Once upon a time, high school sweethearts Fran Drescher and Peter Marc Jacobson got married and moved from Flushing, N.Y., to Hollywood, where they created, cowrote, and coproduced Drescher’s hit ’90s sitcom The Nanny. They lived happily, but not ever after; the couple divorced after 21 years of marriage, and Jacobson soon came to terms with the fact that he was gay. Inspired by this fractured fairy tale, the close friends have reunited as partners behind the scenes on Happily Divorced, which debuts June 15 on TV Land and stars Drescher as a fictionalized version of herself opposite Best in Show’s John Michael Higgins as the hubby who upends her life with his surprise gay awakening. Currently single and looking for his own happy ending, Jacobson opens up to Advocate.com about his long walk down the aisle to self-acceptance.
Advocate.com: When did you and Fran decide that it might be a good idea to turn your story into a television show?
Peter Marc Jacobson: We were on vacation together in Paris — we went away together because we had mileage or something — and we found ourselves falling back into our old ways of being married, like me getting annoyed that she was late. We said, “This would be a fun movie.” So we started writing it as a movie, but we changed it around a lot — we even made the main character straight — and it never felt right. Later, when we pitched a few ideas for sitcoms in a meeting with TV Land, they said, “If you did something, what would it be?” Fran said, “Well, our story is that my husband came out, blah blah.” And they said, “You don’t have to tell us anymore, because we just bought that. We love it.”
How is it different working together on Happily Divorced than it was working together on The Nanny?
When we were doing The Nanny, which was an amazing experience, I had not yet come to terms with who I really was. I was living a heterosexual life and burying down the real me. I became very controlling with Fran — the way she looked, how she dressed, what she ate — and became very Svengali-esque, which is not a good way to be with someone you go home to sleep with. That’s what eventually tore us apart — not my sexuality, because I wasn’t acting out on it then. Now that we don’t go home with each other, it’s a lot easier. We see each other at work, do our thing, and when we do hang out it’s to do fun stuff. And now that I’ve dealt with who I am, I don’t have the same issues that I had back then. The pressure’s gone, and only the love and the respect for each other’s talents remain.
You never argue?
If there’s something I believe she’s wrong about, I’ll fight her on it, and vice versa. But we don’t sweat the little things as much.
You say you didn’t act on your gay feelings during your marriage. When did you discover that you were attracted to men?
I remember basically being sexually attracted to women until I was 14 or 15. I remember finding this huge pile of Playboys as a kid and thinking I'd hit the motherload. But then it switched around a bit, and I started looking at men and thinking they were also attractive. That was scary to me. Growing up in the '70s in Flushing, you sort of buried that down. And that’s around the time when I met Fran in high school, and I was attracted to her, so I thought, OK, I’m going to put all my energy into this. I buried that attraction to men, but it was still there.
Did Fran know about that attraction?
I told her at some point through our marriage that I had those feelings. But I’d seen a bunch of shrinks who said I wasn’t gay, so I thought, Well, maybe I’m bisexual, but I choose to be with her.
Yet you had never been with a man. Did your attraction to men make you hesitate before getting married to a woman?
It was always in my mind, but I loved Fran so much, and I was attracted to her, and we had a very good sex life. I was programmed to get married at 20 and have a big wedding in Great Neck, because that’s what almost everybody I knew was doing. At that time, I thought there was no other option. I had some gay friends, but they seemed so comfortable with who they were. I was very confused and kept pushing those feelings down, but you can push something down so far that, after a while, it comes out in different ways.
Although you didn’t have same-sex affairs during your marriage, did you have any sort of outlet for your gay urges?
I think that’s why I got so controlling and angry with Fran — I didn’t have an outlet and wasn’t acting out on my feelings. I’m not saying I never looked at a man, because I certainly did. And I’m not saying I never fantasized about men, because I certainly did. I was definitely attracted to men, but I just wasn’t dealing with it at all. I hung around in theater and stuff like that, so I wasn’t clueless. Men would come on to me a lot, and that sort of took care of my curiosity. Also, this was [during the early days] of HIV, which was very scary for everybody, so I was petrified to do anything. But any feelings for men made me feel guilty while I was married. Once we got separated, I started dating some other women. When I wasn’t attracted to them, I knew that something was up and I had to face it.
At what point did you finally let yourself act on your feelings for other men?
When I moved to New York in 1999. I was 37, 38, and some friends started introducing me to the gay world. I remember going to a gay bar and my heart was racing. The first time I walked into Splash Bar, some guy comes over to me and says, “Yo, daddy.” I said, “Daddy?!” And he said, “No, that’s a good thing.” My friends used to tease me because I’d go to the Roxy at 11 o’clock, but no one showed up before 3:00 in the morning. They’d say, “You’re going too early!” I’d say, “I’m old; I can’t stay up that late.” The first time I was there, this go-go dancer was dancing on a box, and my friend was screwing with me, like, “Oh, that guy really likes you. Look at how he’s looking at you.” I had no idea that all he wanted was a dollar. I’m thinking he’s really looking at me, and he was really looking at my wallet. I had no idea what I was doing.
