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King and queen of torts: the Michael Tucker-Jill Eikenberry partnership has been legendary since pre-"Law" days. Now it's playing in prime time.

It's a clubby foursome: Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker, Ann Kelsey and Stuart Markowitz. "We take them home with us all the time, " Jill says of Ann and Stuart. "We're all living very comfortably with each other." Her husband, Mike, agrees, but adds a just-between-us tidbit of gossip. "We have them to dinner a lot, " he confides, "but they eat too much. "

The two couples actually are one, with four distinct personalities. Eikenberry and Tucker, married since 1973, play the attorneys Kelsey and Markowitz on the highly rated NBC drama "L.A. Law" (Thursdays, 10 p.m. E.S.T.). The irony is that in a show renowned for its not-so-subtle treatment of sex, two of the most sizzling characters are the married, 40ish Kelsey and Markowitz. She, at 5' 7 ", is sultry and stylish. He, at 5' 5 1/2 ", is pudgy in pinstripes.

If viewers are fascinated by the odd-couple dynamics of Kelsey and Markowitz, so were Eikenberry and Tucker when they were introduced to the characters three years ago. In fact, it was the promise of knowing Ann and Stuart better that made Jill and Mike relocate from their cozy apartment on New York's 89th Street to their sprawling California home. They've had no regrets.

"The biggest problem with committing to a television series is that many television characters are two-dimensional, " Mike says. "That really locks you in to a very narrow person. But these characters clearly are 360-degree people. I feel that they could be put in any situation and behave as human beings." The show's writers seem determined to find out. Ann and Stuart have coped with ego, ambition, passion, and jealousy; seduced each other at the company cocktail party; adjusted to an inter-faith marriage; endured mother-in-law problems; and experienced the trauma and joy of adopting a baby. They're forever hissing and kissing, fighting and making up. No wonder the Tuckers love the Markowitzes.

The Kelsey character also offered Jill the opportunity to break new ground. Whereas she had played an assortment of meaty roles on stage, her film credits had a certain sameness to them. Ann Kelsey was something else. "Normally, I've played the nice, quiet wife," Jill says. "Kelsey was an interesting, aggressive person who excited me."

The roles were developed for Jill and Mike by Steven Bochco, the creator of "Hill Street Blues" and a friend of Mike's since college days. The actors are quick to deny that Ann and Stuart were patterned after them, and Mike insists he and Stuart don't even look alike ("Stuart's shorter than I am"). The truth is that Ann and Jill have little in common, and Stuart and Mike have even less.

"A good writer and producer understand that if you write too close to a person it will be harder for the person to play the role," Mike explains. "Ann Kelsey is the opposite of Jill. She's much more strident and aggressive. If Steve had cast a strident, aggressive actress, Ann Kelsey would have lost a full range of emotions that she now has."

Jill says the same holds true of Mike's role: "The character of Stuart started out very shy and insecure about women and about himself in public. All this is quite the opposite of Mike, who is extremely socially adept. Having the opposite in there makes Stuart more interesting and more three-dimensional."

Eikenberry and Tucker slip in and out of their characters with ease. They delight in dissecting their roles and in creating scenarios to see what Ann would do under this set of circumstances or how Stuart would react to that kind of predicament. They take scripts home with them and rehearse dialogue first one way and then another. They frequently play "what if" games to add depth to the characters of the hard-charging Kelsey and her gentle foil, Markowitz.

"We're constantly talking to each other about the characters," Mike says. "We try to look for some kind of angular approach to the moment or to the scene. We can see clearly what the writers' intention was; then we say, What if Ann and Stuart had had an argument this morning? How would that color the scene?' Or, What if they had had a wonderful night of making love? How would that color the scene?' Maybe Ann's mother just called; how would that affect the moment?' We're always looking for a more interesting approach, a more interesting runway into a scene."

Such cerebral exercises probably stem from the couple's years of formal drama training. Eikenberry and Tucker are no overnight successes. She didn't ascend to star status by way of a beauty contest (she's pretty enough); neither did he enter the theater through the back door of, say, a sports career (his golf game isn't that good). Jill, who grew up in the Midwest, studied anthropology at Barnard College in New York before being accepted at the Yale Drama School. Michael, born in Baltimore, is a graduate of Carnegie Tech Drama School, where he performed in more than 40 plays. They met in Washington, D.C., when both were playing at the Arena Stage. The chemistry was instant, and by the time they headed for New York City a year and a half later, they were traveling in tandem. They credit the ups and downs of those early theater experiences with preparing them for the success that would come later.

