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She’s Working on Vulnerable

Sean Mitchell is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Hollywood, everyone knows, is no place for the meek, which is to say it has proved to be a very good place for Fran Drescher. The Queens-bred actress, familiar to millions of TV viewers as “The Nanny” Wednesday nights on CBS, once said for the record, “I think you just have to have a lot of chutzpah in this life.” On the evidence it would be hard to question that she has lived up to that credo. Today she has become a kind of poster girl for chutzpah: a role model for the streetwise, wisecracking female whose dream it is to have her own sitcom in which to show the world--what else?--precisely how high into Donald Trumpland an overachieving girl from the outer boroughs can climb.

“I struggle with being an overachiever,” Drescher says about herself. “This may have been to avoid feeling my own needs, feeling my own vulnerability. That’s what I’m beginning to get in touch with now.” Now that “The Nanny” is in its fourth season on the network, having moved this fall from Monday to Wednesday nights, elbowing past three established hits (“Ellen,” “Wings” and “Beverly Hills, 90210") to win a time slot CBS has not won in 10 years.

Trained as a hairdresser in New York, Drescher still pronounces the word “really” as “rally” and has no reason to be taking elocution lessons any time soon. She has made the entertainer’s long march across two decades of auditions, bit parts, failed series and film flops to become, in her late 30s, a ratings star for CBS as a character she created for herself about herself (with the help of her husband, TV writer Peter Marc Jacobson). Her “Honk If You Love Queens” accent may identify her to some as vocally impaired, but read her lips: She’s braying the words to “My Way.”

It must almost seem like ancient history for her to remember the night she met onetime idol Barbra Streisand backstage after a concert and Streisand said, “Who are you?” and Drescher yelled back, “I’m the Nanny!” In her own good time, she made it over the hill to the Westside and then to “the beach,” where she now resides, declining to be more specific for fear of further assaults from the tabloid paparazzi on her former anonymity. “I’m getting a taste of the price one pays for fame,” she says with a grave but, one assumes, not altogether grave look in her eyes.

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A businesswoman and producer, a player in the industry, a name on couture critic Mr. Blackwell’s best- and worst-dressed lists, author of a recent best-selling autobiography (“Enter Whining”), Drescher is now also about to open in her own feature film, for which she was able to hire the former James Bond, Timothy Dalton, to fall in love with her on screen. (It’s a comedy.) The movie is called “The Beautician and the Beast,” directed by Ken Kwapis and distributed by Paramount. She came up with the title and story.

“I know that I’m famous now. I am famous. I know it in ways much closer to me than being at the supermarket on the cover of a tabloid. There are certain shopping days I can’t walk on Montana because the paparazzi cruise there looking for stars. Or La Brea too has become a paparazzi pit. They’re looking for you. Looking for you to be looking bad, looking for you to see who you’re with.”

The disclosure last fall that she and longtime husband and collaborator Jacobson were separating further stoked such curiosity. The two, co-creators of “The Nanny,” have since said they are trying to work things out.

There are, of course, some perks to fame as well, she has found, like getting the proverbial good table in the restaurant.

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“It’s an unspoken exchange, where they know I’m coming,” Drescher says. “I never really face the wall in a restaurant. I face the room. I face the room for the benefit of the restaurant. That is good for their business and I’m OK with that. In exchange I get a good table, get good service. It’s a nice thing.”

As to why exactly Fran Drescher is famous--apart from the fact that she makes people laugh at her ethnic jokes based on suburban middle-class Jewish life in New York--she has her own theory: “My fans appreciate the fact that I am a sort of Everyman, a self-made woman. I come from a very humble background. My dad worked two jobs, my mom worked, I’ve been working since I was 13 and didn’t have any connections to the business. I’m like the little engine that could--and did.”

