Perhaps not since Hollywood’s Golden Age gave the world comic actresses like Carole Lombard, Jean Arthur, and Judy Holliday has a comedienne combined brains and beauty as winningly as Fran Drescher, who has built her reputation with an unerring sense of comic timing, a 120-watt smile, and her signature Flushing, Queens, patois. Drescher’s voice is a singular instrument: a percussive incendiary device that can be deployed like a missile with great precision and devastatingly humorous consequences. Since she announced her arrival to the world in 1977’s Saturday Night Fever, stealing a scene right from under John Travolta’s platform shoes with the now-famous line “are you as good in the bed as you are on the dance floor?” Drescher has been a welcome and nearly ubiquitous presence in film and on TV. But I found out recently that when it comes to talking about the issues she fights passionately for, funny lady Drescher is all business.
In the years since her rise to superstardom in TV’s The Nanny, Fran has successfully parlayed her acting success and attendant celebrity into a meaningful second career as an activist and advocate on behalf on a bevy of issues including women’s health, marriage equality, and education. As a ten-year uterine cancer survivor Drescher has, in her own words, turned “pain into purpose,” and uses her compelling personal story of overcoming adversity as a bridge to connect with other people. With her successful Cancer Schmancer Movement (which just celebrated it’s five-year anniversary), Drescher has dedicated herself to educating people how to make sensible, informed choices in our day-to-day lives that can help prevent cancer. As she reminded me in her good-natured squawk, “Catch it on arrival, 95% survival!” And Fran is nothing if not persuasive; to wit, by the end of our conversation I was already masterminding what would become a frantic effort to purge my house of cancer-causing toxins, using the guidelines of the “trash cancer” page of her website cancerschmancer.org. as a blueprint for what might prove to be a life-saving endeavor. Thank you, Miss Drescher!
In fact, Fran is full of helpful slogans and will gladly dispense them on request, because when it comes to helping other people, Fran Drescher is as serious as a cat scan. It’s amazing that with all of her philanthropic work she finds the time for her first career, but her hit show, Happily Divorced, happily begins it’s third season on November 28th on TVLand. A few days after President Obama’s reelection, I called my old friend Fran for a phone interview while she and her adorable Pomeranian Esther were on their way to work.
“I’m not an elected official so I’m not trying to get reelected, I’m just trying to do what I think is in the best interests of the nation”
David Munk: Hi Frannie, how are you?
Fran Drescher: I’m good doll, how are you? I got your tweet!
DM: Really? Well I’ve noticed your very active on social media—you’ve really embraced it—
FD: —Totally! I usually check in every day and I do respond to people. It’s a great way to talk about platforms that I’m passionate about, whether it’s civil liberties, health issues, or education. If there’s something I want to discuss I’ll very often get into a big discussion with an expanded group. And I find it interesting how people initially respond if they’re, you know, opposing me, with anger and frustration, and how I reason with them and put out loving energy and it kind of comes back around to ‘let’s agree to disagree, I’m okay, you’re okay, let’s just get involved and make some noise,’ you know?
DM: I know you well enough to know your politics. (Referring to the Presidential election) This has been a good week for us!
FD: It’s been a wonderful week and I’m really pleased with the outcome, and now the arduous road of bi-partisanship must begin. I’m actually helping to lead an initiative that was originally written by Florida Congressman Deutsch, which was inspired by my Cancer Schmancer Trash Cancer Program, and I said unless we get a Republican involved in this as a co-sponsor, and preferably a woman cancer survivor, it’s not going to fly and I don’t really need to invest the time…it makes the elected official look good to his constituents because he was behind it, but, you can always blame the other side for killing it, but, in the end, I’m not really interested in that. What I’m interested in is getting a “win” for the greater good of the nation. And I think that this is a good bill that’s worthy of both sides getting together, so that’s my next objective now that we’ve recruited a Republican.
DM: That makes a lot of sense in terms of how you use your platform—
FD: —well, and how to make things effective. I’m not an elected official so I’m not trying to get reelected, I’m just trying to do what I think is in the best interests of the nation.
DM: I actually think I’d read somewhere that you had toyed with the idea of pursuing elected office, I don’t know if that was true or not—
FD: —No, it was. When Hillary stepped out from her Senate seat in New York I had thrown my hat into the ring, but that was an appointed position that the Governor appointed to Senator Gillebrand, and then there was interest in me actually running but the opportunity to be back on national televison came about and I decided that would give me a bigger, less partisan stage to pontificate what I’m passionate about and gain the ear of the people through all different aspects of press and media.
DM: Well that’s a very fluid transition point—you’re making this very easy for me—the new season of Happily Divorced premieres on November 28th—
FD: —Right! At 10:30 on TVLand, right after Hot In Cleveland.
DM: I’ve seen a few episodes of the show. It’s fun and it’s warm and it seems like you’re having a lot of fun on the set.
