Forty-three springs ago, inside a Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, disco, John Travolta was down and in no mood to do the day’s scene for Saturday Night Fever. Fearing her tiny part might end up scrapped, Fran Drescher marched right up into the feather-haired grill of the famous Sweathog. At that point, the 19-year-old from Flushing, Queens, was an actress whose biggest show business credit was a second-place finish in 1973’s Miss New York Teenager pageant. “Get a grip, John, and do the scene,” was the gist of her message. A grip was gotten, and now Drescher’s line, “Are you as good in bed as you are on the dance floor?” precedes Travolta’s iconic dance-floor solo.
Whatever you label this trait—balls, chutzpah, grit, tiger blood—Drescher has frappéed it up with her talent and propelled herself into a five-decade career—one that neither an unthinkable violent crime nor cancer could halt. With high school sweetheart Peter Marc Jacobson, whom she likes to refer to as “my gay ex-husband,” Drescher created The Nanny. Now she and her beloved honk are everywhere again—notably on NBC’s Indebted, which, though not a runaway hit, scored its series high rating in March by attracting millions of quarantined eyeballs. (At press time, the annual New York harbor cruise fundraiser for Drescher’s Cancer Schmancer charity was still scheduled for June 22.)
This interview—recorded at Drescher’s Malibu home a couple of days before the world pulled up its drawbridge in response to COVID-19—is a condensed and edited excerpt from Los Angeles’s first foray into podcasts, The Originals, a new series of interviews with this town’s most unfiltered icons, hosted by veteran interviewer Andrew Goldman and available on Apple podcasts.
Your voice has become a kind of trademark for you. But there was a moment where you went to a speech coach, right?
Yes. My dear manager who is no longer with us said, “Honey, if you want to play anything more than hookers, you’re going to have to learn how to speak differently.” And I did try and learn how to speak in a low, slow flow.
Your 1996 book, Enter Whining, is filled with the intimate revelations that are not common in celebrity memoirs and documents an experience from 1985 so horrifying I’m hesitant to bring it up.
Well, it’s not on the level of Manson, but I am a victim of a violent crime. I was raped at gunpoint in my own home by a man who was recently out on parole. It was a horrific experience, and my girlfriend was with me and [ex-husband] Peter [Marc Jacobson] was there, and my dog was there. It took me a very long time to recover from that. But I was one of the lucky people who ended up having closure to it because he was apprehended and he was put in jail for two lifetimes. I was not his only victim—he said he was on a rampage.
In your next book, Cancer Schmancer, you talk about going through uterine cancer.
It actually was a cathartic experience, but in a way I feel like I got famous, I got cancer, and I lived to talk about it—so I’m talking. It took me two years and eight doctors to get a proper diagnosis, but by the grace of God I was still in Stage I. The book became a New York Times bestseller almost instantly, and I realized that the book was just the beginning of what was to become a life mission.
What surprised me is how many countries have either translated or created their own version of The Nanny. It’s been remade in a dozen countries.
La Niñera is the Spanish [title] for The Nanny—that’s what it is in South America, Central America, Mexico, and, of course, Spain. And La Tata is Italian, and La Nounou is French. It was wildly successful in Russia and Hong Kong, too.
I hear those details and I think of the word “mogul.”
I honestly think that the people that were able to renegotiate on Friends ended up much richer than me, as were the actors on Big Bang Theory. Because I never made anywhere close to a million dollars a week. We had three different administrations in that network [CBS] over the course of the six years. And with each administration my show got less attention—and worse time slots—because every new president wants to put their own projects into the most coveted time slots.
I said, “Les, I don’t mind if you shove an umbrella up my ass, but when you open it, you’ve gone too far.”
Did they sort of throw you to the wolves?
Well, at one point, I was on my third president, Les Moonves. When he arrived, Monday night at CBS was really a woman’s night. It was me and Murphy Brown. It was just a whole different vibe, and then he came in: Everybody Loves Raymond and Bill Cosby’s show at the time and King of Queens. Bill Cosby replaced my time slot on Monday night, and I got put into Wednesday night. [Moonves] wanted me to do a commercial to promote the fact that Cosby was in my old time slot. And that was just too much. I said, “Les, I don’t mind if you shove an umbrella up my ass, but when you open it, you’ve gone too far.”
