ARCHIVE: On Cooking with Tuckerberrys

DownloadedFileBy TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit December 3, 2009)

Sometimes it’s best to get out your elephant gun and take care of the elephant in the living room before it goes rogue.

So it goes with Jill Eikenberry & Michael Tucker, two actors who will forever be linked to their most famous roles — as the somewhat nebbishy Stuart Markowitz and the elegant legal eagle Ann Kelsey in the long-running network TV ensemble drama L.A. Law. A glittering artifact from the era of Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere and ER — in other words, the last golden age of the broadcasters before the cable shows started netting all the Emmys — the Steven Bochco-created show was a team machine with a writerly bias and a generous format that allowed everyone on the bench a chance to shine. There wasn’t an actor in it who didn’t look like they realized that these were the best years of their lives, too, and it remains the kind of project that a body could still be proud of, long after the umpteen-thousandth fanatic approaches with a Sharpie and a carefully preserved TV Guide.

Jill and Michael — or the Tuckerberrys, as the long-running married couple have come to call themselves — didn’t seem to mind spending a few minutes arguing the fine points of the Law with us. They agree that it’s a great icebreaker for the many subsequent projects that they’ve been involved with — and they weren’t about to deny this correspondent the chance to ask the question that’s nagged at him all these years: just what was the deal with how they bumped off Rosalynd Shays in season 5 (evidently it was as much of a shock to the cast as to the viewers)?

A reunion TV movie notwithstanding, the seemingly mismatched twosome with the Sonny-to-Cher height disparity have left L.A. Law — and, for that matter, L.A. — far behind. They’ve relo’d to Manhattan, have jumped back into stage work (including many performances of Love Letters), have produced documentaries for public television, have toured as motivational speakers, and have become recognized as authorities on topics ranging from the actor’s craft to successful relationships, to food and travel and just enjoying life in general.

Along the way, they’ve also become authors — or rather, Michael has authored a series of engagingly written accounts of their personal adventures, with Jill a full and willing participant in the intense promotion of said books; a catalog that includes I Never Forget a Meal (a foodie’s memoir of a lifelong love affair) and Living in a Foreign Language (a diary of the couple’s move to a second home in the Italian countryside).

On Sunday, December 6, the Tuckerberrys visit the Ruth Hyman Jewish Community Center of Monmouth in Ocean Township to host a reception and talk about Michael’s newest book, Family Meals. It’s a title that sounds like it fits right into that good-life oeuvre, until you examine its subtitle: Coming Together to Care for an Aging Parent. It’s the story of how a far-flung clan of big-city Americans (including grownup kids Alison and Max) becomes, in Tucker’s words, “more Italian” as they draw closer to care for Jill’s mother Lora, when the widowed grandmother begins a rapid decline into dementia.

If that sounds like a bit of a downer, rest assured that it’s more of a celebration — an uplifting story told with Michael Tucker’s trademark breezy style, and as palatable a point of access you’ll find to a subject nobody wants to think about. Red Bank oRBit had the pleasure of spending some time with the Tuckerberrys on the phone; following is what we talked about when we didn’t mention the elephant.

RED BANK ORBIT: Okay, let’s talk about the new book. It’s credited to Michael, but the two of you have been going out on the road and working hard to promote it — plus you’re both on the cover!

MICHAEL TUCKER: This is really Jill’s story — we decided, in order to save the marriage, that I would write it. I wrote, and she criticized. It worked out beautifully.

JILL EIKENBERRY: Michael’s really the writer in the family, and in this case I was just too close to the story — I didn’t have the perspective that he has.

So what can we expect to experience at your appearance this weekend? Is it one of those presentations I’ve heard about in which you guys do a little singing and cooking, and “passing out tasty morsels at the end?”

MICHAEL: No, no onstage cooking this time. It’ll be about 35 to 40 minutes, with a Q&A, about Family Meals. We just came off a tour of thirteen, fourteen cities in November. And we’ll be going to Italy in January! We didn’t get to go for almost a year!

JILL: Michael was pulling for us to have this semi-retirement in Italy — but you can’t plan too much, as they say.

Fill us in, if you could, on the circumstances that kept you from returning to Italy, and resulted in the new book that you’ll be discussing.

MICHAEL: We had bought a house in Italy, and our dream was to pursue this wonderful plan of semi-retirement, where we’d do stage work for part of the year, then spend the rest of our time in Italy making olive oil, and cooking in our 400 year old oven.

Then when Jill’s mother’s second husband died, and she plunged into dementia, her own happy retirement plan — where she’d be living out her days in a beautiful community in Santa Barbara — had to be put aside.

We realized that we had to move her to New York, but the senior residential center we had wanted to move her to was a disaster. Then a small apartment came up for rent right across from us in our building. We hired an aide and set up a nursing home right across the way.

Then our daughter, who’s a caterer and a chef, decided that she’d be moving to New York. She asked us, “Who’s doing Grandma’s food?” and we said, “You’re hired!”

Our daughter actually moved into an apartment with our son — so this family, which had been dispersed all over the place like a modern American family, suddenly became very Italian, in response to this crisis within the family.

JILL: It’s the Italian model — when our people fail, we send them away. But in Italy — you don’t really see street people in Italy.

MICHAEL: The legal unit in Italy is the family, and in America it’s the individual. In Italy, for example, you can’t disinherit your children.

I understand the significance of the title, but given your previous writings, was there some debate as to whether it might be mistaken for a cookbook?

MICHAEL: Cookbooks sell very well! But Family Meals was my original title — then long after it was finished we were kicking around other names, but the publisher wanted this one.

JILL: Michael has this reputation as a foodie — but meals are still very pertinent to the story.

The firm portrait: Tucker and Eikenberry, at left in an ensemble photo with the cast from L.A. LAW — and on the cover of the TV Guide, back when that really stood for something.

MICHAEL: My problem is that it makes it sound solemn, but there’s a lot of healthy cynicism involved.

JILL: It’s not a tragedy book at all. Mike’s a very funny writer, and of course there’s a lot of food in it.

From what I gather it’s kind of an unusual book; certainly an unusual approach to a topic that’s either presented in a clinical fashion or in an extremely sentimental way. If it’s even being talked about at all.

JILL: One of the things we learned, and that the book tries to put across, is that there are people who can help you. The idea that we can do it all ourselves is crazy. The caretaker told me, your job is to be the daughter — if you try to be the caretaker, you can’t be a good daughter.

MICHAEL: Detachment is important. Marcia, the aide who takes care of Jill’s mother Lora, didn’t know Lora the intellectual.

JILL: Marcia calls her Lolo rather than Lora, as if to reinforce that this is a different person, or a different side to the same person.

Does your mother still know you as her daughter? How would you describe your relationship with her these days?

JILL: My relationship with my mother is now in its final chapter, and it’s a warm and loving one. She calls me Lois, which is the name of her favorite sister. Her two nannies she calls ‘Ethel’ — the name of her other sister — and ‘Mother.’ So it’s like she’s surrounded herself with the people who were closest to her. It’s helped me in turn love who she is now, and not be so disappointed that she’s no longer who she once was.

She’s aphasic now; having a hard time getting across what she wants to say, and she was always hard of hearing, so she would just talk a lot rather than engage in intimacy. She was never one for hugging.

Do you look at the person she’s become and think that this is still the parent you’ve always known, but just showing a different side of herself?

JILL: There’s a sweet little girl aspect to her now, with her stuffed animals — it’s like once she let go of trying to hold on and be the person she always was to her family, she was able to relax and show a side that she’d kept under wraps. She seems happy now, and at peace.