FD: Yes, it’s a good cast and we’re all in a place in our careers where we’re seasoned actors and we’re mature enough to be grateful that we’re all working and in these tough economic times it’s a wonderful opportunity, not just for us, but also to make people laugh and then to speak to issues that I’m passionate about. I think that at this stage of my career it’s nice if the work that I do is informed with a positive global message.
DM: I think that comes through on the show.
FD: The global message of this show is that “love is love—and it’s not conditional, and everybody has the right to live an authentic life.
“The global message of this show is that “love is love…everybody has the right to live an authentic life!”
DM: Well that certainly resonates and it was very heartening to me to see the four initiatives for gay marriage that passed. I’ve lived my whole life with the subtle—or not so subtle—message that I’m less than or not good enough, but it feels like we’re in the midst of such major change now.
FD: Yeah, I’ll tell ya, I don’t know what’s happening with the state of California but some of the things that don’t get passed or get passed is somewhat disappointing but I think there’s other states in the union that are beginning to lead the way in terms of progressive thinking. I was disappointed that Prop 37 didn’t pass and that big business like Monsanto won out because of the fear factor—
DM: —That’s the proposition about the G.M.O.’s (genetically modified organisms), right?
DM: I know that you’re not a scientist but as a health advocate and cancer survivor I consider you to be an authority on this—is the food we’re eating killing us?
FD: Well I think that the toxins and pesticides and the way we farm presently all needs to be reexamined. I think that that’s a pretty bold statement that I would not make but I think that what we don’t know is certainly killing us and that spans a wide spectrum. Sometimes because of the promise of greater profit margin, we don’t really think things through all the way and we live to regret it, and so what I’m practicing right now and what I’m encouraging all my followers, especially people who are Cancer Schmancer members and whenever I have an opportunity to speak on television or radio or to press like yourself, is just to keep it simple. In Cancer Schmancer we’ve just launched a new program called Trash Cancer: 90% of cancer is environmental and it turns out the most toxic place that we spend the most time in is our home! And although we don’t have a lot of control over a lot of things, what we do have control over is what we bring into our home and I believe that we can effectively reduce our risk of cancer by living a more preventative lifestyle and making healthier choices. And Cancer Schmancer and trashcancer.org helps you to learn how to do that and make healthier choices by taking the “check, choose, and change challenge” when it comes to exercising your purchasing power, what you put in your mouth, what you put on your skin, all your personal care items for you and your family, and what are you cleaning and gardening with. If you start every time you go shopping to replace what you’re currently buying—and it could be a trusted brand that you grew up with, that your mother and your grandmother used—may not really be as healthy for you and your family as you believed. And it’s not only each individual item that may be considered toxic because it has low-level carcinagins in it, but it’s the amalgam of all the products that we use in a day. Before a woman leaves the house she’s applied at least 12 carcinogenic personal care items on to her skin and a man usually around 8. Now we live in a time right now where one out of two men will get cancer, one out of three women in their lifetime. The children of today for the first time are predicted to not live as long as their parents did and babies are being born pre-polluted with 200- 300 chemicals found in the umbilical cord. American women’s breast milk has the highest percentage of flame retardant in it from any other women on the planet. So we are heading toward our own demise, and it’s not too late but we’re definitely at a tipping point, it can’t really get much worse—
DM: —Right. I guess I’m a bit of a fatalist when it comes to catastrophic diagnosis and cancer. For me it’s not a question of “if,” it’s a question of “when and what part of my body!” I remember when we were hanging out a few years back you would say “no brown liquid, stay away from the brown liquid” (coffee, soda, tea) and it stuck with me!
“Well in my estimation the best cure for cancer is ‘don’t get it in the first place!’ How’s that for a cure?”
DM: I thought about asking my mother for a full body cat scan for my birthday, to you know, see where any potential problems might be, but I understand your whole body lights up like a Christmas tree and that might just obfuscate the issue.
FD: I think the jury’s out on that. I try to refrain from taking in a lot of tests that have a high level of radiation, even when I go to the dentist, I don’t get an x-ray every time and if you do get an x-ray ask for a lead vest on your thyroid which usually they have but is rarely offered, and I don’t know why that is. I started unplugging all my electronic stuff when I go to bed, because I have my wifi on, I had my cell phone booster on , I had my computeer plugged in. I never keep my cell phone on; if I want to use the other aspect of the cell phone like my alarm I put it on airplane mode, and you just have to start taking steps like that. I never put the phone to my ear anymore and it’s just “err on the side of caution” because there really isn’t money being dedicated with any significance towards understanding what is harming us, there’s a lot of money being spent on trying to close the barn door after the horses leave: “let’s cure cancer!” Well, in my estimation the best cure for cancer is “don’t get it in the first place!” How’s that for a cure?
DM: It’s hard to disagree with that! I was laying in bed the other night and watching On Demand and they had—this will make you laugh, I think—Gorp! (Referring to Drescher’s bizarro 1980 romp about a teenage sleep away camp).
FD: (Hesitating) Oh right! There were a lot of people in that!
DM: Dennis Quaid.
FD: Rosanna Arquette. Me!
DM: It had a great cast.
FD: And we were all playing teenagers!