Do you think the way he treated women sexually was similar to the way he treated women on his network?
Well, that wasn’t my experience with him.
I’m not talking about him making a move on you. I’m asking if you think he just kind of hated women.
Men who are sexual predators, or misogynists, when they meet a woman, they put them through some kind of a test, and you’re either going to pass or fail. I think I probably consistently failed his test. I was not the type of person that they could intimidate or manipulate. I never projected a sexual vibe.
The Nanny was a huge financial boon for you, whether or not you made Friends money. Ultimately, it made you a rich person, right?
Listen, I live large and have staff and have an apartment in New York. But I drive a car that’s 19 years old.
My point in asking this is, you don’t need the money, so why bother? Why work?
To be honest, I think [Indebted] is going to be my last hurrah. It’s too hard at this age, and I’m not as into it. It takes me away from here more than I want to be. I’m in a dark soundstage all day—I don’t really love that anymore. I like being in nature; I like being with my dog. But it does make my parents very happy. And that was my motivation for taking it. Because they couldn’t find me and their friends couldn’t find me on TV Land, but everybody can find me on network TV. And Peter was excited about it, too.
You want to make your ex-husband happy?
Peter and I are the best of friends. We’re almost still married in many ways.
He has said that while married to you he felt truly bisexual, and his interest was split 50-50 between men and women. Why don’t you guys just get married again?
I think he considers himself gay now.
Well, as my wife likes to say: Nobody’s perfect.
Honestly we think that down the road when we’re older, we probably will end up living either as neighbors or in the same house. At my second wedding, we had our Jewish gay minister friend say, “Do you, Shiva, take Fran and Peter to be your lawfully wedded spouse?” It was a joke, but there was a lot of truth in it, too.
You were married for two years to Shiva Ayyadurai. Is it true that you were introduced by Deepak Chopra?
He was a speaker at a Deepak event. I was very struck with him. Everything about him I found extremely intoxicating.
There is this controversy, could you clear it up? Shiva seems to think that he invented email when he was 14. The press seems to believe that he is full of baloney when he says that. Do you believe that he invented email?
Actually, yes. You know a lot of geniuses historically develop when they’re in their teens. They have a certain focus and drive, and they can put like 10,000 hours into an obsession. So Shiva wrote 50 lines of code that created like the office mail system: the inbox, the outbox, cc-ing. All that stuff that was hard copies in an office, he put it together, and it won the Westinghouse Award and got him into MIT.
But in fact email was invented this guy who died recently, Raymond Tomlinson.
Yeah, but that guy just invented the “at” sign. He didn’t really come up with the code that Shiva did. And you know what? It’s a very political thing. He’s a dark-skinned Indian, and tech is really a white boy’s game, have you noticed?
Back in 1998, when you started experiencing painful cramps and bleeding, eight different doctors over two years said you were experiencing early onset menopause when what you actually had was uterine cancer.
Misdiagnosis is extremely common in this country because doctors are bludgeoned by insurance companies to do the least expensive diagnostic testing. Most doctors believe if you hear hooves galloping, don’t look for zebras—it’s probably a horse. When doctor number one said I was too young for an endometrial biopsy, I didn’t press the point. I was just happy to be too young for anything. Two years later doctor number eight, still convinced I was menopausal, ordered up a hormone-replacement therapy that exacerbated my symptoms. I started bleeding 24-7 because it had estrogen in it, which was like taking poison. She said OK it’s probably just the wrong combination of hormones, but just to be safe, let’s do an endometrial biopsy.
Do you blame the doctors for not being open to these possibilities, or do you think it’s just really hard to diagnose these diseases?
I blame the doctor. I think that there is too much misdiagnosis and mistreatment. I was lucky. My cancer was a slow-growing cancer. Even after two years I was still in Stage I. But that became the cornerstone in Cancer Schmancer: catch it on arrival, 95 percent survival. Why isn’t everybody getting diagnosed in Stage I when it’s most curable?
