From LA Law to Family Meals
A Closer Look at Michael Tucker and Jill Eikenberry
By Marla E. Schwartz
Family. We all have some notion of what this word conjures up. The meaning or definition of family is just as diverse as the type of families that exist around the world. However, the ability to thoughtfully explore this distinct yet all too familiar ideal and to be able to write a book about it is not an easy task.
Taking this deep emotional dive into the reservoir of such meaning is exactly what Michael Tucker and his wife of thirty-seven years Jill Eikenberry have done in their recent memoir, “FAMILY MEALS: Coming Together to Care for an Aging Parent” (Grove/Atlantic, $24.00). Actually, Michael wrote it and Jill thoughtfully articulated her thoughts on it thereby helping tremendously with the editing process. They recently presented and discussed the journey of their book at the Lore & Eric F. Ross Annual JCC Book Festival Luncheon in Boynton Beach at the Indian Spring Country Club to a room packed with 250 people, almost all of whom could relate to the situation of having aging parents no longer able to care for themselves.
This real-life couple’s jaunt into the celebrity realm began when they were cast as a married couple on the very successful television program “LA LAW” (1986-94) as Stuart Markowitz (tax law) and Ann Kelsey (civil law). Michael’s eight-year run on this popular NBC drama brought him three Emmy and two Golden Globe nominations. Jill earned four Emmy and two Golden Globe nominations and a Golden Globe Award.
It’s very apparent whether you’re watching Michael and Jill perform on this memorable TV program, being lucky enough to catch them on stage, or writing a book together – that they exemplify the meaning of true love. They met at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. when they appeared together in “The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail (1970)” and in a play called “Moonchildren (1971)”.
The raw reality of the natural cycle of the circumstances of the ever-changing flow of life is what’s at the heart of this story. In a nutshell, the book is about their journey as a happily married couple settling into their breathtaking 350-year-old farmhouse in the middle of Italy, with two grown children living in the U.S., Alison (a nutritionist) and Max (a musician), but on separate coasts, when Jill’s mother Lora unexpectedly becomes a widow and shortly afterwards falls into a marked state of dementia.
Generations coming together to help each other out in a time of need is something the Tuckerberry’s have artfully accomplished; and is something that others so desperately want to emulate, thus the success of their book and book tour is self-evident. The tome captures numerous family anecdotes with intimate family reveals told with an admirable blend of both grace and wit. It’s a very touching story and as far as memoirs go, it’s one of the best reads you’ll ever have and when done you’ll feel as if you’re actually a part of their family.
Michael and Jill were able to answer a few questions about their book (and other things) for us.
AROUND WELLINGTON (AW): Alzheimer’s is a devastating disease; at which point did you realize that combining your personal experiences with this disease would make a good topic for a book?
JILL EIKENBERRY (JE): First of all, I want to say that we don’t have a conclusive diagnosis of Alzheimer’s for my mom. A neurologist did some tests a number of years ago and diagnosed something called Frontal Lobe Syndrome. He said he wasn’t able to give her a definitive Alzheimer’s diagnosis at that time. As you probably know, Alzheimer’s is difficult to diagnose. My mother has advanced dementia, but dementia can be a symptom of several different diseases. Alzheimer’s is one of them. Frontal Lobe Syndrome is another one. And about the rest of the question, I should have my husband answer it because he’s the one who decided to write the book.
MICHAEL TUCKER (MT): I had finished the previous book and I was in that trough between books and I knew that I wanted to write something else and we were in the middle of this chaos with Jill’s mom and Jill was in deep denial and I was watching it and trying to be the voice of reason. I felt it was the time in our relationship that we were the least close, not because we weren’t getting along but because I couldn’t say the truth to her as she essentially asked me not to and it was very frustrating. And that’s when I began to write the book. The book really is my telling Jill’s story. In so doing I was able to understand why she didn’t want to hear the truth at that moment and in telling the reader’s about that I was able to understand it better. That was really the impetus of the book. In general, I really like to write and after a lifetime of working in collaborative art in theater and film where you’re doing someone else’s work, along with a bunch of other people, to do something of my own, that I generate, and do it by myself is extremely pleasurable to me.
I’ll tell you this one story. We used to have a house when we were living in California in Big Sur. That was our getaway place. It was a wonderful place. And we had one of the writers from LA LAW come up to visit. A guy named William Finklestein, a wonderful writer. And, I had written this one story about a childhood crab feast that I had in the Eastern Shore of Maryland and I showed it to Billy and he said ‘you should write a book’. And I did. I wrote a couple of more chapters. Each chapter was about separate times in my life that were around a great meal or a great disaster of a meal and I called the book, “I Never Forget a Meal”. It was my first book.
AW: Have you ever thought about writing a book with your daughter, perhaps based on her recipes as a nutritionist and the meals she cooks for Lora?
MT: That’s a great idea. I don’t know what I’m going to write about next. I’m in the process of finishing my first novel.
AW: Are you allowed to talk about it yet?
MT: Not too much. I haven’t shown it to anybody yet and I’m about to – and I’m very, very excited about it.
AW: I’m excited about it. Writing a novel is very difficult.
MT: It’s different – a very different process because you’re making it all up.
AW: Ah, are you really making it up?
MT: Actually, I recently spoke to someone who said there’s much more truth in a novel than there is in any memoir.
AW: How are you able to go on book tours, travel to New York and return to Italy – how do you fit this all into your schedule? It seems very complicated.
