Fran Drescher returns to network TV -- The former star of ''The Nanny'' joins The WB as a suburban sugar mama in her new show ''Living with Fran''

By Nicholas Fonseca
April 04, 2005 at 04:00 AM EDT

It will surprise no one who has seen one of Lifetime’s many airings of The Nanny to learn that Fran Drescher’s dressing room has leopard-print carpeting. Or that the walls (and ceiling) are pink. Or that a giant Warhol print — Marilyn, of course — hangs across the room from where Drescher is sitting, as she scoops up her chocolate Pomeranian, Esther, and settles in for an interview. And then Esther starts to yap.

”What do you waaaaant?! Why are you baaarking?! Oh, goodness graaaacious!” And there it is: the voice. The signature squawk that continues to thrall This Is Spi¨al Tap fans. The nasal whine that carried her through six seasons of The Nanny. The distinct rasp that was voted America’s worst voice in a 2000 public-opinion poll. Drescher’s unmistakable sound returns from rerun infamy on Living With Fran (debuting April 8 at 8:30 p.m.), a WB sitcom about the May-December romance between divorcée Fran Reeves and twentysomething construction contractor Riley (Passions‘ Ryan McPartlin). Cracks Drescher of her alter ego: ”She’s never really met another man besides her ex-husband. . .and I mean that in the biblical sense!”

Post-Nanny life wasn’t such a gas for Drescher, who says the series’ 1999 wrap left her feeling ”like a queen without a queendom.” Soon after, her empire started to crumble: Her strained marriage to high school sweetheart Peter Marc Jacobson finally collapsed. Her beloved 19-year-old dog, Chester, passed away. And after spending two and a half years consulting eight doctors for chronic cramping, she heard three dreaded words: ”You have cancer.”

”Had we not ended the show when we did, we probably would have had to shut down,” says the 47-year-old actress, who was diagnosed with uterine cancer in June 2000. With the aid of her real-life (now ex-) boyfriend — 16 years her junior — Drescher conquered the disease, and emerged with the frank 2002 memoir Cancer Schmancer — and had the backstory for her latest TV endeavor.

”When Peter and I broke up, I realized I had never really dated,” says Drescher, who was shopping the project as Robbing the Cradle when she learned that comedian Jamie Kennedy was prepping a series with the same premise — and name. (The two collaborated, and he’s now an exec producer on Fran.) ”I had never been with another man. Those are the sorts of issues we’re exploring.”

First, there were other issues to deal with: The series didn’t land a spot on The WB’s ’04-’05 schedule last May, and Drescher was frustrated by early tapings. She kept mum until new WB president David Janollari arrived in June and eventually replaced two show runners. ”I had a muzzle on. Nobody wanted my opinion. Heads rolled, and I was promoted [to exec producer],” she says. Janollari concurs: ”[The old show runners] weren’t mining the comic premise — a woman having a second chance at life with a younger man. The show needed a clearer voice.”

Fran seems less comeback and more throwback vehicle for Drescher: Nanny souvenirs are strewn throughout the show, from the casting (old on-screen hubby Charles Shaughnessy appears as her ex-husband in Fran) to the dialogue (”[Rib roast] was my mother’s specialty. . .well, that and destroying my self-esteem!”). But the Queens native believes there’s an appetite for her comedy: ”I’ve never given up confidence in the power of the family sitcom. People have stressful lives, and if you create a world that the viewer enjoys being in for 22 minutes a week, they will come.”