Fran Drescher, Millennial Whisperer - The New York Times

Fran Drescher’s voice, if you ever have the chance to hear it deployed in very close vicinity over shrimp tempura and spicy tuna sushi, is actually quite soothing.

When Drescher played Fran Fine on “The Nanny,” the 1990s sitcom she created with her then-husband Peter Marc Jacobson, she was pitching her voice higher, squeezing it up her nose, acting. Back then, The New York Times compared Drescher to “the sound of a Buick with an empty gas tank cold-cranking on a winter morning.” But here in her living room above Central Park, sitting among crystals, fresh lemons, fine sculpture and photographs of herself meeting establishment Democrats, she sounds more like a Mercedes purring out of the Long Island Expressway. For those who grew up with “The Nanny” as our nanny, her voice is so embedded in the subconscious that hearing the softened version is almost therapeutic. Imagine if Nanny Fine had an ASMR setting.

“I’ve heard it’s like a foghorn, a cackle,” Drescher said carefully, balancing her plate in the lap of her little black dress. “I always just describe myself as having a unique voice.” When she left Queens for Hollywood in the late 1970s, her manager told her, “If you want to play other parts, besides hookers, you’re going to have to learn to speak differently,” she recalled. Instead Drescher leaned into her natural gifts. In 1992, she pitched herself as a sitcom star to the president of CBS: “Because of the voice, they think I’m the seasoning in the show,” she told him. “That’s wrong. I’m a main course.”

Image Fran Drescher, left, and Charles Shaughnessy in “The Nanny,” a hit sitcom on CBS in the 1990s. Credit... CBS, via Everett Collection

America has not heard from Drescher much lately — she has not appeared regularly on television since her TV Land sitcom “Happily Divorced” ended in 2013, and “The Nanny” is sadly hard to stream — but this week, at 62, she returns to TV with NBC’s “Indebted.” As in the pilot of “The Nanny,” Drescher appears unexpectedly on a doorstep, except this time, it belongs to her adult son (Adam Pally). She and Steven Weber play Debbie and Stew Klein, a couple of boomer dilettantes who crash their kid’s married life with the news that they’re in debt. The role of Debbie, a boundaryless hugger who swans around her son’s suburban home as if it’s her own personal retirement community, inverts the “Nanny” dynamic: Now the kids have to take care of her.

When Drescher weighed whether to take on the show, a family sitcom that draws on generational conflict, she thought of her own family. “My parents, who are still alive, thank God, were so excited about me being on network television again,” she said. “You know, not everybody could find TV Land,” she added, “but everybody could find NBC.”

The role was not written for Drescher, exactly. The pilot script had called for a “Fran Drescher type,” and when the real Fran Drescher signed on, she required a few adjustments. “People are used to seeing an annoying mother-in-law in a sitcom, but that’s not what I signed up for,” Drescher said. “When you have somebody whose persona is bigger than the part, you got to make it right for me. Or why have me?”

That meant giving Debbie Klein some passions of her own. “I had to bring myself into it,” she said. “I really infused the sex appeal, the sensuality, the vivaciousness of the character.”

“Indebted” creator Dan Levy, a comedian and producer for “The Goldbergs,” said that he originally modeled Debbie and Stew after his own parents, but that the steaminess was all Drescher. “My mom was like, ‘That’s not based on us,’” Levy said. “She elevated that to a whole level that I was not expecting.”

In the decades since Drescher first opened her mouth onscreen, the Fran Drescher type has achieved a quiet dominance over popular culture. “The Nanny” has been syndicated around the world and remade in a dozen countries, including Turkey (where it was called “Dadi”), Poland (“Niania”) and Argentina (“La Niñera”). In “The Nanny,” for anyone who doesn’t have the chatty theme song implanted in her brain, Drescher plays a Jewish woman from Queens hired to tend to the three precocious children of a wealthy English widower, Maxwell Sheffield, who is also Broadway’s second-most-successful producer (after his nemesis, Andrew Lloyd Webber). In foreign versions, the ethnicities are recalibrated — in the Russian one, the nanny is Ukrainian — but the Fran Drescher type is otherwise preserved. Wherever she goes, the ethnic striver is transplanted into a posh setting as the help, and her appealing culture and individual charm pull off the ultimate makeover — reinventing the strait-laced insiders in her own brash image.

