Life with Mr. Sheffield was never like this.
Fran Drescher ("The Nanny") returns to series television in "Happily Divorced," a new TV Land sitcom premiering Wednesday at 10:30 p.m. Loosely drawn from her real-life relationship with ex-husband Peter Marc Jacobson, the show stars Drescher as Fran, a Los Angeles florist whose life is turned upside down when Peter (John Michael Higgins), her husband of 18 years, suddenly announces he is gay.
They split, but with the real estate market cratering, Fran and Peter decide to keep sharing their home until they can sell it, which won't be happening anytime soon. That leaves each struggling comically to step into a new identity -- she as a newly single woman, he as a middle-aged gay man -- while continuing to live together.
"This show is inspired by our story, because Peter is now living as an openly gay man, but Peter and I split up before he came out," Drescher explains. "That wasn't the reason why we split up, and I was the one who ended the marriage, and he didn't want it to end. It was only after that, and ["The Nanny"] ended, and he moved 3,000 miles away and went into therapy that he started to connect with his true orientation."
Drescher had lunch with a TV Land executive who wanted her to pitch series ideas. When she tried to pitch shows that she'd write and produce but not star in, the executive asked what show would get her back in front of the cameras.
"I said, 'Oh, that's easy; that would have to be this situation that I am in right now, where I am single, my ex-husband is gay and I am dating a guy, and somehow my ex-husband helps me make the new relationship more of a success,' " Drescher recalls.
With Jacobson on board as co-writer and producing partner, the producers cast a wide net for an actor to play Peter, but Drescher was convinced Higgins was the right guy for the part. There was just one problem: Higgins had gone through a period of being typecast in gay roles after "Best in Show" and his stage success in Paul Rudnick's comedy "Jeffrey," so he wasn't eager to crawl back into that pigeonhole.
"It's been quite some time since 'Best in Show,' and when Fran called, and it looked like a good sitcom -- and I am a big fan of Fran's -- I thought, 'This will be great.' And the thing is, all my gay characters are very different, just as gay people are different in real life. But it's all about who I am working with and what kind of scripts there are. Fran's one of the greats, and we had a really good time doing the pilot."
Drescher scored a coup in landing Oscar, Emmy, Grammy and Tony winner Rita Moreno to play Dori, Fran's mother. "Rita just hit the bull's-eye," she says. "We didn't want to do a version of Sylvia from 'The Nanny.' We wanted to go in a different direction."
"Every day it's clear that she needs a lot of help, because she has no idea what she is doing. She's got no miles on those tires," he says with a mock sigh. "So what you have to do is sit her down and say, 'Rita? This is the way performers work.' But I look at her and I think: 'There's something there. Maybe it'll come out one day.' "