Actress Fran Drescher has become a television institution in many ways for playing herself. Her first breakout series, the 1990s hit The Nanny, was based on her Jewish Queens background, and she created and produced it with then-husband Peter Marc Jacobson. After 20 years of marriage, the couple divorced and Jacobson came out as gay, and Drescher became an exuberant LGBT supporter. Their enduring love and new role as two exes reentering the dating pool in midlife inspired their second TV show, TV Land’s popular Happily Divorced. As the new season premieres November 28 (with an episode guest-starring Cyndi Lauper December 26), Drescher — who made her screen debut opposite John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever — talks with us about one of the most unsung gay TV series.
Your on-screen relationship really reminds viewers that love and sexual orientation are two different things. How similar is that to your real relationship with your ex husband?
I would say that the relationship that Fran and Peter have on the show is very much taken from our own relationship. In many ways we still feel like we’re married to each other.
Do you hear from a lot of fans who have been in the same boat as Fran?
We get a lot of fan mail from people that have had a spouse come out. Happily Divorced brings humor to what is otherwise an unorthodox relationship, and it helps people deal with it. I think it encourages putting more effort into reclassifying the love you feel for that person and putting it on a new shelf, so to speak.
John Michael Higgins as Peter has the ability to be still sort of clueless about himself, even though he’s supposed to be in this period of discovery.
Well, Fran is on a similar path, finding out what it means to be single again after 20 years, this time as a middle-aged woman. Peter’s character is learning how to integrate into the gay community. Much of the humor comes from the fact that even though they are on these new journeys and want to lead new lives, what they really know how to do best is be married.
There was an episode last season where Fran realizes she didn’t have kids and she’s restarting romance in midlife. How much does that reflect your own experience?
The older you get, particularly if you’re a single woman, the more challenging life can be. There’s a lot of stuff to deal with. In real life I get to meet new people all the time because of my line of work, so maybe it’s not quite the same. But I still think that, in general, women who are divorced and middle-aged — including myself — we have a lot of experiences in common.
Do you ever worry you’ll look back and feel bad that you prioritized career over kids?
I was ready to have a child with the man I fell in love with after Peter, when I was in my early 40s. But then I got diagnosed with cancer, and so that got derailed. I am very happy with my life, and I think at some point we all make choices and embark on a path, and you can’t always go back and try another. I think life just unfolds. You can’t spend too much time wondering “what if” about everything. You just need to play the hand you were dealt and carry on.
How big is your gay fan base?
I have a lot of LGBT followers. I always had a big fan base from The Nanny. But Peter said to me, now that he’s come out, “Fran, you’ve been elevated to Judy Garland status.”
You’ve survived cancer and assault. What’s your secret for turning negatives into positives?
You know, bad things happen to good people, no one leaves this planet unscathed. It’s very difficult when something tragic, horrific, or violent happens to you. But at some point after you kick and scream and say “Why me, Lord?” you have to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and try to move on as courageously as you can. Turning pain into purpose can be very healing. What happens to you, what you learn from it, and what becomes of you as a result is what makes all of the difference.
What do you most hope viewers take away from Happily Divorced?
Love is love. It is not conditional, and everybody has the right to live an authentic life.