DM: But you were older than that—
FD: —I was 21.
DM: So not much older.
FD: Peter had a part in it too. (Fran’s ex-husband, best friend, and production partner Peter Marc Jacobson.) We kind of looked at working in Madison, Georgia, as our belated honeymoon cause we had just gotten married!
DM: That’s hysterical. How’s Esther, by the way?
FD: Esther is great! She is with me now. We go to work every day together. It was hard pulling her away from Malibu though, she was very happy at home and was kind of not in the mood to come to work, but we all have to do our share to maintain the lifestyle to which we’ve become accustomed!
DM: I remember her fondly, she was fun to be with—
FD: —yes she is, my little angel! She recurs on the show.
DM: She does? I didn’t realize you were being literal when you said she goes to work! A friend wanted me to ask you if you hung out at Jasol’s Luncheonette on Jewel Avenue in Flushing when you were growing up.
FD: (searchingly) Jasol’s? Hm. Jewel and Kissena or Jewel and Main Street?
DM: I don’t know, I’ll have to ask him.
FD: I grew up closer to Kissena Blvd. and I don’t think there was a diner there so he must be talking about Main Street, maybe, but that was really more Peter’s territory.
DM: I know that you and Peter have done quite a bit of press for Happily Divorced, specifically about his coming out. I think many people are surprised that someone as smart and sophisticated as yourself wasn’t more aware of his sexuality from the outset.
FD: Well, I’ll tell you, first of all we met when we were 15 and I really didn’t have a lot of experience; secondly we had a very active and satisfying sex life; and thirdly, it was the genre of the “metrosexual,” you know, we were both actors, you see what you wanna see, and if it ever kind of came up and we were fighting and I’d say “what’ya gay?”he would go ballistic! And when I wanted to divorce him he had already told me he thought he was bisexual—during our marriage—like two thirds of the way in, but he had never acted on it and he didn’t want to because he loved me and he loved our life together. I wasn’t really at a place where I had insight into how I was feeling at all, but felt more, “he must really love me and we have to make this work, I can’t blame him for being who he is.” Ultimately we divorced but not because of his orientation but because he was extremely controlling and we hit a brick wall and I had a garden variety mid-life crisis. Not knowing who I was outside of that relationship, and he begged me not to leave and he cried and was very angry at me for years.
DM: Well in a way you never left him, because you’re still a unit, just a different kind of unit.
FD: Well, it came around to this but for years he couldn’t even talk to me and when the series ended, The Nanny, he moved to New York because he couldn’t get far enough away from me and he was there for a year dating women before he really allowed himself to actualize some of his deeper sexual desires.
DM: I see—
FD: —I don’t really think it has anything to do with sophistication, it’s really, you know, did you ever hear the saying, “the heart hath reasons that reason doth not know”—
DM: —I don’t know it but I like it!
FD: And when I was diagnosed with cancer a year after the series ended, Elaine, our manager, called Peter in New York and told him that I had cancer and—we weren’t speaking at that point—and he immediately burst into tears and in that moment all of the anger melted away and all that was left was the love. He said, “tell her I love her, tell her I’ll come out and be with her if she needs me,” and from that point forward we began to slowly rebuild and reinvent ourselves. It’s been 13 years since we got the divorce and we were separated two years before that. It’s a long journey but we’ve been getting closer and closer since then, and now we are most definitely soul mates, we love each other, we still consider each other in some ways “husband and wife,” though he’s gay and I’m straight and he dates and I date. I think that the series that was inspired by our relationship and places comic value on two people that really can’t be together anymore as a man and woman, in the biblical sense of the term, but what they do best is be married to each other, so all the other relationships that they pursue in earnest seem to fall to the wayside.
DM: I can identify.
FD: I mean, it sustains an ongoing series. (Laughing) In real life, not so funny.
DM: Well you find the humor.
FD: Yes! Look, we’re grateful—we’re family. No matter who else comes into our lives they must be accepting of this unorthodox relationship that we share or they can’t come in the club!
DM: I can relate. I never married my best female friend, but we’ve had a 30-year relationship and there have been periods where we’ve been quite like a married couple, which is the piece that allows me to understand the dynamic there, only we didn’t have sex, but in every other emotional way we were—
FD: —you were a couple.
FD: And that’s the thing, that’s why we have to tear down the rigidity of how we describe relationships, how we describe marriage. Considering that the population is suffering from a terrible explosion, I don’t think that propagating should necessarily be the definition of two people that love each other and want to be committed for the rest of their lives.
DM: I always say my greatest contribution to reducing my carbon footprint was not procreating! I really appreciate you taking the time to speak to me for my readers. I think about you often—every time I have a cup of coffee!
FD: (Laughing) Well, good. It’s wonderful hearing from you and I’m glad to have done it and I wish you good luck! I’m sure our paths will cross again!
Be sure to watch the season three debut of Happily Divorced, November 28th on TVLand at 10:30 pm, and visit cancerschmancer.org to learn what you can do to minimize the risk of getting cancer.