After the strikes: Fran Drescher on the outlook for labor in Hollywood

Seems there’s more to smile about now, with the actors’ strike over, and red carpets full again. But in Hollywood, it’s not quite business-as-usual. The big labor dispute is still fresh in people’s minds.

Last year, writers and actors walked off the job after contract talks with film and TV producers broke down, in a clash over such issues as compensation for streaming shows, and the use of artificial intelligence. The studios, facing strong economic headwinds and shrinking movie attendance, made some concessions early on, but for writers and actors it was not nearly enough.

For the actors, union president Fran Drescher, of the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, led the charge.

Last year on the picket line, Drescher said, “We are being systematically squeezed out of our livelihoods.”

SAG-AFTRA president Fran Drescher on the picket line last year.

CBS News

When asked if the union’s stance was unrealistic, Drescher replied, “It’s not unrealistic; it’s realistic. What the hell are we doing? Moving furniture around on the Titanic? We’re all going down unless we rescue ourselves right here and now from people that really are doing bad things to good people.”

And she said the same things to the studio heads face-to-face.

Some of the new deal was hammered out at the Screen Actors Guild headquarters in Los Angeles. Drescher pointed out her chair at the conference table: “I sat right here, day after day. And then the four CEOs across from us and their lawyers. This is really where we duked it out.”

Correspondent Tracy Smith with SAG-AFTRA president Fran Drescher. 

CBS News

In the glass-walled conference room, the two sides were physically close, but often miles apart, and at first neither side was in much of a mood to compromise.

“I mean, here are the most powerful people in Hollywood saying to me, ‘Best, last, final,'” said Drescher. “And I said, ‘I understand what those three words mean, but I’m telling you, if we don’t get this and that, it’s a deal breaker.'”

Drescher said the tone in the room was mostly civil, but that overall, negotiations were a brutal experience.  “Sometimes I would get so nauseous,” she said. “When I walked out, I would be like, ‘Oh, my God. I need to sit down. I need something cold to drink. I need to go to the ladies’ room. I need everything all at once and right away,’ because it just takes a lot out of you.”

Smith asked, “Do you think people underestimated you?”

“Yes, absolutely,” Drescher replied. “Not the people that know me very well. They know me, and they didn’t expect anything less.”

But the studio bosses? “They didn’t see me coming, no, not them.”

SAG-AFTRA president Fran Drescher.

CBS News

And after nearly four months, there was agreement on a new deal that gave union members a lot of what they were asking for, as SAG-AFTRA’s Duncan Crabtree Ireland spelled out: “The total package achieves more than one billion dollars in new wages and benefits plan funding over the term of the contract.”

In essence, the deal gives actors and writers, among others things, a brand new residual for streaming programs, and a say in how their AI-generated images will be used.

The new contract was, frankly, better than some expected. Drescher noted, “George Clooney said, ‘I would have bet my house and lost that you couldn’t have gotten this deal.'”

To be sure, the contract negotiations were a trial by fire, but Fran Drescher is no stranger to being tested.

For instance, “The Nanny,” the ’90s show that Drescher helped create, and which made her a household name, almost didn’t happen. The main sponsor felt that Drescher’s character, Fran Fine, would be more relatable to Middle America if she was not Jewish, but Italian.

Drescher, a Jewish New Yorker from Queens, held her ground: “I actually said, ‘The nanny, Fran Fine, has to be Jewish,’ because I knew that that was the world that I was most comfortable writing for and the easiest for me to play, because it was so second nature to me.”

The sponsor relented. Fran Fine was Jewish, and “The Nanny” was a hit.

Smith said, “You stuck to your guns and went with what was authentic to you?”

“Yes, exactly, because if I didn’t, and the show failed, the feeling of regret that I didn’t follow my own instincts would have tormented me for – probably still,” Drescher said.

And she’d been through even worse: In 1985 Drescher was raped during a home invasion. She forced herself to memorize her attacker’s face so she could identify him to a police sketch artist. “We captured him, just by me describing to him what was still in my head,” she said.

And after she was diagnosed with uterine cancer in 2000, she founded a women’s health movement, Cancer Schmancer.

The way Drescher sees it, the bad times helped toughen her up for the challenge of leading a union through a very public – and often very nasty – strike.

She says she was made for this moment: “Oh, without question. This was a defining moment and the amalgam of my life experience. Everything – good, bad, the worst of it, the best of it, my ego as a star, all of it – everything went into this one moment of truth. And thank God, it paid off.”

But it might not be over. The Hollywood strike of ’23 is said to have emboldened other unions to take action themselves. And when asked if her own union might strike again, Drescher wasn’t making any guarantees.

“Here’s the thing: Let’s make a deal, and we won’t have to strike. We don’t want to strike. We never want to strike. But it took them longer than it should have to realize that we meant business, and that there was, you know, a new girl in town.

“Maybe now they’ll think differently,” Drescher said. “It’s like, ‘Let’s not go through that again. Let’s just sit down and come to a meeting of the minds.’ You know, there’s ways to spend less money, folks. But don’t look in my direction.”

Smith asked, “What about your career on camera?”

“What? I’m never going to work again! There’s a blacklist with one name on it!” Drescher laughed.

But these days she’s basking in the glow of having helped the industry through a tough time, and of doing it her way.

Yet, she says she doesn’t care if she isn’t re-elected union president: “I make my case. It may not be popular. And I’ll respect that, you know, democracy is messy. I’m not a dictator. But I will stand on my ground.”

And tonight Fran Drescher will be standing on the Oscar red carpet – a small-screen star who’s found her place among the big-screen giants. 

“I’m not gonna feel like a shrinking violent ’cause I’m not in anything, ’cause I’m in everything!” she said.

You feel like, this year, you earned your spot there? “I do, I do!” she laughed. “I won’t feel inadequate. I feel adequate!”

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Story produced by John D’Amelio. Editor: Steven Tyler. 

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