By Dawn Chmielewski, Lisa Richwine
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) -To thousands of rank-and-file Hollywood actors, Fran Drescher emerged this summer as a modern-day labor hero who secured a hard-fought deal. To studio executives who negotiated with the SAG-AFTRA president, the former star of “The Nanny” prolonged a strike while she relished her high-profile role.
Not since her portrayal of Fran Fine, a one-time bridal shop attendant from Queens who winds up caring for a Broadway producer’s three children in the 1990s sitcom, had Drescher seen so much screen time.
Her memorable portrayal of the nanny, with her nasal voice, loud fashion, and deftly executed pratfalls, garnered her two Emmy nominations. As president of the 160,000-member SAG-AFTRA union, Drescher won widespread praise from performers for her tenacity in fighting for better wages and protections against the rising threat of artificial intelligence technology.
“She’s a really good wartime president,” said Kate Bond, who played Jill Morgan on CBS series “MacGyver.”
Under Drescher’s leadership, SAG-AFTRA walked off the job in mid-July, halting most film and scripted television production. After 118 days, negotiators announced on Wednesday they had reached an agreement valued at more than $1 billion over three years.
Drescher framed her actions as part of a broader labor movement battling Corporate America, where, in her view, executives place Wall Street’s approval and their own compensation ahead of the welfare of workers.
“We are the victims here. We are being victimized by a very greedy entity. I am shocked by the way the people that we have been in business with are treating us,” Drescher said at a July news conference. “I cannot believe it, quite frankly, how far apart we are on so many things. How they plead poverty. That they’re losing money left and right when giving hundreds of millions of dollars to their CEOs. It is disgusting. Shame on them.”
A PRO-PROLETARIAT VIEW
Drescher’s remarks, which struck some as vitriolic, were reminiscent of Norma Rae, the title character in a 1970s movie based on a cotton-mill worker who rallied co-workers to unionize.
“In the context of the global labor movement, I understood what she was doing,” said attorney Ivy Kagan Bierman, chair of the entertainment labor practice at Loeb & Loeb. “In the role of Norma Rae, she gave the Norma Rae speech.”
Studio executives, who declined to criticize Drescher publicly to avoid inflaming labor talks, said the 66-year-old Drescher delivered similar unvarnished critiques to industry leaders during closed-door negotiations. They said the union boss talked about achieving a transfer of wealth from the CEO yachting class to actors struggling to make a living on guild minimum wages.
The composition of the union bargaining team reflected Drescher’s pro-proletariat view: some of the 42 members failed to qualify for SAG-AFTRA’s healthcare insurance because they earned less than $26,470 per year. This served to extend the strike, in the view of one studio chief, who observed, “We’re negotiating with people who have nothing to lose.”
The executives described Drescher as an actor enjoying her biggest role in years. Her last recurring role was in NBC sitcom “Indebted,” which ran for one season in 2020.
That view is just “rhetoric,” said Shari Belafonte, a member of the SAG-AFTRA TV/theatrical negotiating committee. “Fran’s unwavering commitment to the SAG-AFTRA membership is what drives her.”
“We are in a paradigm shift,” Belafonte added. “Her interest as the union president is to see all performers, from background to the top 2%, succeed in a vibrant industry for the next century and beyond.”
‘A BIG CHAMPION’
As negotiations intensified in October, reports emerged that Drescher brought a stuffed, heart-shaped toy to contract talks with executives including Walt Disney CEO Bob Iger and Netflix Co-CEO Ted Sarandos. Union members viewed the accounts as attempts to undermine Drescher’s credibility and started bringing their own plush toys to picket lines to show support.
“It’s OK to have things that make you comfortable. It doesn’t make you any less professional,” said actor Kimberly Westbrook, who carried a stuffed penguin and wore a “Don’t F– With Fran” pin while picketing Amazon Studios. “We’re actors. We are eccentric people.”
“I love that she is not apologetic for who she is,” Westbrook added.
Drescher said she did not need to “emulate a masculine energy to be a good leader.”
“I can be smart, have a keen ability (to see) integral flaws in a business model AND put a tiny heart-shaped plush toy (between) me & Iger,” she wrote on the social media platform X.
SAG-AFTRA’s chief negotiator, Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, said Drescher was “not afraid to speak truth to power, and she did exactly that” at the bargaining table.
Drescher also “really tried to humanize what can sometimes be a very cold process, and I thought that was really a valuable contribution,” he said.
Union members said they admired the fearlessness of an actress who survived being raped at gunpoint in her 20s and battled uterine cancer in her 40s. Many also saw her unconventional approach as an asset.
“She scares the shit out of these CEOs precisely because she can’t be put in a box (or a corner),” actor Justine Bateman wrote on X. “If you can’t see the leverage in that, then you don’t understand negotiating.”
Actor Alex Plank, who appears opposite Bobby Cannavale and Robert De Niro in “Ezra,” admitted he knew little about Drescher before the strike, beyond her distinctive voice.
“She’s turned out to be a big champion, someone with heart,” Plank said. “I was skeptical at first, to be honest with you, because I didn’t know anything about her, and she turned out to be more than we could have ever asked for.”
(Reporting by Dawn Chmielewski and Lisa Richwine;Editing by Mary Milliken, Rosalba O’Brien and Gerry Doyle)