MT: That’s a very good question. Honey, how do we fit all of this into our schedule, going here, going there? You know, it’s not easy. But the thing of it is – is that we just have fun. And Jill’s just about to start rehearsals for a play in New York in an off-Broadway musical and that’ll be great and we won’t be going back to Italy until she’s done, which is in June. Hopefully, nothing else will come up that’ll keep us here so we can spend the entire summer in Italy. We just do things as they come along – there’s no schedule in our lives. We just took a two-week intensive Italian course in Rome, last time we were there, and one word that came out of it is, ‘giropagare’, which means to wander aimlessly. Wherever we go we try to make the best of it and that’s the way it goes. In fact, I saw a reading of the play Jill’s going to be in and I think it’s going to be totally terrific.
AW: Jill, can you tell me a little bit about this upcoming play?
JE: It’s a new musical based on a book by Dan Savage. He has a sexual advice column in the Village Voice and a lot of other publications around the country. He also has a radio show. He’s kind of an outrageous advice columnist. He’s also gay and he has had a partner for a number of years and this is the story of their attempt and eventual success at adopting a child. It’s a good story and I play his mother.
AW: Is his mother supportive?
JE: Yeah. He has had a tremendous relationship with his mother and she was actually on the radio show with him. I just met him last week and I really like him a lot. It’s very hard for him to watch this story unfold because he just recently lost his mother. Anyway, I’m very taken with the subject. It’s a very moving story but incredibly funny because he’s always very incredibly acerbic and ironic. He didn’t write the book or the music but he wrote the book that it’s based on.
AW: Maybe he can consider this play a love letter to his mom.
JE: Yah, exactly. And it’s going to be done at The New Group on Theatre Row.
AW: Do you know when it’s going to open?
JE: The first preview will be April 1st, it’ll open a couple of weeks later to the press and it’ll run until June 7th. The other thing I want to say is that Mike and I did a musical last year called, “Enter Laughing”, a musical based on a book by Carl Reiner. And it seems to be going to Broadway next fall. It was announced in the New York Times so we think it’s official.
AW: Let me ask you, if somebody could write a part for the two of you, in a movie or a play, do you have any idea of what type of roles you’d like to play? What would your dream role be?
JE: I don’t really think of it that way so much anymore. There are certainly a lot of wonderful roles out there that I am more likely to be able to portray, as I get older. But I like the idea that Mike was saying about the Italian word (girovagare) which allows me to see what comes along and what’s going to excite me. It’s not so much that I have an agenda on what I have to play.
AW: On a more personal note, who came up with the affectionate term ‘Tuckerberry’s’ by which you’re known?
JE: I think the guy who helped us out with our horses at our wonderful home in Big Sur dubbed our land ‘Tuckerberry Farm.’ Is that where we came up with Tuckerberry?
JE: No? Oh, I’m sorry, I’m wrong. When was it … oh — it was when we first decided to have a corporation when we came up with the name and called our land ‘Tuckerberry Farm’. But I think even Steven Bochco (co-creator, producer, writer – LA LAW) called us the Tuckerberry’s when he introduced us at a luncheon. (She laughs.) If you ask each of us the same question you’re bound to get many different answers.
In fact, Steven was a classmate of Michael’s at Carnegie-Mellon University and when it came time to cast the roles of Markowitz and Kelsey, they were his only choice to play this couple. Additionally, when the show first aired Jill was diagnosed with breast cancer and Steven was instrumental in helping them through this crisis. And once someone faces a crisis, others seem somewhat easier to bear.
Here’s wishing this lovely couple no more crises’ and many, many more FUN years of girovagare!
Check out these other books written by Michael Tucker:
I NEVER FORGET A MEAL: An Indulgent Reminiscence – Michael includes 29 of his favorite recipes in this delightful and nostalgic epicurean adventure.
LIVING IN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE: A Memoir of Food, Wine, and Love in Italy – Following the spontaneous acquisition of a 350-year-old stone cottage in the countryside of central Italy, Jill and Michael juggle the sensual pleasures and cultural challenges in their new Umbrian neighborhood.
You can get more information on their upcoming projects by going to their official website: http://www.tuckerberry.com/.
And if you’re planning a trip to NYC, don’t miss Jill’s performance in “The Kid”, based on Dan Savage’s book, “The Kid: What Happened After My Boyfriend and I Decided to Go Get Pregnant,” featuring music by Andy Monroe, a book by Michael Zam and lyrics by Jack Lechner. For tickets to this show at The New Group, 410 West 42nd Street (between Ninth & Tenth Avenue), call (212) 279-4200 and/or, visit TheNewGroup.org.
A native of Toledo, OH and a graduate of Kent State, Marla E. Schwartz has been a professional journalist since she was a teenager. She’s a Senior Writer for Miami Living Magazine, and a freelance writer for CRAVINGS South Florida in Aventura, as well as Around Wellington Magazine, Lighthouse Point Magazine, and P.A.N.D.O.R.A. An avid photographer, her images have appeared in numerous Ohio publications, as well as in Around Wellington Magazine, Lighthouse Point Magazine, Miami Living Magazine, The Miami Herald, The Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel and The Palm Beach Post. She has had numerous plays published and produced around the country. Her short play, America’s Working? was originally read at First Stage in Los Angeles and in the same city produced at the Lone Star Ensemble. It was then produced at Lynn University in Boca Raton, FL and taken to an off-Broadway playhouse by its producers Adam and Carrie Simpson. Her piece, The Lunch Time Café, was a finalist for the Heideman Award, Actors Theatre of Louisville. She has also written a handful of screenplays with one opted for production a few years ago. Feel free to contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.