BY DENISE ABBOTT
Hollywood Reporter, Wednesday, May 21st, 1997
When Actress Fran Drescher decided to visit her friend Twiggy in London six years ago, she could never have imagined how the trip would change her life. What began as a vacation ended up the genesis of the hit CBS sitcom "The Nanny", the story of a street-smart Queens woman looking after the children of a wealthy Broadway producer. The show has become an important fixture in the network's Wednesday-night lineup, conquering a time slot that CBS had not won in 25 years. In the process, it has turned Drescher into an international star with new movie roles and a hot-selling autobiography; "Enter Whining."
It was on that fateful transatlantic flight that Drescher cornered fellow passenger Jeff Sagansky, at the time president of CBS Entertainment, for whom she had starred in the short-lived TV series "Princesses" as well as another pilot that failed to sell. She convinced him to hear her pitches because, as she explained, no series was going to comedown the pike that would fit her hand in glove.
"She said everyone kept trying to use her as a side dish but that she was the main course," recalls Sagansky, now executive vp of Sony Corporation of America, which is the parent company of Columbia TriStar, the studio that produces "The Nanny." "She told me she and her husband were students of the form, that not only could she star in a vehicle but they'd write and produce it as well. I thought it was unbelievably brazen of her at the time but damned if it wasn't true." Nine and a half hours later, Sagansky agreed to meet with her and husband-partner Peter Marc Jacobson when Drescher got back to Los Angeles.
Cut to the streets of London, where Drescher is dragging Twiggy's teenage daughter with her on shopping sprees. "She's a proper British boarding-school girl, and I was like a bull in a china shop around her," says Drescher. "She said, 'Fran, I'm wearing new shoes, and my feet hurt.' I said, 'Well, step on the backs of them, honey.' She said, 'Won't that break them?' and I said, 'Break them in.' It occurred to me this was a funny kind of Queens logic, self-serving advice I'm giving her. I wasn't really functioning in a parental mode, and it seemed humorous. I called Peter and said, 'What do you think about doing a spin on "The Sound of Music" except instead of Julie Andrews, I come to the door?"'
Sagansky loved the idea. Then all they needed were experienced producers who could run the show. Enter Robert Sternin and Prudence Fraser, the husband-and-wife team who produced "Who's the Boss?" Fortuitously, the couple had scheduled a pitch meeting with Sagansky immediately following Drescher and Jacobson. "We'd worked with Fran when she guested on 'Who's the Boss?' and liked her," says Sternin. "We actually envisioned her starring in one of the shows we were pitching. Jeff informed us that she and her husband had just been in pitching a show in which she was the nanny. He said be needed experienced show runners to hook them up with and asked if we'd be interested. It was all so serendipitous. Had we not mentioned Fran's name, Jeff probably would not have brought it up."
The four wrote the pilot together, creating a character that built off Fran's image. "Our business strategy was to create a show that was going to complement our writing, complement me as a talent," says Drescher. As a result, the characters draw deeply on the Drescher family. Fran Fine's parents, Sylvia and Morty, and grandmother Yetta are all named after Drescher' s real-life counterparts. She credits them with giving her a sense of self-esteem as well as her distinctly Jewish sense of comic timing.
According to co-executive producer Fraser, "The assignment when writing for Fran is to take this hysterical character, keep her funny and lovable and in the center of things. It was never a question of who Fran should be. Fran, as an actress, knows exactly who she is and how she's funny."
"We were careful to make sure that Fran's character, although crusty and quick with her responses, remained warm and loving and adorable," adds Sternin. "Bobbie Fleckman, the character Fran played in 'Spinal Tap,' for instance, was an outrageous, edgy character but didn't necessarily have the warmth to be at the center of the sitcom."
There was magic in the air at the very First table reading, recalls Helene Michaels, executive vp of Columbia TriStar Television. "When (Columbia TriStar Television president) Eric (Tannenbaum) and I saw the first run-through with that marvelous cast, we just knew it was a winner," she says. "It was the first pilot delivered to CBS that season which often puts a show at a disadvantage. But it was everyone's favorite and the highest-tested pilot at CBS in years."
Adds Jon Feltheimer, president of the Columbia TriStar Television Group: "What's unique about 'The Nanny' is that each character has a unique voice and can deliver a joke at the same time. That puts it in the company of such classics as 'Cheers,' 'Seinfeld' and 'Murphy Brown."'
Not since "Rhoda" has a successful comedy been anchored by such an explicitly Jewish character. Most recently, "Brooklyn Bridge" was a critical success but a ratings failure. Not even the envelope-pushing "Seinfeld" dares to explore that terrain. "We call it brisket, brisket, brisket," says Jacobson, who oversees the writing staff and has been coupled with Drescher since the two were high-school sweethearts back in Queens. "The show has a unique, specific voice. Many writers think they can do it, but they usually can't. They'll write in a bunch of Yiddish words, but rarely do we use them. Maybe it's because I've lived with Fran so long that I know what jokes will come out of her mouth and be appealing to the public. She knows it too."
