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Michael Tucker draws on family cancer crisis for new novel

Bars and ClubsColleges and UniversitiesRestaurant and Catering IndustryMichael Tucker

A man in a media dream-team marriage supports his wife during her breast cancer, then nearly buckles after her death. That's the reality-saturated plot of Michael Tucker's novel, "After Annie."

Tucker and his wife, Jill Eikenberry, became advocates for women's health during their years of TV stardom, after her first bout with breast cancer. Unlike the fictional Annie, Eikenberry survived a recurrence of the disease in 2009 — but that won't stop readers from seeing "After Annie" as a case of art echoing, if not exactly imitating, life.

In "After Annie," Tucker merges elements of himself and Eikenberry with a slew of fresh, vibrant characters — not just the lead couple, but also friends, colleagues and potential lovers.

Tucker didn't let Eikenberry see what he was writing until he'd finished the opening sections. He needn't have worried.

"When I read the first four chapters of the book," Eikenberry wrote in an email, "I was so moved ... that I forgot to worry that everyone would think I had died. But just in case — I'll be sure to show my face at all the book signings."

Eikenberry played Ann Kelsey to Tucker's Stuart Markowitz in Steven Bochco's landmark TV series, "L.A. Law," which ran from 1986 to 1994. They met when they were acting at Washington's Arena Stage in 1970 and married in 1973.

"The novel started from a real situation," Tucker said. "Jill had a recurrence of breast cancer after 23 years of being cancer-free. Everything went great. It was caught very, very early. They got it; they took it out. It didn't move anywhere; it didn't go anywhere. All the news was good. But that word 'recurrence' hit me in a hard way — and also Jill. We both kind of dealt with it, of course, but didn't really give it its full due."

When Eikenberry, like Annie, was in New York's Mount Sinai Hospital, a vignette kept running through Tucker's head. He said it was "like a continuous loop: a visual, a movie of me leaving her room. She's dying of cancer, it's 2 o'clock in the morning, and I go to find a bar."

In reality, Tucker would wander out and look for bars. And when it came time to write, he melded Michael Tucker with another wry character.

"I gave him a name: Herbie. And in the first paragraph, it was very cold, bitter, and there were a couple of snowflakes, and he said to the snowflakes, 'It's too cold to snow' — and he talked to them as if not only are they going to hear him, but they're going to do something about it. And that amused me."

It also started Tucker, at age 67, on his third line of work. After four decades of performing and a string of pungent nonfiction books, "After Annie" is his foray into fiction.

The warmth and energy of Tucker's writing — its Jewish kind of joie de vivre — doesn't surprise Bochco.

"Michael is incredibly accessible to others, and he's also accessible to himself," Bochco said. "He is very much in touch with his emotional life."

If he ended up writing about actors — well, Bochco said, "You write what you know."

And Tucker does know theater. When Herbie stumbles on an ideal golf teacher, he thinks of Tennessee Williams: "Sometimes — as Blanche DuBois famously said — there's God so quickly."

Like Herbie and DuBois, Tucker has depended on the kindness of strangers. That's what he found frustrating — and occasionally miraculous — about an actor's life. In 1981, he went up for the role of Bagel in Barry Levinson's "Diner." He and the director didn't know each other. But when Levinson told him, "It's about a group of guys out of high school who hang out at this diner in Baltimore," he couldn't believe his ears.

"My brother, who is closer to Barry's age, went to the same high school and knew all those guys," Tucker said.

He got the part.

Cut to 1984. Bochco — Tucker's best friend from the Carnegie Tech drama school (now Carnegie Mellon) — conceived an offbeat arc for his breakthrough cop series, "Hill Street Blues."

"It was our version of 'The Out-of-Towners,'" Bochco said, "with two Midwestern people who had their car stolen and wound up in an urban jungle and fell afoul of everything." Tucker and Eikenberry took these roles — "and they were great."

A couple of years later, Bochco told Tucker, "I'm writing a new show, a law show, and I want to pattern two of the characters after you and Jill." Thus were lawyers and lovers Markowitz and Kelsey born.

Following the long run of "L.A. Law," Tucker found that writing suited him better than acting.

"I was really looking to control how things came out," he said.

Even as a novelist, Tucker is sociable, not solitary. He wrote "After Annie" in what he calls "'the first-person jocular.' It's the tense that you tell a joke in: 'Two guys walk into a bar.'"

"Michael is a very outward-looking man," said Bochco. "And that doesn't mean he doesn't have a very rich and complex inner life. He does. But he needs people in his life, and camaraderie and warmth, and that is very healthy."

