Should Charles Shaughnessy ever find himself strapped for cash, he could start a workshop for intimidated journalists.
Within five minutes of our conversation, the 56-year-old English native, Cambridge graduate, social-networking junkie, and former “Nanny” heartthrob joyously elaborated on visiting “Mum” in England (“We’ll drink from the minute the sun rises; the first part of my life is sort of an alcoholic haze”); he wizened me up on the money he’s not getting from cable reruns (“We [actors] made a deal back in the ‘90s; we basically gave it away”); and he let it be known why he’s drawn to speaking his mind via blogging and YouTube (“It goes back to shouting with my family around the dinner table; a lot of people want to get into the conversation, and people are frustrated that they don’t have a voice”).
By this point in the phone call, I think I’d asked him my first question.
Charles Shaughnessy has quite a voice, and he’s not afraid to use it. “It’s so hard not to be political,” Shaughnessy says in explanation of his Liberal dialogues. “We live in a political environment. The Conservative side of the argument, the status quo side of the argument, they’re inherently disinterested in debate. By nature, they distrust anyone who wants to engage in conversation.”
Perhaps it’s that suspicious English accent, but when Shaughnessy digresses into Progressive versus Conservative thinking, you get the feeling he’d be thrilled to join Dick Cheney for a pub crawl. Or a duck hunt.
“Artists, by nature, are engaged in the social conversation,” Shaughnessy says, when reminded of the “Shut Up and Sing” mantra hurled at Hollywood heavies. “To tell them not to be is completely ridiculous. You would have never heard a liberal tell Charlton Heston to shut up and act.”
Politics wasn’t the point of interviewing Shaughnessy, but sometimes straying off the talking points is when the fun begins. Speaking of which, on the season finale of “Happily Divorced,” August 17, Shaughnessy’s reuniting with his former “Nanny” co-star Fran Drescher, and for that matter, her gay-ex-husband and “Nanny” creator, Peter Marc Jacobson. He had as much fun “playing” with his old pals as they had having him back.
“Charlie is amazing to work with,” says Jacobson. “He is so talented and funny and smart. Fran and I are so lucky to know this wonderful man. And he ain’t too bad on the eyes, either!”
That exclamation mark was Jacobson’s, and I asked Shaughnessy if, during “The Nanny,” he was ever privy to marital closets.
“Fran would make jokes about how well Peter dressed,” laughs Shaughnessy, “but it was never clear, especially in this business.” Shaughnessy goes on to say that he wouldn’t be the best judge. “Europeans tend to be more comfortable with their sexuality,” he says. “I cry in sad movies, I sing, I do musical theater, I don’t enjoy hanging out with men and talking about sports. I just did ‘My Fair Lady’ and I couldn’t tell you who in the cast was gay or straight.”
He also wasn’t completely taken aback when Jacobson came out. “I was surprised, then not surprised,” says Shaughnessy. “Looking back, I thought what was theatrical was gay after all. Oh well.”
In what’s perhaps the most irreverent three-way twist of the TV season, Shaughnessy’s “Happily Divorced” character is attracted to the new TV Fran, and then her new TV gay-ex-husband, Peter (John Michael Higgins). It didn’t take Shaughnessy long to accept the part.
“The only way I can get employed is if Fran puts me on a show,” jokes Shaughnessy. “I think I just said yes.” In addition to six seasons as Max Sheffield on “The Nanny,” Shaughnessy appeared on Drescher’s short-lived sitcom “Life with Fran,” and then showed up on her shorter-lived talk show.
“Fran’s a very loyal person,” says Shaughnessy. “You always see the same faces. When ‘The Nanny’ was canceled she spent weeks trying to get people work, calling in favors. We’ve always had a good on and off-screen relationship. I adore her.”
Says Fran Drescher on her former sitcom boss/husband: “Charlie is as beautiful on the inside as he is on the outside. He is wildly talented and someone I love; even before he said he thought I was gorgeous but too thin!”
Once again, that exclamation comes from Drescher, and there seems to be a pattern of adulation in this group of seasoned pros.
“Everyone’s grown up; it seems a lot calmer,” says Shaughnessy of working on the new show. “When you’re young, there’s a lot of urgency, there’s a lot of mistakes. There’s a real sense of veterans now; let’s just make it fun.”
Shaughnessy said that he didn’t think it was strange to be the “guest” star opposite Drescher “until everyone asked me if it was strange. It would feel more strange if I was back in that role. The baton was passed; it’s time to move on.”
Outside of, er, TV Land, Shaughnessy’s married with two daughters, and, like most actors, looking for the next role. “I’m pitching a couple of things, but so is everyone in Hollywood.”
The politics of acting is another favorite topic. “When you’re an actor, anything that comes along, it has to be something you can’t do, otherwise I have to do it,” says Shaughnessy, adding that “I like it that way. It shouldn’t get to the point where you’re highly privileged elite.” Before I could ask the obvious, Shaughnessy added that, should he be offered a part guaranteed to make him Max Sheffield money, “I’d take it. Actors are pragmatic.”
The only topic that didn’t seem blog-ready was Maxwell Sheffield’s popularity among gay men. Shaughnessy confessed he’d never thought about it much, and grew silent as I told him how popular the Cinderella story is for men growing up gay (“The Nanny,” he told me, was pitched by Drescher and Jacobson as “The Sound of Music”). Once the idea registered, he started streaming consciousness faster than Prince Charming could search for the correct foot.
“It takes the heroine out of the place she doesn’t belong?” Shaughnessy questioned, and then continued. “She should be a princess, and it takes another person to let them know. They transcend a hostile environment, being told they are not okay. They want to be in the spotlight, they lack affirmation; then, finally being recognized.”
When our chat ended, I’d learned a bit too. And that is always the point.
For more information on Charles Shaughnessy, visit his website. For more about Happily Divorced, go to TV Land’s website. Professional photos: Suzanne Allison. On the set photo: Shaughnessy’s SmartPhone.