WHEN PEOPLE HEAR the name Fran Drescher, most typically think of her notable comedic roles in film and television. What many may not know is of her decades of serious work as an advocate and activist for important causes.
The Women of Temple Bat Yahm, in an effort to “enhance connections between sisterhoods in Orange County, San Diego, and Los Angeles Counties and to reach younger Jewish women,” have put together an event unlike any other: an evening with Fran Dresher, the creator of the famed ‘90s T.V. sitcom “The Nanny,” and an actor in and director and producer of numerous other productions, during a career that has spanned four decades. To be held November 5th, Boozy Bingo, a Lady’s Night Out with the Women of Temple Bat Yahm will be much more than bingo playing. This is an all-female event that will include Fran Drescher talking openly about her incredible life’s journey.
As a fan since childhood, I was both excited and nervous to interview Ms. Drescher. Yet from the moment we started talking, I found her easy to talk to, and one of the most down to earth, humble people I have met.
How Jewish/religious was your family growing up?
I was born into a Jewish family. I grew up in Kew Gardens, a Jewish neighborhood in Flushing Queens. We weren’t religious at all. My parents embraced the history, heritage and culture with pride. We didn’t attend services regularly. We were uber reformed in that regard. [However] we attended High Holy Day services, Bar Mitzvahs and weddings. We celebrated the holidays at home—always an excuse to spend time with family and reflect on the history of our people, and the sacrifices they made.
Did you always want to be an actor?
My parents believed that whatever I did, I would be successful. There were several things I was good at and I had to decide which one I enjoyed doing the most, that didn’t feel like work. I have dabbled in many things because I need to express myself in a variety of ways. I’m a public speaker, an actor, I’ve written two best sellers and a children’s novel. I created, and was the executive producer for both “The Nanny” and “Happily Divorced.”
Do you consider yourself a comedic actor?
I don’t mind being called a comedian. I understand the timing, structure and the writing of comedy. My shows make people laugh and that’s a good thing. People have approached me on the street to tell me how my show was the only show that enabled them to laugh and forget their problems. [For instance], one family came up to me and thanked me, because a family member had cancer and my show allowed them to briefly forget about the illness and to just laugh.
I feel blessed that I am able to make people laugh and feel good. I see how people respond to me on the street and it brings me so much joy. I receive a lot of positive energy from people, and I’m grateful for it. And I try to use that level of fandom for a call to action, to take a stand and make a difference.
What is the work that you are most proud of?
I am very proud of “The Nanny,” and the Cancer Schmancer movement. My evolution as a human being is by relentlessly trying to improve and grow through my fear and the ties that bind me. I am focused on becoming the best version of myself, which has taken a concerted and painful effort.
Do you feel a greater responsibility to be active in the community as a result of your celebrity status?
I make it a point to lend my celebrity to Jewish causes, institutions, groups or synagogues, when I can. I have certain criterion I use to determine my involvement in speaking engagements, because I receive a million requests. But regardless, if it’s Jewish, I try to make it work.
What does it mean to be Jewish for you?
It means family, education, humor, a matriarchal and tribal connection. Being Jewish has had a tremendous impact on me, and my identification. Early on in “The Nanny,” Procter & Gamble wanted to buy the show, and they wanted to make the main character Italian instead of Jewish. I said no, because I wanted her to be Jewish. I am proud of my heritage. I was the first Jewish actress to play a Jewish character in a starring role for prime time; and not since Molly Goldberg in the 1940s has that happened. I was honored at the Knesset in Israel, because my show crossed borders in the Middle East like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates.
Part of my innate need to become active in the world and have the passion to take the next steps is rooted in the Jewish people who have a history of making philanthropy a huge part of their daily life.
Tell me about your advocacy and activism and why it is important to you.
I got involved in women’s health care through my oncologist. I started cancerschmacer.org to spread awareness about uterine cancer. I developed the movement to focus on cancer issues and causes. Our concern is prevention through early detection.
I helped to get HR1245 passed, [a bill that focuses on women’s awareness of gynecological cancer]. It was the first of its kind in U.S. history. Women’s issues had been seriously neglected by the federal government. The military physical exam wasn’t screening women for cancer, and women were being shipped out and coming back with cervical cancer. This wasn’t on the radar of the senate. So, I pounded the pavement and got all 100 senators’ unanimous consent.
I’m proud that I’m mentioned twice in the congressional record, and that I was named U.S. Public Diplomacy Envoy for women and family health issues.
As to my LGBTQ activism, I feel compelled to go to the mat for any marginalized group. When I was coming up in show business, people were dying of AIDS, wanting to marry and couldn’t, experiencing problems with coming out and being shunned by their family. Watching all of this influenced me. Everyone has a right to live an authentic life.
The premise of “Happily Divorced” is based on me and my ex-husband, who is gay. We grew up in a provincial setting, so he stifled his attraction and feelings toward men. We continue to have a loving friendship. The show had an impact. A lesbian couple came up to me and told me that it was because of my show that her parents became more comfortable and accepting of her. I see a significant change and I’m grateful for it. I hope that in a small way, I helped with that change.
It was so much fun and meaningful talking with Fran Drescher, and I can only imagine how much fun it’s going to be on November 5th at Temple Bat Yahm. This is a person you need to meet and an event you won’t want to miss.
Suzette Zazueta is a contributing writer to Jlife magazine.