His family is tied to royalty, but acting was where his heart led. The Nanny's Charles Shaughnessy reveals a family background that even the blue collar girl in a blue blood world could only dream about . . . Charles Shaughnessy, 43, shakes his head slightly, almost as if he doesn't believe it himself, when asked about his family background.
The British actor found sitcom fame as The Nanny's wealthy Maxwell Sheffield. But Charles is also a Cambridge-educated lawyer, whose father grew up as part of King Edward VIII's royal court. "It's actually pretty colorful," says the casually dressed Charles, relaxing in his dressing room after a day's dress rehearsals with the star of The Nanny, Fran Drescher.
Charles describes his father's side of the family as "classic Irish-American immigrants." His great grandfather, T. G. Shaughnessy went to work on the railroads in Milwaukee in the 1840's, but wound up being lured north to Canada, where he moved through the ranks and became president of Canadian Pacific Railways. "He became a kind of great man of Canada, and he was made Baron Shaughnessy," Charles says. Charles' grandfather was killed in World War I, just a week before the birth of his son. "So my dad never knew his father," Charles says.
"His mother remarried and he was brought up by a stepfather, who took the whole family back to England to live. The stepfather was an equerry to the Prince of Wales, who later became Edward VIII, so my dad grew up at court. They lived in this very rarefied atmosphere in St. James's Palace and they had rooms at Windsor Castle and they followed the royal family around.
"There is still a peerage in the family Uncle Billy is the current Lord Shaughnessy. I think there are about three or four people I would have to poison before it came to me, but there's no money, no estates, no castle or anything, so it wouldn't do me much good anyway."
Alfred Shaughnessy, Charles' father, was to make his name in show business, however, not the royal court. "I find this fascinating because he had this double life," Charles says. "He grew up in this aristocratic world of the court and the royal family and went to Eton. "Most children of that ilk join the civil service or become consuls in some far-flung Empire territory, but my dad went into the theatre, which is not what you did in those days if you were an aristocrat."
Alfred Shaughnessy became the principal writer and script editor on one of Britain's most beloved TV series, Upstairs, Downstairs, and is still writing novels. "Because he went to Eton, he sent me to Eton," Charles explains. "It was a great school but, at the same time, there were all these actors and theatrical people hanging around and they would come to our house every so often.
"We had these crazy parties at home where everyone let their hair down and us kids were allowed to stay up until the early hours of the morning, and it was wonderful!" "So I grew up in two worlds. . . I had my friends from Eton, who were all going into the stock market, and then I had this other side of life, which was the actors and the bohemians."
When it came time to make a choice about his own career, Charles decided he "had better do something sensible," so he went to Cambridge University to study law. "I thought, 'We can't all be penniless bohemians, so I'll be the Lord Chief Justice and make pots of money," he says. "So I went to Cambridge, got my degree and left. . . I realized the last thing in the world I wanted to be was a lawyer. What I really wanted was to be an actor."
So Charles went back to school this time to London's Central School of Speech and Drama a move which proved fortuitous in more ways than one. Not only did it set him on the path to international fame as a television star, but he plucked up the courage to ask one of the foreign students, an American named Susan Fallender, to go out with him. When they finished their studies, he went to work in repertory theatre around England, and she returned to her home in California.
"We kind of kept in touch over the Atlantic," Charles says, "and in time, it became clear that we really wanted to be together, so I called her up and proposed." She said, "Fine, do you want to come here or shall I come and live in England?" It was pouring with rain at the time, so I said, "What's the weather like there?" She said, "It's great, I've been at the beach." I said, "No contest, I'll be there next month."
Charles and Susan married in 1983, and now share a beautifully renovated home near the beach in Santa Monica, California, with their daughters, Jenny, 8, and Madelyn, 3. "It's just been terrific," he says. "It's amazing how it all works out."
During his first year in the U.S., Charles landed a three-day job on the long-running soap, Days of Our Lives. After returning for a few more short stints, he was offered a contract and spent the next eight years playing Shane Donovan, half of a "soap super couple" with actress Patsy Pease as Kimberly Brady Donovan.
"It was strange, but very exciting," he says. "You'd go around the country to various public events and be mobbed. The people who follow those shows are rabid. They know every detail about you. They know what you eat, where you live, and it can get scary. It was a great job, but I have to say I don't miss that world."
After leaving Days of Our Lives in 1992, Charles guest-starred in episodes of series such as Murphy Brown and Mad About You. Then he was sent along to audition for a pilot, opposite Fran Drescher, an actress of whom he was aware as "a kind of icon" from the 1984 rock 'n' roll documentary parody, This Is Spinal Tap. "We read together and it seemed to be a pretty good match, so that was that," Charles says. "But nobody knew it was going to turn into this." Fran and her estranged husband, Peter Marc Jacobson, are co-creators and executive producers of The Nanny.
Though Nanny Fine and Maxwell Sheffield are now married on the show, Charles says he and Fran do not see one another much socially. "We all get on well here, but then everyone has a very different life to lead. I rush home to my kids and we do their homework and that sort of stuff and walk the dogs. Fran goes off and does all the other projects she's got happening and sees her friends.
"People watch the show and they say, 'It looks like a blast. You must have so much fun', and that's the idea - to make it look like a lot of fun. I can't imagine a better job, I mean, I can have almost a full life with my family and be handsomely rewarded for doing the show. It spoils you.' "When this ends and I have to go back out and look for something else, it's going to be very hard, because I can't imagine anything else being as pleasant as this."
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