Across the internet, Fran Fine is helping to perform similar tricks. With her pile of hair, power-clashing wardrobe and cartoon proportions, she has been fashioned into an avatar of stylish self-respect. In GIFs spirited around social media, she can be seen in a cheetah-print skirt suit, sipping from a cheetah-print teacup; inhaling a plate of spaghetti with no hands; and descending the Sheffields’ ivory staircase as if entering New York’s hottest club.

“I send this when I’m excited,” Drescher said, summoning her phone from her assistant Jordan and thumbing to a GIF of Fine twirling across the mansion in a fuchsia dress and a self-satisfied look. “How many people can send their own GIF?”

The Fran Drescher type is a kind of advisory role. First she was the world’s nanny, showing kids how to mix prints and be themselves, and now she has matured into a cool-aunt persona, modeling a fabulous adulthood. (“Broad City” made this transformation literal, squeezing Drescher into a low cut rainbow and cheetah-print dress and casting her as Ilana’s Aunt Bev, and by extension the spirit guide for a new generation of Jewish comediennes.) “I’ve never had kids, so I’m not really parental,” Drescher said. “I’m a mom to my dogs.”

“I’m kind of an influencer,” she added. Drescher has led an unconventional life, and “I share it,” she said. “It gives my life purpose.” In two memoirs, she has discussed being raped at gunpoint in her 20s, surviving uterine cancer in her 40s, and divorcing Jacobson only to acquire a new gay best friend when he subsequently came out. Recently she thrilled the internet when she revealed that she has secured a “friend with benefits” whom she meets twice a month for television viewing and sex. “I don’t think it’s that shocking a thing,” Drescher said. “I’m not in love with him.”

The kids who grew up watching “The Nanny” are now Nanny Fine’s age, old enough to properly covet her closet and cultivate a newfound respect for her persona. On Instagram, the @whatfranwore account catalogs classic “Nanny” outfits, and @thenannyart pairs them with contemporary art pieces. Cardi B once captioned a photo of herself in head-to-toe cat prints: “Fran Drescher in @dolceandgabbana.” The actor Isabelle Owens will mount a one-woman song-and-dance show dedicated to Drescher in New York this month, called “Fran Drescher, Please Adopt Me!” “As everything from the ’90s comes back, people are rediscovering her,” Owens said, noting Drescher’s fashion, her confidence, and her voice; Owens is still working to perfect her impersonation. “There are so many layers to it,” she said. “It’s so delicate and lyrical.”

The Fran Drescher type, no matter how big it gets, still risks reducing the woman behind it. “All of her is in me, but not all of me is in her,” Drescher said. “I don’t think any of my characters could have ever created and executive-produced ‘The Nanny.’” Fran Fine might have been able to wrap the boss around her red-lacquered little finger, but Drescher is the boss. When she secured her own New York apartment, in 2004, it was here, just across the park from the house that stood in for the Sheffield mansion on “The Nanny.” Soon her transformation into Mr. Sheffield will be complete: She is developing a Broadway show of her own, a musical adaptation of “The Nanny” that she will co-write with Jacobson.

“The Nanny” is a timely bid for Broadway. Drescher takes the stage’s most classic feminine archetype and gives her a modern upgrade: She is Eliza Doolittle if she refused to take her voice lessons.

That’s perhaps the biggest misconception about the Fran Drescher type — that the voice is an unfortunate obstacle, rather than a cultivated asset. Once, a fan asked Drescher about the classic “Nanny” scene where Fran Fine goes for sushi, naïvely swallows a wad of wasabi, and says, in an eerily neutral broadcaster’s voice, “Gee, you know, that mustard really clears out the nasal passages.” The fan wanted to know how Drescher had managed to pull that voice off. Sitting in her parkside apartment, perched in her producer’s chair, confidently apportioning her wasabi, Drescher revealed her secret: “I’m very talented.”