Have you gotten the hang of it?
I got better as I figured out the whole culture. But even when I started to date guys, I tried to recreate my relationship with Fran. She’s the one who said to me, “You’ve got to stop that, because two men together are different than a man and a woman — not better or worse, but different. You’ve got to create something new that works for two men.” That was very hard for me to do. It’s still very hard.
You told Fran that you were bisexual while you were married. When did you tell her that you were gay?
Well, after we got divorced I was so angry that I didn’t even talk to her for a year. I didn’t want a divorce. I wanted to keep pushing down my feelings and be with her, but she felt she had to move on because she felt that something wasn’t right. When my manager called to tell me that she had cancer, all the anger and everything else went away, and I called her. We didn’t talk about my other life — we were still uncomfortable — but we got closer as time went on. I was living life as a gay man in New York, but I still had my heterosexual life when I’d go back to L.A. to direct things, and I didn’t combine the two because I didn’t know how. But at some point I just started calling all my friends and telling them. I didn’t say I was gay then, but I’d say, “I’m dating men.” Nobody cared, and everybody seemed to have already known, which I figured. In 2002, Fran was doing a press tour for her book, Cancer Schmancer. I called her and said, “Look, I just want you to know that I’m dating men now. In case something comes up in the press, I just want you to be prepared.” I was very paranoid because I didn’t want people to think I had been living some false life; I lived what I felt was the right thing for me at the time. At this point Fran was dating and in love with a guy 16 years younger than her, and she’d already gone through cancer, so this was chicken-shit. She said, “You’ve got to be happy and true to yourself. Life is so short. I love you.”
Last year, after Fran told In Touch that you were gay, a number of headlines read some sensational variation of “Fran Drescher outs her ex-husband!” Did you feel publicly outed?
No. I don’t think anybody knows this, but I’ll tell you what really happened. About a year ago, In Touch called my manager and said, “We’re doing a story about how Peter’s gay, and we want to interview him.” I said, “I’ve been out for years. What am I going to say? It’s going to look like I’m looking for publicity, and I don’t even have anything to publicize.” So I said, “Fran and I are writing a show, so if that ever happens, then we’ll do the story.” In Touch said, “We’re putting this out there anyway, and you can be a part of it or not.” So I said to Fran, “Maybe you should make some kind of statement so they don’t just make everything up.” So she wrote this beautiful statement about how we’re best friends and still love each other, and that was pretty much it. Then it got twisted, and it became “Fran Drescher outs her ex-husband!” She didn’t at all, of course, but I understand it’s a better headline that sells papers.
And that revelation led to you and Fran discussing your relationship and sex life on The Oprah Winfrey Show.
That was really interesting for me, who was so paranoid 20 years ago that anyone might know anything about me. Right before we went on, I remember thinking, Well, if anybody still doesn’t know, they certainly will now. But it’s kind of liberating. Now I feel like Supergay. I’ve gotten so many great letters from people who were in the same position that I was 20 years ago — men trying to figure out their lives, feeling that we are a nice example of two people who have managed to put things aside and who continue to love each other. When gay people finally have equal rights in this country, men won’t have to try to hide their sexuality when they’re young; at adolescence, they’ll be able to figure out and be who they are.
Has adapting the details of your divorce for Happily Divorced opened up any old wounds for you or Fran?
Well, the actual divorce part of our divorce was so simple — one lawyer, no fighting, take whatever you want. It was never about money, so we split everything 50-50. Yes, there were hard moments when we got divorced, but we’re doing a comedy here. It’s been a while now, so we look back at things and laugh. The two of us have been through a lot of stuff in our lives — Fran’s cancer, we were victims of violent crime — so we try not to take things too seriously. We did just film a heavier episode where Fran feels like she’s wasted her youth, but it’s done with humor. Fran realizes that there were great things in our marriage, and certain things in her life wouldn’t have happened if she hadn’t had our marriage.
Is it strange to watch John Michael Higgins essentially play you and reenact scenes from your life with Fran?
What’s strange is that he makes a much better me than me. He’s so funny and creative, so I’m so honored to have him do it. The two of them are magic together, so it’s fun to watch.
How similar are you and the sitcom version of you?
The biggest similarity is the deep love that he has for Fran. He didn’t want to hurt her, he didn’t want this to happen, but he had to finally face his truth. For jokes, we also use a lot of my interests — like going to the Sound of Music Sing-Along and other things that she wasn’t that interested in. You look back at those clues and think, Oh, I was blind as a bat. Her parents and everybody else knew but her, but you see what you want to see.
At 53, you’re a successful, handsome man. Single?
I am very single and looking. Fran’s fixed me up a few times — and very well, I might say. I came out late and had a late gay adolescence, but I’m at the point now where I’d like to settle down. So if Ricky Martin is available, I am too.