Though critics have praised your performance, the reviews of Indebted were not particularly great. The ratings have not been either.
Well, the show keeps getting better. We’re holding 100 percent of Will & Grace’s audience, that’s our lead-in.
I do think the show has improved a lot since the pilot.
That’s what a first season is. You know, I’m not a writer-producer on it. I would have done things differently. It’s a little bit of a frustration for me to be honest.
What would you have done differently?
I would have grounded it more. Two people lose all their money and have to move in with their kids. There’s a lot of stories to tell about that, and we don’t really deal with it very much. I have to say, the producers are very respectful. They hear me out. They don’t always do what I suggest, but sometimes they do. One time I called them down, and I said this needs a page-one rewrite, this is not my character, I cannot say this stuff.
What was wrong with it?
It was mean-spirited. She was being really mean to my daughter-in-law. I said my fans don’t want to see me play this, and I don’t want to do it. It’s all wrong. I think before I agreed to do the show they had another image for my character. They had Everybody Loves Raymond in mind, and the mother-in-law in that.
You’re very conscious of the connection between health and diet.
Food is medicine, and medicine is food—and we live in highly toxic times. I do a master-class health summit for my nonprofit, Cancer Schmancer. I curate some of the most progressive, radical, outside-of-the-box-thinking doctors out there for an all-day event that streams around the world. And what we drive home over and over again to people is how you live equals how you feel. So what are you putting in your mouth? All the food you eat—if you’re not organic, you’re asking for trouble.
Steve Jobs initially rejected Western medicine to treat his cancer, and many believe he might have been cured if he hadn’t rejected traditional treatment.
Steve Jobs ate apples only for months on end! He did not understand functional medicine. He did not appreciate the functionality of the body and that the gut is your immune system as well as your brain. The approach of functional medicine is that cancer is just the end stage of a long term of low-level inflammation. And you have to reduce your inflammation and bolster your immune system.
If you found out, God forbid, that you were sick, would your first call be to a Western practitioner?
The thing that I would do with Western practitioners is take all the necessary tests because that’s covered by my insurance. I would listen to what their recommendations are, and then I would almost 100 percent go to one of these oncological alternative hospitals like Hope for Cancer in Mexico. I meet a lot of people that go traditional and get better. But it’s a different approach. They’re trying to kill the cancer. We’re trying to build up the body to reverse it. That’s what the body is designed to do. If you end up with cancer cells that take hold, it’s because you have profoundly neglected your immune system. Look, I was a rape victim. I didn’t deal with my pain at the time. I went through a very painful divorce. I abused myself with overwork. I carried all this burden. I was experiencing probably a lot of inflammation without really acknowledging it. It’s almost poetic that I would end up with a gynecologic cancer because I was raped and didn’t deal with my pain.
I Googled some of the speakers that have appeared in your Cancer Schmancer program and a few are labeled “quacks” for their beliefs. In the natural healing world, many believe that autism is caused by vaccines. What do you think?
Well, I don’t like the idea of giving a baby 40 vaccines in their first two, three years of life. That’s just crazy. I think it is driven by big-business pharmaceuticals. If you had an apple tree, and all the apples suddenly were growing out kind of rotten, would you try and inject and cure each apple? No, that’s ridiculous. You would look at the trunk of the tree. You would go into the roots of the tree. You would try and understand what is making this tree sick.
What would you tell someone who went to a pediatrician who said, “This is the schedule the government suggests. These are the guidelines.” Would you say no?
Yeah. I mean, I got vaccines. But I think I have got four. It’s just way too much.
People get very emotional about this. You hear over and over that the science is settled on this issue: Vaccines work.
It’s a free country. And we are one of the sickest nations in the free world—we are No. 37 by the World Health Organization. And in a nation like this, don’t you think that’s a little pathetic?
I looked at the highlights of your annual Cancer Schmancer cruise, and it looked like fun. The event does seem quite gay—there was a cabaret and a drag show.
Well, I am a gay icon.
When was that decided?
During The Nanny. Drag queens were starting to imitate me. When Peter came out, I think that’s when I was elevated to Judy Garland status.