It sounds like a story they’d create on a Hollywood back lot, perfect for a sitcom, maybe with a cute little ditty to start the show. The opening credits would say something about how He (Peter Marc Jacobson) fell in love with Her (Fran Drescher), when they were both 15. From Flushing, Queens, no less, the two got married at 21 and decided to become big stars and move to Los Angeles.
They had style, they had class, then she kicked him out on his ass. Well, not exactly. After Jacobson dropped his acting career and co-created her show “The Nanny,” serving as executive producer and writer, the two had a massive hit on their hands, and one big problem. Jacobson was gay, but not quite ready to accept that minor glitch. Instead, he became a control freak over every aspect of his wife’s career and show.
“The Nanny” ended, they divorced, and Jacobson moved back to New York. After he came out, to himself, to his friends, and to his ex-wife, the two slowly re-built their relationship and took a vacation to together. They had so much fun that Fran thought it would make for a perfect sitcom. And that’s how they became…“Happily Divorced.”
June 15 marks the premiere of Fran Drescher’s new TV Land sitcom, “Happily Divorced” (Jacobson is, once again, a producer and writer) and, while the story is based on true events, reality and fiction took a much longer, complicated journey to join together as gay man and ex-wife.
“After the divorce, I didn’t talk to her for a year,” says Jacobson, 53, who was married to Drescher for 18 years. “I was like an alcoholic hitting bottom. My family passed away, I had no brothers and sisters, and I couldn’t lie to myself.” While Jacobson was coming to terms with his sexuality, he got a phone call saying Drescher had been diagnosed with uterine cancer. “That phone call changed everything,” he recalls. “In that moment, the anger was lifted, and all that was left was the love. I came back [to Los Angeles] to cast a movie, and slowly we began to rebuild our relationship.” (Drescher has been cancer-free for eleven years.)
What’s unusual, to the casual gay observer, anyway, is how much of a real marriage the two had. “We were living a totally heterosexual life during ‘The Nanny,’” says Jacobson, adding that “Part of me always knew I was gay, but I buried it down. I fell in love with Fran in high school. We grew up a couple of blocks from each other. I saw shrinks and they said I was straight. I thought ‘I love her, so I’m going to take that path.’ We certainly had more sex than a lot of straight couples I know.”
(Check out the couple’s first interview on Oprah)
Jacobson says the marriage ended, not because he acted out on his sexuality (“I didn’t even want to hear that I was bisexual”); rather, because he channeled his frustration onto his wife, turning into a modern-day Svengali. “I was consumed with her,” he says. “How she dressed, how she acted, her weight. We’d go home together and never stop talking about it.”
Like Sonny and Cher before them and Lucy and Desi before that, they argued constantly, but “never missed a day of work and always came in on time. To everyone on the outside, everything looked great,” says Jacobson. Or, at least, most everyone. “Luci Arnaz wrote a very sweet letter saying ‘I hope what happened to my parents doesn’t happen to you’,” recalls Jacobson, adding that he never gave Drescher bad advice; it was more a question of his delivery. “People don’t realize how big of a business it can become. She trusted me, she knew I was right, it was how I did it.”
They also had a lot of good times. Drescher’s Fran Fine character, if you remember, was obsessed with Barbra Streisand, which was a bit of an exaggeration. “It was me,” laughs Jacobson. Shortly after “The Nanny” became a hit, the couple bought tickets to a Streisand concert, just like normal folks, and then heard shouts of “Fran!” from the audience. Drescher, unbeknownst to either of them, was on the video screens, and the two were escorted to front-row seats, followed by a meet-and-greet with the star.
“We kept thinking someone was going to claim our new seats,” says Jacobson, who still speaks with a slight Queens accent. “She [Streisand] sent us home in a limo and she was so gracious. All these famous people were there, and us too. We realized we weren’t in Flushing anymore.”
(They’re not even in Manhattan anymore; the new show)
Like most married couples, they’ve also had their share of Hell. Says Jacobson: “When we were twenty-eight, two men broke into our home. They robbed us, Fran and her best friend were raped, and I was held at gunpoint.
“When that happens and you face the mortality of cancer, being gay is not such a blow. She’d dealt with worse. When I told Fran I was gay, she said, ‘You gotta be true to yourself.’”
Oprah Winfrey did a—second—segment on the two of them (“We didn’t want to make our story into a tabloid thing, and Oprah handled it well, as only Oprah can”), and Jacobson is still astounded by the positive reactions to his Modern Family.
“When I was born, being gay was not considered cool,” he says. “I didn’t even know what it was. That’s how my computer was programmed. Everyone was married, you’d have a wedding in Great Neck, then you’d have two kids.”
At the end of this path is a beginning, and “Happily Divorced” is, by Jacobson’s definition, a contemporary sitcom. Set in Los Angeles, Fran’s gay ex-husband still lives with her for economic reasons, with “a very traditional family. Everyone’s very accepting that he’s gay. They’re both dating; he’s new at it, she’s new at it.”
Together again, and on the set every day, you have to wonder how the real-life players are getting along the second time around.
Says Fran Drescher, on her ex-husband and current co-worker: “Peter and I are soul mates and the deepest of friends. We choose to be in each others’ lives in any capacity. Our love is unique, rare, and unconditional; unless he’s being annoying.”
Jacobson calls their relationship “blissful. I don’t control her and I save the arguments for the big things. I want it to be a fun ride. She goes to her home, I go to my home. She’s brilliantly talented and a pleasure to write for and work with.”
On why he’s particularly proud of “Happily Divorced,” Jacobson says, “It’s about two people who love each other no matter what. Nobody goes unscathed in this world. This couple could be straight and still together.”
To quote a popular, trend-setting sitcom from an earlier era, that’s Love, American Style!
“Happily Divorced” premieres Wednesday, June 15, at 10:30. Check TV Land for more information. Photographs: Jeff Lipsky for TV Land.