On ‘The Nanny,’ Lauren Lane was the WASPy foil to Fran Drescher's character. When the show finished, she left Hollywood entirely
There are certain shows, particularly older shows like “The Golden Girls” and “The Office,” that function almost like gif factories. A personal favorite: The shocked face of “The Nanny’s” buttoned up C.C. Babcock turning to the camera with her eyes wide in horror, as if to say, “
C.C. is the kind of supporting character who doesn’t get talked about as much when the conversation turns to “The Nanny,” which originally ran on CBS from 1993-1999. Played by Lauren Lane, C.C. rarely got to deliver a punchline — she was the punchline.
The sitcom recently joined the world of streaming earlier this month on HBO Max, and that ease of access has meant watching the show through new eyes. For me, anyway. It’s so easy to be dazzled, legitimately, by Fran Drescher’s flashy girl from Flushing. It’s a wonderfully confident damn-the-torpedoes performance (and wardrobe), and her cheeky repartee with Charles Shaughnessy’s “Mista Sheffield,” as Fran likes to call him, is a big part of the show’s draw.
But comedy is about contrasts. And that’s what C.C. brings to the table. With her Hitchcock blonde looks and blatant lack of warmth, she’s an Upper East Side snob who doesn’t bother to remember the kids’ names. Even her own dog hates her! She is the perfect foil who alternates between straight man and butt of the joke. To paraphrase the theme song, if Fran is the lady in red when everybody else is wearing tan, C.C. is the living embodiment of the color beige.
After the “The Nanny,” Lane’s TV and film credits pretty much stopped. I reached out to her, curious what she’s been up to in the years since. “I didn’t even know we would be running on HBO Max until maybe three weeks ago,” she said. “Nobody told me! But I’ve been shocked at the interest. It surprises me. It’s delightful, I’m not complaining. I’m just surprised. It shows me, wow, this meant something to people that I didn’t quite realize.”
I have a theory about that renewed interest. It’s not just that “The Nanny” is a good show (the writing is legitimately funny) but it’s also because that style of frothy screwball farce from the '90s (“Frasier” is another one) doesn’t exist much anymore. I think people crave it, especially as single-camera comedies abound.
The show was Lane’s third major role in Hollywood, and hers is a career that took off fairly quickly once she moved to Los Angeles.
A native of Arlington, Texas, she performed in just a single school play her senior year of high school, but knew this was what she wanted to do. “There was a novel called ‘Jeremy’ and Robby Benson played the character in the movie, so his picture was on the cover of the book. I would go to my room, read the book and then act out the story. I was doing that at 13 or 14. So where did that come from? I don’t know. But I loved it.”
She would eventually attend graduate school at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco (fellow alumni include Annette Bening and Benjamin Bratt, who were a few classes ahead of her). While she was there, she was in a production of “Uncle Vanya” and a rep from NBC “came up, saw the show and offered me a development deal,” Lane said. “I was $65,000 in debt to this acting school, so hell yeah I accepted that deal. And the first thing they set me up for was replacing the female lead on this detective show called ‘Hunter,’ starring Fred Dryer.” That was in 1990 and it would be the show’s final’s season.
“I’m not afraid to tell you, I had no idea what I was doing. ATC was traditional classical theatrical training, but zero on-camera work. So the hilarity of, my God — I didn’t know anything and I’m suddenly a lead on this detective show. It was overwhelming for me. I’m really terrible in it, in my opinion.”
The following season she booked a recurring role on “L.A. Law,” playing a TV news anchor who attempts to seduce Corbin Bernsen’s Lothario lawyer. And then “The Nanny” came a year later.
It wasn’t an ensemble comedy as Lane had hoped (the show was created as a star vehicle by Drescher and her then-husband Peter Marc Jacobson) but Lane liked her co-workers (she and Daniel Davis, who played Niles the butler, were good friends before getting cast on the show together) and it was a fun gig, even if playing the punchline got old.
“Danny was so good at those dry line readings,” said Lane, “and C.C. was just getting eviscerated every single week. So it was maybe season three, I went to the producers and writers and said, ‘Listen, it’s not going to be fun anymore if we just see her getting beat up. Is there some way you can add in some aspect of — she doesn’t have to win, she can still lose, but maybe she sees it coming a little better?’ So they actually started to play with the writing, which presages us (C.C. and Niles) getting married in that final season, which is crazy. It is pretty funny that she ended up with this butler, even if it’s not believable.”
Fran’s clothing was always a standout factor on the show and “there might have been a part of me that wanted some of those fabulous outfits they put her in,” Lane said. “I must say, Brenda Cooper, who designed the costumes, is a genius. She’s the only one of us that won an Emmy and she deserved it. I’m so much smarter now that I’m older, but at the time I didn’t always realize and appreciate how beautiful she made me look.”
The show was a hit. But even so, “I never thought, oh I’m going to take myself out on the town and enjoy this celebrity,” Lane said. “It didn’t hit me that way. And I was also immature and scared of being famous, not that I ever really felt famous. It wasn’t comfortable for me and I never want anyone to think that I’m better than them. Anyway, Tim Robbins has a theater company in LA that’s been there for a very long time called the Actors’ Gang and I ended up becoming a company member. So I would literally spend my days rehearsing for ‘The Nanny,’ and then at night I would go do theater.”
When “The Nanny” ended after six seasons, so did Lane’s time in Hollywood.
“I was a single mom. I was 40. And I was in a town that doesn’t like women over the age of 40. This was my head space: I don’t think anything’s going to happen for me because I’m infinitely recognizable from this show that was on for a long time. They don’t want to hire you for a while because everyone knows you as C.C. And I knew I was going to be feeling all those negative things women are made to feel, in Los Angeles especially. So I got the hell out of Dodge.” She moved back to Texas and started teaching at the university level, where she is currently an associate professor in the department of theater and dance at Texas State.
“To be real with you, if I had known, just stick it out and you’ll get a ‘Designing Women,’ or you’ll get a film, I would have stayed. But that wasn’t what I saw ahead and I just didn’t think I could fight all those forces. So I didn’t. I left. It was a really scary decision. I wouldn’t say I regret it. I just felt that too many forces were stacked against me and that would break my heart. I’ve had a whole second career, out of necessity really, and I still do loads of theater. If I’d had just a little more security? I probably would have stayed because it was what I loved. But I’m at an age now where most actresses by this time have had to give up, unless they’re super famous, because there’s not enough work.”
If any TV or film opportunities do arise as a result of the show’s comeback, Lane would be interested. She’s still acting. Up next, she’s performing in “Block Association Project,” a play featured in this year’s Humana Festival of new plays later this month. The premise: A fractious neighborhood block association meets over Zoom. That the play will be performed over Zoom only adds to the verisimilitude.
It’s a funny thing, now that “The Nanny” is returning, this time via streaming. Previously the show was in reruns on Nick at Nite for most of the two decades Lane has spent in academia.
“Kids would come into class and lose their minds and say stuff like, ‘I used to go to bed with you every night.’ And then, for whatever reason, they pulled it and it wasn’t on for five or six years.
“Now that it’s on HBO Max is a whole other kettle of fish. I don’t know what to expect.”