t talk about being Jewish. The Jews at that time were the nutty neighbour, the yenta next door, the meddlesome mother in law. They weren’t the stars. And if I didn’t have the tenacity to see myself as a star and the ambition to make it happen, I’d still be playing the nutty neighbour. That was part of the reason I became a producer. I couldn’t deal with working for people less talented than me. I couldn’t be third banana.
I wrote a piece on the legacy of Broad City for Buzzfeed last year and I couldn’t connect their unabashed Jewishness to anyone else on TV except you…
I was on an episode of Broad City and it was Ilana’s directorial debut. She said to me, “If it weren’t for you, we would not be here at all.” Honestly, I appreciated her saying that because she was able to put me in a historical context – how what I did influenced where she is in her career. And now I’m working with Rachel Bloom who created, and executive produced her own show.
I feel very blessed that all these Millennial women who are making it now want to work with me because they had a connection to me and feel an affinity for what I did.
"I think the reason why women love her so much is because she was a fun woman – she was full of life and yet she didn’t take any shit."
What can you tell me about the Broadway show?
It’s very exciting. I’m really glad that they finally let us announce it. I’ve been working on it for like two years. Peter and I have been working on how to crack the code and turn six seasons into a two-and-a-half-hour musical.
I think Rachel Bloom is a perfect partner for us – she’s young, she’s fresh, she grew up on The Nanny, she gets the humour, she’s Jewish, and she just won the Emmy for song writing. We couldn’t be more delighted. So, we handed her our book and she’s slowly churning out songs. It’s moving forward at a very healthy click, so I’m hoping that in two years from now, we can open on Broadway. I want to make it its own event, apart from the TV show.
There’s been a lot of talk about rebooting the show, is that something you’re still interested in doing?
I’m not at liberty to do a reboot until the show opens. The lead producer was concerned that it would make it difficult for people to enjoy somebody else playing the character if I was on the air. And then I’m not even sure, because we got married and the show had closure, which was at the demand of the network. If we wanted to keep the show on for the last season, they wanted us to get married at the end of Season Five to get the ratings up and then we would play it out in Season Six which of course was the kiss of death, but it bought us another year when we otherwise would have been cancelled.
I would rather do a 21st century version of The Nanny with a different cast and to make it interracial. That’s why I think of someone like Cardi B. playing Fran Fine. She’s a New Yorker and she’s got the voice and she wears the clothes and she’s funny. And then you’d get a really stunning Obama type to play Mr. Sheffield. I can still play her mother and get someone like John Leguizamo to play Mordy, my husband.
What would you have done instead of Fran and Mr. Sheffield getting married at the end of the show?
I think we could have stayed unmarried and had everything the way it was, breathing life into it in other ways, but not kill the sexual tension.
Do you think that Fran is a feminist icon?
I think she’s a woman’s woman, so yes. I think if you’re a woman, you should be a feminist. And I think that Fran was on a journey. She went to therapy and was trying to figure herself out. I think the reason why women love her so much is because she was a fun woman – she was full of life and yet she didn’t take any shit. She worked for him, but who ran the house?
The mix of humility, humour and sex appeal is what makes the character so brilliant, too.
That’s the thing, she had to be sexy but never slutty because she was a nanny.
Ok last question! I know you can’t pick one, but can you pick a *few* favourite outfits?
I love that Moschino outfit that kind of looked like a watermelon, I love the original suit that I wore with a western collar, and I love the Bob Mackie gown that I wore in the Barbra Streisand episode. And the robe – every episode, I wore a version of that robe.
If you can believe, the network gave us notes when we were doing the pilot and they said, “She’s a nanny, she would never come down in a bathrobe.” And we said, “That’s the whole point! She’s inappropriate!”
Thank you so much, Fran! Zai Gezunt, signing off!
I’m sure our paths will cross one day.