Some questioned whether the writers had ventured too far in terms of ethnicity. Procter & Gamble, for instance, wanted to sponsor the entire show but asked whether Drescher had to be so obviously Jewish. Several network executives wondered whether the concept would play across America. "The conclusion we came to was that if the family Fran worked for was British, she wouldn't come across as Jewish so much as the American you were rooting for," explains Sternin. "The idea was to make her the American girl who happens to be Jewish rather than the Jewish girl working for the WASPs."
Airing originally on Wednesdays - and often broadcast opposite "Home Improvement" - the show languished its first year. When it easily could have been pulled off the air, however, Sagansky stepped in as its champion. According to Jacobson: "At all those affiliate meetings, he used to say, 'Stick by "The Nanny"!' He knew it was something special."
What did Sagansky see in the show that others didn't? "First and foremost," he explains, "there's that personality of Fran's. Second, the show works on a couple of levels. As a kid, you can enjoy her unconventional approach to mothering. For adults, there's the naughtiness and sassiness that goes way over kids' heads. There's a wit and sophistication to the show. It's like a 9 o'clock show in the 8 o'clock time slot."
When network research showed that Drescher's character appealed to most viewers, CBS broadcast reruns on Monday nights throughout the summer. Drescher also embarked on an exhausting promotional campaign, flying around the country giving dozens of interviews to local talk shows and visiting CBS-affiliated stations. She also lobbied for a permanent Monday time slot, historically a strong one for CBS. The effort paid off in the third season, and "The Nanny" turned into CBS's little engine that could. Now back on Wednesday, "The Nanny" consistently performs in the top 40 and is considered an appointment show.
"People make a point of watching us as opposed to viewing simply because it follows or precedes a show they like," says Charles Shaughnessey, who plays opposite Drescher as the sophisticated Maxwell Sheffield. "It's a family favorite because the characters are funny and comfortable to be with. You can understand where they're coming from and get involved."
"The Nanny" is also a huge success Internationally. The show is aired in 90 countries and is the top-rated American comedy in many of them, not to mention the No.1 program in Australia. "We're tremendously gratified by the show's global penetration, not only [because] it's sold in so many countries but [because of] its performance in those countries," says Andy Kaplan, executive VP of Columbia TriStar Television. "American comedies usually don't translate abroad, but Fran's larger-than-life character transcends language barriers."
Now the challenge is to maintain the quality that turned the show into a hit in the first place. "A lot of sitcoms in the fourth and fifth year start to fall apart; people are quick to settle," says Drescher, who conceives and outlines every script with co-executive producer Sternin. "As the years progress, it gets harder and harder to maintain the integrity of the show. We've combed so many areas already. You start pitching a joke and say: 'Wait a minute. We did that 10 shows back."'
Integral to the show's success, according to Drescher, is maintaining her character as the essential clown a la Lucille Ball in "I Love Lucy." Since the show is based on the fish-out-of-water concept, the mandate is to ensure that Drescher remains the fish and everyone else the water. "That's very difficult to achieve," she explains. "In most sitcoms, the star is more of a straight character surrounded by zanies. That was the ultimate ruin for Rhoda, who was a very funny second banana on 'The Mary Tyler Moore Show.' But as time went on with her own show, she became increasingly straight surrounded by these broad comedic characters. It didn't allow her to be as funny as she was on 'Mary Tyler Moore.' It's a common pitfall, and we really have to corral the writers so that they pivot the show in the proper direction."
The No.1 question fans repeatedly ask is, "When will Fran and Mr. Sheffield get together?" The producers won't reveal their intentions for the pair but insist they're not afraid of losing the romantic tension. "The dynamic of the show is always changing," says Sternin with a shrug. "He loved her and took it back. They've been dealing with that on and off throughout the season. As the characters grow, their relationship naturally changes."
Viewers can also expect to see a steady stream of ratings-boosting guest stars. Elton John and Celine Dion will join a lineup that already includes Bette Midler, Elizabeth Taylor, Joan Collins. Donald Trump, Dan Aykroyd, Monica Seles and Pamela Anderson Lee.
During this hiatus, rest assured you won't find Drescher and Sternin lying on a beach some-where. Instead, they will be struggling to rough out story outlines. "Last summer, we assigned nine scripts, but it wasn't enough," says Drescher. "You're chasing your tail early on in the season. This summer, we're going to try to break 15 stories, assign them and come back with completed scripts that will set up the season with a little more confidence and security."
With all the work it takes to produce one quality show, Drescher and Jacobson don't see how they could possibly spin off their success at this time. "It's so difficult to get one done," says Jacobson. "Two-- you'd have no life. After a while you get so burnt out you can't remember anything. If you asked me what last week's show was about, I couldn't tell ya."
But at least one person has total confidence in their capabilities. According to Sagansky: "I'm convinced if they decided they wanted to become what Desilu was in terms of running a series of shows, they could do it. They have all the capabilities."