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Once ‘The Nanny,’ Now Center Stage as the Actors’ Union Leader

The stage was different, and so was the tone. But the voice was unmistakable.

Fran Drescher, the owner of a distinctly nasal, Queens-inflected accent, made her name in Hollywood for her starring role in the sitcom “The Nanny.” On Thursday, she appeared before dozens of cameras as the president of the actors’ union that voted unanimously earlier in the day to go on strike, delivering a fiery argument depicting the stakes of the decision.

“The eyes of the world and particularly the eyes of labor are upon us,” Ms. Drescher said. “What happens to us is important. What’s happening to us is happening across all fields of labor.”

She shook her fists in indignation. “I am shocked by the way the people that we have been in business with are treating us!” she continued. “It is disgusting. Shame on them!”

Ms. Drescher is the latest in a long line of familiar faces — Ronald Reagan, Patty Duke and Charlton Heston among them — to run SAG-AFTRA, the union that represents tens of thousands of screen actors. But it amounts to a surprising plot twist in her long career.

As the Thursday news conference made clear, she is now a leading face of a resurgent labor movement nationally. How she handles it in the coming weeks, and possibly, months could help determine the fate of 160,000 actors.

The actors’ strike, which will go into effect on Friday, marks a crisis point for Hollywood, which has already been rocked in recent years by the pandemic and sweeping technological shifts with the rise of streaming and the steady decline of cable television and box office returns. Hollywood writers have been on strike for months, and with actors now joining them — the first time since 1960 that both are on strike at the same time — the industry will essentially grind to a halt.

Ms. Drescher, 65, has spent decades acting in Hollywood, both in television and film. Since her starring role on “The Nanny” in the 1990s, by far her most prominent role, she has appeared sporadically in television and feature films. She most recently starred in a short-lived sitcom for NBC called “Indebted,” which lasted 12 episodes before it was canceled in 2020.

She has long expressed concerns about corporate greed, captioning photos with slogans like “STOP CAPITALIST GREED NOW.” It was enough for New York Magazine to put a headline on a 2017 blog post, “Your New Favorite Anti-Capitalist Icon Is Fran Drescher.”

A few years later, in 2021, Ms. Drescher won election to the guild presidency in a deeply contested race versus the actor Matthew Modine. They represented different factions: Ms. Drescher for the establishment Unite for Strength Party, and Mr. Modine for an upstart group, Membership First.

The race become so bitter that Mr. Modine accused Ms. Drescher of spreading falsehoods about him and reportedly said, “I’m ashamed of Fran Drescher, I’m disappointed. But she’ll be judged by the people in the world after she’s gone, or by whatever God she worships.”

Unlike the screenwriters, who have gone on strike many times over the decades and historically been unified, actors have been known more for their intramural squabbling. Hollywood had been bracing for a writers strike since the beginning of the year — but few senior executives and producers were prepared for the actors to have the resolve to go through with it.

When Ms. Drescher came into power she vowed to bring the union together and to bring an end to the “dysfunctional division in this union.”

When the actors agreed to a strike authorization, it was with 97.9 percent of the vote — a stunning figure that even eclipsed the writers’ significant strike authorization. Last month, Membership First, the opposition party, endorsed Ms. Drescher’s re-election bid.

Ms. Drescher on a picket line with members of the writers’ union in Los Angeles in May.Credit…Chris Pizzello/Associated Press

Still, some of her public statements and actions in recent weeks have confounded many actors.

In late June, days before the actors’ contract was set to expire, Ms. Drescher and the union’s lead negotiator, Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, released a video that struck many viewers as surprisingly upbeat given the high stakes of the negotiations.

“I just want to assure you that we are having extremely productive negotiations that are laser-focused on all the crucial issues that you told us are most important to you,” she said, wearing a military jacket. “We are standing strong, and we’re going to achieve a seminal deal!”

Just days later, more than 1,000 actors, including Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lawrence, signed a letter expressing concerns to union leadership that they were not taking into account their willingness to strike. “We hope that, on our behalf, you will meet that moment and not miss it,” the letter said.

Ms. Drescher — curiously, given her position — added her signature to the letter.

On Monday, days before the actors’ contract was set to expire, Ms. Drescher drew attention on another front: She was attending a couture Dolce & Gabbana fashion show in Puglia, Italy, where she posed for photos with Kim Kardashian. To her 362 million Instagram followers, Ms. Kardashian said of Ms. Drescher: “To my fashion icon! Always on my mood board! I seriously love this woman!”

On Monday, Kim Kardashian posted this photo with Ms. Drescher at the Dolce & Gabbana fashion show in Puglia, Italy.Credit…Kim Kardashian, via Instagram

The backlash was quick and swift. The “General Hospital” actress Nancy Lee Grahn questioned if the photo was a joke. “I’m hoping this is not true. It can’t be. No one could be this stupid,” she wrote on Twitter.

In a statement, a spokeswoman for the actors’ union said that Ms. Drescher was working as a “brand ambassador” for Dolce and Gabbana, and that the commitment was “fully known to the negotiating committee.” Mr. Crabtree-Ireland called criticism of Ms. Drescher’s appearance at the fashion show “outrageous” and “despicable.”

Ms. Drescher addressed the issue at the news conference on Thursday. “It was absolute work,” she said, adding that she continued to communicate with negotiators from abroad. “I was in hair and makeup three hours a day, walking in heels on cobblestones. Doing things like that, which is work. Not fun.”

While Mr. Crabtree-Ireland spoke at the news conference from a teleprompter, Ms. Drescher spoke off the cuff.

“Wake up and smell the coffee,” she said of the studios. “We demand respect! You cannot exist without us!”

“They stand on the wrong side of history at this very moment,” she continued, pointing her finger forcefully toward the camera banks. “We stand in solidarity in unprecedented unity. Our union, our sister unions, and the unions around the world, are standing by us.”

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