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Beating the odds, Queens-style

Fran Drescher with her puppy Esther. Photo courtesy Cancer Schmancer
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Fran Drescher knows how to make lemonade from lemons.

In a phone interview with the actress best known for her small-screen role as comical character Fran Fine from the 1990’s CBS series “The Nanny,” the former Queens girl talked about growing up in Flushing and how some chapters of her life inspired two successful sitcoms. There was barely a hint of that famous nasally voice, but her Queens accent was still audible.

An outspoken healthcare advocate raising cancer awareness, Drescher came face to face with her biggest demon — uterine cancer — in 2000. As her nonprofit organization, Cancer Schmancer, celebrates its fifth birthday June 21, she’ll be celebrating 12 years of wellness and looking forward to starring in a bunch of new episodes for her hit television show, “Happily Divorced,” when the sitcom returns to TV Land in the fall. The show debuted June 2011.

“I’m married to a man for 18 years and then he tells me he thinks he’s gay. It’s inspired by my real story. Actually — in real life — it was after our divorce he came out. Now we’re happily divorced,” said Drescher, referring to her ex-husband, Peter Marc Jacobson.

The Nanny

Remember the theme song? She was working in a bridal shop in Flushing until her boyfriend kicked her out in one of those crushing scenes. Who can forget Fran’s charm, her big hair and flashy ‘90s outfits? And that laugh.

It was 1993 when Fran Fine, an endearing, newly unemployed Flushing salesgirl with chutzpah cabbed over the bridge to Manhattan and stumbled onto the doorstep of British widower dad and Broadway producer Maxwell Sheffield’s mansion, dropping the basket of beauty product samples she was selling. She had style, she had flair, she was there. That’s how she became The Nanny.

Created by Drescher and Jacobson, Fran’s career-making sitcom ran for six seasons, ending in 1999, the same year her marriage ended.

She recalled watching the first episode with her family: “Peter said he was afraid that (Fran’s mom) would be insulted. She was very quiet, sitting there holding her breath, and then she said, ‘I’m glad you didn’t exaggerate the hair.’ It went over well.”

The old days

Even as Drescher moved from the borough she knew as home to Hollywood, she has never forgotten her roots.

“I had fond memories growing up in Queens,” she said. She lived near Queens College, off Kissena Boulevard, in a two-family house the family moved into when she was 9. “I worked at a supermarket and my mom worked in a drugstore near what was once Wainwright’s. There’s a pizza place that’s still there and I think they have a Fran Drescher pizza now. I used to walk to the Main Street Theatre in Kew Gardens Hills and to Flushing Meadow Park.

“Peter and I got married at Terrace on the Park in 1978. We were already in L.A. (she was 20) and my parents were still in Flushing; my mother coordinated the wedding.”

She attended PS 165 and Parsons JHS, then Hillcrest High School in Jamaica, where she met her ex-husband. It was the same school actor Ray Romano attended.

How The Nanny came about

As for the show that launched her career in stardom, much of it was a product of circumstance.

“I cashed in some frequent-flyer miles and jumped on a TWA plane to France. I was invited by a girlfriend. On the plane was the president of CBS. I started talking with him; one thing led to another and I convinced him I wanted to pitch this idea.” But she didn’t have it in her head yet. “By the end of the flight he said, ‘OK, when we get back to L.A., call my office and we’ll set up a meeting with head of development.’”

When she visited her friend’s summer house in France, she was surprised to see she had her two crying toddlers with her. “Twiggy called and said I should come see her and I couldn’t get out of my friend’s home fast enough,” said Drescher. So she left France and flew to London. Twiggy and her husband were busy while she was staying at their flat, so she “schlepped” their 12-year-old daughter around because she didn’t want to explore the city all by herself. That gave her an idea and, back in L.A., off she went to CBS and said, “What do you think about a spin to ‘The Sound of Music,’ and instead of Julie Andrews it would be me coming to the door?’ And he said, ‘That’s it. That’s the one you’re going to pitch.’ They were in the market for a good family 8 o’clock show.”

To Maxwell’s dismay, his nanny came with some baggage: a funny, stereotypical Jewish family of characters. Sylvia (in real life, a bridal consultant) was Fran’s loving but domineering, meddlesome Jewish mom with puffy blonde hair, who laid the guilt on thick; grandma Yetta, semi-senile and known for her off-color remarks; dad Morty, rarely seen but he was always missing his toupee; and best friend Val, wholly fictitious.

Trash Cancer

Nowadays Drescher has shifted her focus to finding a cure for cancer, something she has had to personally overcome.

“I realized that what we don’t know is killing us. So early detection, in stage one, is a cure; if you catch it on arrival, 95 percent survival,” said Drescher, who was diagnosed with stage one ovarian cancer after two years and eight doctors. “Living a preventive lifestyle is key because 95 percent of most cancers are environmental, and when we reduce toxicity in our home we can reduce our risk of cancer.” The Cancer Schmancer Movement is coming out with a program in the fall: the Cancer Answer.

The movement will host Trash Cancer parties. Get info and updates from Fran by signing up at www.CancerSchmancer.org and www.trashcancer.org.

Drescher also advocates for LGBT rights, and even took on a spiritual role as universal minister, officiating at the weddings of two same-sex couples back in March, in Manhattan. “I’m a big supporter of civil liberties and I think that gay marriage is the pivotal civil liberties issue of our times.”

She always had a “lemonade” outlook on life. In 1985, her and Jacobson’s L.A. apartment was broken into and Fran became a rape victim.

In her book, “Cancer Schmancer,” the actress writes, “My whole life has been about changing negatives into positives.

“Turning pain into purpose. It’s in the silver lining of it all. Some of the best gifts come in the ugliest packages.”

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