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Jewish Journal

I’m a Survivor!

Fran Drescher says "Nanny-Nanny-Nanny" to cancer and other life-altering obstacles in her path.

by Michael Aushenker

April 18, 2002 | 8:00 pm

Fran Drescher has a very sexy voice.

No, really! As she tools around Los Angeles, the Queens-raised actress -- who resonated with TV audiences for six seasons as Fran Fine on "The Nanny" -- evinces only traces of her character's trademark nasal New Yawk bray.

On this April day, Drescher converses in a lackadaisical, morning-after drone that is, quite frankly, downright seductive.

Yet the topic of conversation -- uterine cancer -- is not sexy. Drescher feels that it is imperative to talk about the deadly disease and why women need to be proactive in discerning it. Her new memoir, "Cancer Schmancer" (Warner Books, $24.95), in stores May 1, chronicles her own experience detecting and surviving uterine cancer. "Cancer Schmancer" also documents a new chapter in her life. When her best-selling autobiography "Enter Whining" was released in late 1995, Drescher was the envy of Hollywood both for her storybook romance to high school sweetheart Peter Marc Jacobson and her serendipitous rise to fame in the 1990s. On a plane ride, the then-unknown actress sold her idea for "The Nanny" after pitching the concept to a CBS executive that happened to be seated next to her.

Now that's all gone. As the 44-year-old actress writes in her new book, her 21-year marriage to Jacobson is over. The couple's only love child, "The Nanny," (which they co-produced) was canceled in 1999. That same year, Drescher found herself at a crossroads. She was forced to rebuild her career and, for the first time, live on her own as a single woman. Then came the cancer.

Drescher got through this dark transition with the help of love.

"I had to call my parents. I always thought my mom would go through hysterics, and she was very strong," Drescher told The Journal.

Drescher also gained the support of her new boyfriend -- an ex-"Nanny" staff member 16 years her junior -- with whom she fell in love shortly before she was diagnosed. With great detail and exasperation, Drescher articulates in her book the tortured journey that finally led her to a proper diagnosis of her mysterious condition. She juxtaposes her youthful mindset, her young lover and their 20-something social circles with the menopausal symptoms -- bruising, mood swings and postcoital cramping -- which made her feel conscious of her age. Several years and eight doctors later, Drescher learned that she was in the early stages of uterine cancer, but that came only after a lot of research, self-exploration and determination to seek the truth.

Drescher sprinkles her East Coast wit into her writing, which includes some "Sex & The City"-style dish on her adventures in dating. She also speaks openly about how she felt after the passing of her beloved lapdog, Chester, her identification with Cher, and the disclosure that she's a huge fan of the granola rock band Phish. Perhaps her most fascinating insights, however, relate to her candid take on her fabled marriage: how the codependence she shared with her husband was exacerbated in the aftermath of a traumatic brush with violence; how Drescher's lifelong feelings of pleasing others sublimated her own fulfillment.

"After my separation, I went to a really quality therapy," Drescher said. "I realized that I had gone through difficult periods in my life and did not allow myself to feel the pain. I thought I always had to be the strong one. When I got the cancer, I decided this time, 'I'm in pain, I'm in trouble, I need support.'"

Working on "The Nanny," it turns out, evolved into the perfect vehicle for the perfect husband-and-wife unit to invest their energies in public while actively avoiding intimacy in private.

Community reaction to "The Nanny's" eponymous character has always been mixed. Some viewed Drescher as bold for portraying a Jewish woman as strong, smart and sexy. Others saw her as the ultimate negative stereotype. Drescher is unapologetic about her portrayal.

"That character was based off of real women that I grew up around," Drescher said, observing that, before her, there had never been a Jewish woman on network television "speaking Yiddish, going to temple, facing the prejudices of this world and rising to the occasion."

Besides, added Drescher, who is no fan of political correctness, anything goes in comedy.

Not so funny were some behind-the-scenes struggles. Even in a Jewish-heavy business such as entertainment, Drescher experienced pressure to alter her character's ethnicity.

"I said, there's no way this character is going to be Italian," she recalled. "It's not that, as an actress, I can't play Italian. But on TV, you have to work fast, and the most real, the most rooted in reality to me is Jewish. I wanted to do it closest to what I knew. I didn't want to compromise or apologize for it because corporate or middle America or the Sun Belt wouldn't embrace a Jewish character. And, in fact, they did first. Before New York and Los Angeles. They embraced her immediately."

Drescher, who will be honored as City of Hope's Woman of the Year at the Sportsmen's Club/Diamond Circle Chapter's 54th Annual Spring Luncheon and Fashion Show on April 27, has no regrets about "The Nanny" -- not even the price she paid for the show in her private life.

"I chose to have a career instead of a baby," Drescher said matter-of-factly, with only a hint of disappointment. "Only now am I psychologically ready." (Her ovaries have been frozen, and she hopes to conceive one day.)

Currently, Drescher is mulling over other decisions, such as whether to follow up this summer's book tour with a one-woman show based on "Cancer Schmancer," or to host a daytime talk show. She is also writing screenplays and developing projects for MTV. The actress, whose first role was on the dance floor opposite John Travolta in "Saturday Night Fever," has come a long way from catering to other people's feelings at the expense of her own.

"I have a lot of choices," Drescher said. "It's a matter of what I feel up to doing. I don't want to have to work as hard as I did on 'The Nanny.'"

More than ever, she said she is comfortable with who she is.

"I'm very proud of my heritage and my people," she said. "I don't consider myself religious, but I have a great respect and affinity for our people's struggles and what we've achieved, despite the obstacles. And that's something other ethnicities could look to."

For information on attending City of Hope's April 27 benefit at 9:30 a.m. at the Beverly Hilton, call Jason Gudzunas at (213) 202-5735, ext. 26206.

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