In "After Annie," Herbie, like Tucker, comes from Baltimore, which functions as the character's "lodestar." Tucker's father bought furs for the Hochschild-Kohn department store. His family lived off Reisterstown Road, on Primrose Avenue, until he was 11, then moved to Howard Park near Gwynn Oak Junction.

As a child, he lip-synced Al Jolson songs for his parents. He appeared in a Baltimore Actors' Theatre production of "Peter Pan." Then Jerry Levin, an English teacher at City College, introduced him to Shakespeare and groomed him for Carnegie Tech's renowned drama school.

Tucker thought he was more bourgeois than the budding artistes at the Pittsburgh college. Bochco doesn't agree.

"Michael was a character actor when he was 18 years old," Bochco said. "He was a short, stocky Jewish guy with curly hair. But when you got to know him, he not only had an incredible charm, but he was also very sexy to women."

Tucker and Eikenberry now split their time between New York and Italy. But Baltimore runs deep in this actor-turned-writer. His elder brother and his family live here.

During the first night of shooting at the diner in "Diner," Tucker said, "My dad got to watch me work on the movie. I know it meant a lot to see his son actually working in this profession that seemed to him so risky. ... This was a good night for us."

He's found himself "writing about my father again, actually. ...There's a lot of father stuff that's coming up. It's very interesting stuff."

Or it will be in the hands of Tucker, an author with a knack for making honesty entertaining.

"After Annie" (Overlook Press, $22.95) was published Thursday.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

Michael Tucker

Born: Baltimore, Feb. 6, 1945.

Education: City Collegel, Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University).

Family: Married to Jill Eikenberry; son Max; daughter Alison from his first marriage.

Awards: Three Emmy nominations and two Golden Globe nominations for "L.A. Law"; Good Guys Award from the National Women's Political Caucus for work on women's health issues.

Notable films: as actor, Woody Allen's "Radio Days" and "The Purple Rose of Cairo," Barry Levinson's "Diner" and "Tin Men," Paul Mazursky's "An Unmarried Woman," Lina Wertmuller's "A Night Full of Rain," Irvin Kershner's "The Eyes of Laura Mars," Sophie Barthes' "Cold Souls"; as co-producer (with Eikenberry), "Emile Norman: By His Own Design."

Notable theater: On Broadway, Herb Gardner's "The Goodbye People"; at Lincoln Center, Arthur Wing Pinero's "Trelawny of the Wells"; at Joe Papp's Shakespeare in the Park, "The Comedy of Errors," "The Merry Wives of Windsor" and "Measure for Measure"; regionally, Arena Stage, Long Wharf Theatre and Milwaukee Repertory Theater.

Other TV series and films: "Concealed Enemies," "Day One," "Family Law," "Law & Order," "Tracey Takes On ..."

Excerpt

He heads down to the ocean, where a lot of the cheap motel chains are lined up a block off the beach. The first one he tries is just fine — decent bed, decent shower. And there are bars of every variety in both directions. You could trip over the bars. He checks in and takes himself for a walk, looking for that good crab cake he had back in the seventies. A good crab cake is one of the glories of American cuisine, he lectures to the ocean. A bad crab cake is a crime against nature. People look at him as he passes by, but he doesn't care. Golfers and shag dancers. What makes a great crab cake, he continues, is that it should give the appearance of being only crab — nuggets of sweet, buttery, sea-salty back fin crabmeat with a shake of Old Bay seasoning mixed in for spice — and that's it. It should seem to be held together by nothing more than its own innate desire to be a perfect crab cake. Then it should be sauteed in oil with a nice dollop of lard melted in. The lard gives the oil a nice bottom. Then, just before you serve it, one more sprinkle of Old Bay on top — so that the first thing that hits your tongue wakes up your taste buds and starts your juices going. Now he's hungry. He's talked himself into lunch.

He finds a place called the Crab Shack that touts its "Famous Crab Cakes." He goes to the bar and orders two of them and a bottle of beer. His hopes are not high. The bar still smells like last night's party — that faint melange of sweat, urine, and sandals in desperate need of odor-eaters. When the plate appears he can tell immediately that the crab cakes are an abomination. Somebody took the mixture — made with God knows what — formed it into two balls and then rolled them in store-bought bread crumbs; then they deep-fried them in old, smelly oil. He cuts one open with a fork and tries a bit. it has the texture and taste of an old, rotted-out bird's nest. He drains the beer to get the taste out of his mouth and heads back to the car. He'll go to the driving range, he thinks; hit some balls. Stay in motion, Herb. Stay in motion.

From Michael Tucker's "After Annie"

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