“There really is an ‘Everygirl’ quality to her,” says Leslie Moonves, the president of CBS Entertainment. Moonves acknowledges that his network devotes a lot of scrutiny and analysis to what precisely it is that makes certain shows and performers connect with big Nielsen numbers. “There’s almost a Cinderella-like feeling about it. Here’s this legitimately middle-class lady from the streets of New York who has become a TV star, and her role on the show sort of represents that. She’s moved into this high society and she’s a princess. There’s something about Fran that is every underdog in America. I think that was the appeal of ‘Roseanne’ initially. I think everybody’s rooting for Fran Drescher.”

The story is well-worn of how Drescher talked her way onto CBS by cornering Moonves’ predecessor, Jeff Sagansky, on a New York-to-Paris jetliner and convinced him of her worthiness for prime time. Moonves says that when he moved into Sagansky’s chair, Drescher was one of the first CBS stars to call him up and invite him out to dinner.

“Which I thought was terrific,” the executive says. “The only bumpy road we had was when we made the decision to move the show from Monday to Wednesday. She was a little concerned, she was a little annoyed, but she was always totally professional. These decisions are always very hard, and most people do not take them as well as she did.”

Drescher says that she always knew what she wanted to do and that in high school she was already putting in calls to agents every day after class.

“I didn’t go to driver’s ed. I told my parents instead of spending the money on that, I’d rather have a portfolio of pictures. I was a teenager but very ambitious, calling everybody. Somebody my dad worked with had a daughter who did commercials. . . . I left no stone unturned. I guess because I was so young and so aggressive I got through.”

She was young and aggressive and she had a title: Miss New York Teenager. Which was not an entirely honest title, truth be told (it was not until years later). She was actually first runner-up to Miss New York Teenager.

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“But I would call all the agents and say I was the winner. When you’re a perky brunet and you’re 16 or 17, who cares? It wasn’t a big lie. And so I managed to get an agent, and they started sending me out on commercials.”

There it was at 16--chutzpah.

Eventually she was cast in a small role in “Saturday Night Fever” by director John Badham after the film’s original director, John Avildsen, she says, had considered her for the female lead that subsequently went to Karen Lynn Gorney. A larger part in the birth of rock ‘n’ roll film “American Hot Wax” as Alan Freed’s secretary, romantically entangled with his chauffeur, played by Jay Leno, brought her to Hollywood in 1978, accompanied by Jacobson, her high school sweetheart and husband-to-be. Future film roles would include parts in “Ragtime,” “Doctor Detroit,” “This Is Spinal Tap,” “Cadillac Man” and last year’s “Jack,” the last two as Robin Williams’ love interest.

“We lived in the Valley and kind of grooved with that whole thing,” Drescher recalls of their early years in Los Angeles. “Art’s Deli on the weekends and the 14 movie theater complexes.”

It was in a pet store at the Sherman Oaks Galleria that she and Jacobson found Chester, the tiny sandy-haired Pomeranian dog that accompanies her everywhere and that she has brought with her to the interview in a Westside hotel. Chester is wearing a red-and-white striped body shirt and is seated beside the actress in a lounge chair.

“Chester Drescher,” she says, stating the dog’s full name. “The best 500 bucks I ever spent. He comes to work. He stays in the writers’ room while I’m rehearsing onstage.”

An assistant is called to bring a towel for Chester, who is eating what looks like a red pepper. Drescher is concerned about the chair’s upholstery. “He’s a self-imposed vegetarian, and then I found out that he’s actually much better off not having protein.”

In interviews Drescher has often been described as wearing capri pants, but she is not wearing them today. Instead she has on a purple pantsuit by Japanese designer Issey Miyake and a burnt-orange blouse underneath.

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“I wear a lot of capris in this movie,” she says, getting back to “The Beautician and the Beast,” “but normally I’m wearing the latest latest, whatever it is, and maybe that was a time when capris were really in. I was doing a lot of capris last spring and summer.”

In “The Beautician and the Beast” she plays, by design, a character not all that far removed from Fran Fine, her brassy TV nanny. On the show Drescher parades in leopard-skin pants and leather miniskirts as she lusts after the wealthy, widowed British theater producer (Charles Shaughnessy) whose children she cares for. In the film, she plays a New York cosmetology instructor who gets hired, by mistake, to tutor the children of a fiercely imperious--and widowed--president (Dalton) of a newly democratic Eastern European republic.

