From Actor to Novelist
Michael Tucker doesn't flinch when I mistakenly call him Stuart. He's used to it. After all, he played the indelibly wonderful Stuart Markowitz for eight seasons on the landmark TV series L.A. Law -- a role that earned him multiple Emmy and Golden Globe nominations.
The character, created by producer Steven Bochco just for Tucker, resembled Tucker in many ways. The short and brilliant Markowitz was pugnacious, but also had a tender and funny side, which helped win him the love of tough lawyer Ann Kelsey, played by Tucker's real-life wife, Jill Eikenberry.
Now the veteran actor has turned his observational skills to a different creative medium: novels. His debut work of fiction, After Annie, is a funny, poignant and sharply nuanced tale about Herbie, a New York actor going off the rails after the death of his actress wife, and battling through a middle-aged wilderness he never imagined facing alone. In his efforts to stay afloat, he draws in some wonderful female characters: Olive, a beautiful, tough-talking bartender; Candy, his neurotic daughter; and Billy, a female golf pro who teaches Herbie more about his psyche than about his lousy swing.
Book review site Booklist praised the new book, saying, "With an acerbic, sarcastic bite and a depth of honesty rare in most first novels, After Annie is a refreshing, heartwarming, and introspective read."
Tucker also has three nonfiction books to his credit: I Never Forget a Meal: An Indulgent Reminiscence is part memoir, part cookbook. Living in a Foreign Language chronicles his experience with Eikenberry as homeowners in the Italian countryside. His third book, Family Meals, is an acclaimed food memoir. In addition to L.A. Law, his film credits include Woody Allen's Radio Days and The Purple Rose of Cairo, Diner, Tin Men, An Unmarried Woman, The Eyes of Laura Mars, Network, and For Love or Money.
Tucker sat down with me while he was in town recently to promote After Annie. Here's what he had to say.
SA: You told the Baltimore Sun that writing suits you better than acting, because you can control how things came out. Why is that important to you?
MT: I don't mind people writing lines for me -- that's what acting is. But what I didn't like was what happened in the editing process for TV and film. They would edit out all the pauses and make me seem like a bad actor. Writing also just suits me -- I like working on my own.
SA: Of the different creative fields you've been in, which do you find the most fulfilling?
MT: Writing. It is the most fulfilling thing I've ever done. I really love it. I write every day.
SA: What are you working on now?
MT: More fiction -- my kind of fiction, which draws a lot of life into it. It began as a 21-page harangue, and then it became a play, which I had no desire to do because then I'd be back in the world of collaborative work. And I started to write, and then I realized I could make it a novel.
SA: Some writers say they start with one scene. I wonder if for you it was the scene of leaving Annie's bedside and going in search of a bar?
MT: Yes, that was the scene that stuck in my head. She is on a morphine drip, in her last days, and I go searching for a bar. And I couldn't get it out of my mind. And he sees a couple of snowflakes falling and says, "it's too cold to snow." He is hurting, but he makes hurting look cool. And the more I thought about it, I decided, I really like this guy.
SA: Have you thought about a sequel?
MT: I had not thought about it, but it's not out of the realm of possibility. I really fell in love with these characters.
SA: Or maybe a nice indie film?
MT: That would be great. Or a book on tape. I would like to do that book myself.
SA: I understand it was hard to get this book published, compared to your first two.
MT: They said, "You're a nonfiction writer. We love your nonfiction." My agent spent a year sending it out and getting rejected. They couldn't figure out what shelf to put it on. Isn't that their job?
SA: Was it difficult to make the leap from nonfiction to fiction?
MT: It was actually a real joy. I discovered I could exaggerate, emphasize certain things, and make other things up completely. When I wrote the book about our time in Italy, I wrote extensively about this huge pizza party we had. And a friend of mine read it and said, "You know, I loved the book, but I wasn't at that party." And I said, "Well, now you were." [laughs]
SA: Do you think that having read scripts over the years has given you insights into writing great dialogue?
MT: I think there is a really strong connection between writing dialogue and acting. When I act, if I'm doing a Shakespeare play, for example, and the way he speaks is foreign to me at first, I really work on it. Once I understand the way he speaks, it's how I find my way into his character.
SA: Your own marriage parallels Herbie's -- a longtime celebrity marriage between actors. And Jill has had two bouts with breast cancer. Is this your way of imagining what life will be like without Jill?
MT: Yes, that's exactly what it was like. She had this recurrence a few years ago, she's fine now, but it was terribly stressful, as you might imagine. So I started writing, which was very therapeutic.
SA: How did she react when you told her this was based on her?
MT: Well, it goes like this: I didn't tell her what I was writing at first. Then I got to the point where it was Annie's death, and I said I've got to talk to you. I said I'm writing a book about a guy like me who's married to a girl like you, and she dies. So I want you to read it and tell me what you think. She did, and she said it's wonderful -- do it.
SA: That's a supportive wife.
MT: I asked her if that meant I had her permission and she said absolutely.
SA: Was she worried people would think she'd died?
MT: Yes, in fact she's been at every reading so far saying, "Hello, I'm not dead!" [laughs] She knows how she inspired this book. The character of Olive is the Jill that was, and Annie is the Jill that is now.
SA: Herbie and Annie obviously had a wonderful marriage. I was struck by the importance of being with someone you really just love talking to, as you get older, because sex will fade but conversation will increase. Is that your experience?
MT: Well, the sex hasn't faded. [laughs] We are very close, and we talk constantly. That is certainly very important.
SA: Any tips on how to have a happy middle age?
MT: Here's the secret: Don't try to be old when you're young, don't try to be young when you're old. Just be who you are and find a partner you can talk to.
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