A Strike Leader Rises: “Just Watched Fran Drescher Chew the #AMPTP’s Face Off”

Fran Drescher stood in front of a battery of cameras on Thursday to announce a cataclysmic, game-changing event for the entertainment industry: The actors guild was going on strike. Drescher, formerly best known as The Nanny, was there in her capacity as the president of SAG-AFTRA, which represents about 160,000 performers. In that moment, she also became an unlikely leader at the forefront of America’s labor movement.

Conjuring up characters like Norma Rae—and Howard “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore” Beale in Network—Drescher gave a fiery speech that laid out the shifting Hollywood backdrop that had led to this historic moment. “We are being victimized by a very greedy entity,” she said, railing against the studios and streamers represented by the AMPTP. She noted that they plead poverty in negotiations while “giving hundreds of millions of dollars to their CEOs. It is disgusting. Shame on them. They stand on the wrong side of history, at this very moment.”

Actors are often seen as privileged creatures, but Drescher made clear that her guild is not just full of stars, but workers. “We stand in solidarity in unprecedented unity, our union and our sister unions, and the unions around the world are standing by us as well as other labor unions. Because at some point, the jig is up. You cannot keep being dwindled and marginalized, and disrespected and dishonored,” she said, in tones that ranged from tremulous to outraged. “This is a moment of history that is a moment of truth. If we don’t stand tall right now, we are all going to be in trouble.”

The vehemence of Drescher’s speech stunned and thrilled many in Hollywood. “Way to crush it, @frandrescher! United we stand,” Elijah Wood tweeted, while Elizabeth McGovern wrote, “Go Fran! In solidarity with the writers we fight for humanity in the entertainment business.” Kim Cattrall tweeted a photo of herself and Drescher clasping hands, with the words, “We stand in solidarity.” Teamsters leader Lindsay Dougherty voiced her support: “Fran MF Drescher brought the heat, facts and some real rage against the MACHINES energy. @Teamsters are with you and all @sagaftra members! No one wants a strike, but the stakes are too high and Hollywood workers deserve so much better. #BadBitchesUnited.” Even writers who are currently on strike with the Writers Guild weighed in with excitement. David Simon, creator of The Wire, commented, “Just watched Fran Drescher chew the #AMPTP’s face off. After her credulous remarks in the run-up to today, I’ll confess I thought she was a lost ball in tall grass. But now, if I hadn’t cut the streaming service, I’d download all seasons of The Nanny.”

Drescher’s new status as labor hero is a surprise twist, especially because—as Simon alluded—she’d caused concern among SAG-AFTRA and WGA members with some of her statements in the last few months. Most notably, in a video released just days before SAG’s contract was set to expire on June 30, Drescher and SAG-AFTRA chief negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland boasted that they were having “extremely productive negotiations.” Drescher’s singsongy, cheerful tone rubbed many the wrong way. “It was very rah-rah cheerful, and I don’t think that is the right message,” one SAG-AFTRA member told Vanity Fair at the time. Concerned that their guild was preparing to take a mediocre deal, a large cluster of prominent actors signed a letter urging the leadership to remain tough.

There was further dismayed chatter when Kim Kardashian posted a photo of herself and Drescher posing at a Dolce & Gabbana promotional event in Italy just days before the guild contract was set to expire. “It’s not a good look,” one actor told me last week. Crabtree-Ireland passionately stood up for Drescher at the strike press conference, pointing out that Fran was doing her job as a brand ambassador for the fashion line. “She was doing a job that she was under contract to do—while, by the way, she was zooming into our negotiations after working 18 hours or more a day.”

Even her ascension to the SAG-AFTRA presidency was embattled. She ran as part of the Unite for Strength party in a bruising race against Matthew Modine, who positioned himself as more of a firebrand with the Membership First faction. Although she won the election, some members remained critical of her capacities.

When I interviewed Drescher last year, she told me that as a little girl in Queens, she dreamed of being a politician, as well as a writer, a hairdresser, and actor. “I kind of ended up being them all in different ways,” she said. She spent years playing tiny parts in television and movies (shout out to the legendary Bobbi Flekman in This Is Spinal Tap!) before she waylaid the president of CBS on a plane in 1991 and sold him on her idea of a television show about a nanny. The network wanted her to play an Italian character, but she insisted that it needed to be a Queens-accented Jewish character played by a real Jewish actor, which broke ground on network television. Her character regularly dropped Yiddish words on prime time—something Drescher echoed when she complained at the strike announcement, “What we ultimately received from [the studios] is what my mom would call a lek and a schmeck,” which translates to “a lick and a sniff.”

Turning perceived liabilities into strengths has always been Drescher’s great skill. “I have this widow’s peak,” she told me last year, pulling back her curtain of black hair, “and when I was a little girl, I thought I looked like Eddie Munster. Then my grandmother said to me, ‘Why? It’s so beautiful. It makes you have a heart-shaped face.’ After that, I liked it.”

In the years after The Nanny ended, Drescher created the nonprofit Cancer Schmancer, inspired by her own uterine cancer, and helped convince Congress to pass the Gynecologic Cancer Education and Awareness Act, which became law in 2007. She also served as a US State Department public diplomacy envoy for health, traveling the world to advocate for women’s health and cancer prevention. She’s always felt the need to “figure out better ways, refine what exists, not accept what is,” she said. “And quite frankly, that sort of saved my life with uterine cancer, because I went to eight doctors over two years who were all essentially telling me there was nothing wrong with me, and so I just kept trying to find answers.”

When I asked Drescher last year why she’d decided to be a guild leader, she told me, “All of the Zen masters say don’t try and swim upstream, just let life come to you. When this came to me as an opportunity to run, I really thought, This seems to be an amalgam of many of my strengths and accomplishments coming to a point in this one defining moment.” She said of SAG-AFTRA, “We’re a large collective. And as a large group, we can matter. I think we should matter.”

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