“It’s kind of like ‘The King and I,’ kind of like ‘The Sound of Music,’ ” she says. “She’s not a nanny, she’s a teacher, but it’s an easy transition for the public to make in accepting me on the big screen in my own project because it’s not a huge stretch.”

She likes to compare it to the time John Travolta jumped from his sweathog character on “Welcome Back, Kotter” to the role of Tony Manero in “Saturday Night Fever.”

“He basically played the same character,” Drescher says, having given some thought to the matter. “But it was more film-like. I have studied that transition and the success and failings of television stars that have moved on to film, and I think that in almost all the cases where the leap is successful it’s because the personality of the celebrity remains similar [in film] to the personality the public has come to know and love on the small screen.”

She describes the hip-hugging capri pants she wears in “The Beautician and the Beast” as an attempt to capture “a Bridget Bardot kind of retro feeling,” to complement the film’s fable-like quality.

“I need to always stay very creative with my costumes, very original and on the cutting edge. Being a front-runner, I’m one of those ladies that people look at to see what I’m doing, what I’m wearing. And designers want me to wear their clothes. You know, as soon as I get nominated, they contact my publicist and say, ‘We want to dress her.’ It’s always a challenge and it’s a very important facet of what I’m about.”

And evidently something of a responsibility as well: “It’s a lot of pressure because I’ve become kind of a fashion plate and go to the Golden Globes trying to outdo what I did at the Emmys, trying to top what I did last year at the Globes.”

About this year’s Golden Globes, she says, “I didn’t win, but I didn’t think I would. But it’s like as Peter says, ‘It’s not who wins or loses, it’s who wears the best dress that counts.’ I was the only one wearing Valentino couture. There were people wearing Valentino, but it was the ready-to-wear stuff, not the couture line. That was flown to me through customs Friday night, and I had a Valentino dressmaker come to my home and do whatever alterations, which turned out to be just the hem.”

The status of her marriage to Jacobson came up during the Golden Globes pre-show, when she told Joan Rivers on the E! Entertainment channel that they were both seeking help through therapy for their problems.

“I said that we’re working on it,” Drescher says now. “And we are. We’ve never done anything legal, and we continue to work together and we’re going to let time unfold and see what happens. And, you know, hopefully it will be what’s best for both of us ultimately. That’s all I’m going to say on that.”

Apart from the personal, there must be some professional incentive for the two to stay together. “The Nanny” has even become a hit overseas, and in two more seasons it heads into oh-so-lucrative syndication.

“Wherever I travel now people know who I am, which I like because if I ever fall out of favor in this country maybe I can always pull together a film in some other country. So I like having international fame from a business standpoint.”

Public records indicate that Drescher will turn 40 in September. But she will not confirm this. When she hears the number 39, it seems to set off an alarm in her head.

“You know I don’t know how old I am anymore. Chester and I stopped counting a long time ago. I don’t know when I graduated from high school anymore, I don’t know how much I weigh anymore, I don’t know how long I’ve been married or what year we got married. As I started to explore myself--and I highly recommend this to everybody: Let go of that linear chronology and live in the moment. And you’ll forget about all that and be much more in touch with yourself. It’s a policy that I adhere to and I’m really liking it.

“I think that when I went to Africa and went on a safari [18 months ago] it was such a spiritual experience for me. Because I never really got so in the moment as being out there in the wilderness with the animals. And I knew that that was the way to be. There was something religious about it. Very mind-expanding for me. Being out on those plains with the animals and the sunrise and the sunset put me in touch with the rhythms of life--the sea, as the tide comes in and goes out. The sun as it rises and crosses the landscape and, you know, sets. That’s how the Indians are, and that’s how we need to be.”

Was there ever a star from Queens who could have put it better? Rally.


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