"Repertory theater is where we both got our feet under us," Mike says. "We did eight plays a year, so by the time we hit the ground in New York we felt we could act. It must be a terrifying feeling for young people not to know if they can crack into what everyone calls the big time.' "

Even for a couple of veterans with their feet squarely on the ground, the "big time" can be elusive. During one dry spell Mike abandoned acting altogether to write speeches for corporate executives and sketches for trade shows. Luckily, Jill's career spurted ahead and Mike was able to get back to show business after six months. Today they recall the lean years as being romantic, a period when their close family relationship-Mike's daughter, Alison, has always lived with them-was forged. They laughed a lot and spent a good deal of time boosting each other's ego when success was lopsided one way or another, and they stretched their talents by doing everything from playing Shakespeare in the Park to singing in the chorus of a short-lived offBroadway musical. Their resumes grew and so did their list of contacts. Mike played opposite Meryl Streep on Broadway and Faye Dunaway on film. Jill was directed by Dustin Hoffman on stage and cast as Dudley Moore's jilted fiancee in the movie Arthur.

Before long, their working days far outnumbered their hiatuses. The two weren't exactly household names, but their faces and voices were everywhere. Mike copped a couple of plum roles in Woody Allen's Radio Days and The Purple Rose of Cairo. Jill appeared in the CBS miniseries Kane & Abel. Slack time was filled with short-term assignments for commercial voice-overs.

Still, the ups and downs of the early years had left their mark. "We're extremely conservative with money and things like that, " Mike says. "All we've ever had to trade on was whatever talent we have. Actors don't retire, you know-they figure they'll keep doing this until they're buried. I'm sure that will be true of us. Our career is a gamble all the time, so we're not interested in gambling our money once we get it."

Jill disagrees. "For the first time in our lives we're seeing a difference," she says. "We're expanding in a way we never allowed ourselves to before. It's exciting and sort of scary. We're so used to having the downs follow the ups, but we've never had an up that was quite this up and one that predicts a future more financially secure than we've ever had. So we're doing things like buying original artwork. We've done it before, but on a much smaller level. We're thinking of how to expand in ways we've always dreamed about. We're not sitting on our laurels at all, and life is more exciting right now because of that."

Two quarterhorses have been part of their expansion plan. The animals, a Christmas gift from Mike to Jill, are boarded nearby, always available for a leisurely canter through the mountains. Jill, who had owned a horse as a child, had gently hinted that because they now live away from bustling New York City, wouldn't it be nice ... ?

"What we both try to do is enrich each other's life," Mike suggests. "In a sense, we're saying, How can we make our lives better? How can we improve our values and look at life in a more broadening way?' Jill's so good at that, and I'm getting better. When we give presents to each other we try to find a way to get back to the real stuff. In a way, the decision to have the horses was similar to a decision to have a baby. Of course, a baby is much more important." He laughs. "And Jill didn't carry the horse nine months or anything like that."

It's his style to make a sharp observation, then follow it with something silly. Ask him what he admires most about Jill and he can't decide among several traits. He praises her discipline, her honesty, and her strength. Then he adds, "Of course, there's her cute little body." Given equal time, Jill applauds Mike's sense of humor, his warmth, and his willingness to take risks. "He sort of plunges ahead and says, Let's go for it,' whereas I tend to hold back and later be glad we took the chance," she says.

They continue to prop each other up in their time of success as they once did in their period of struggle. Jill insists that they talk out problems before they go to Jill, an accomplished musician, and Mike, a veteran page turner, will tackle any kind of script unless it's "boring," Mike says. In an upcoming film for CBS, he plays Leo Szilard, whose idea of splitting the atom led to the atomic bomb. Jill's documentary on breast cancer has met with such success that tapes are now available in many doctors' offices, hospitals, schools, and clinics. bed at night. Mike, who says he once had an inclination to pout, now airs grievances with gusto. "She really kicked that out of me," he says.

Jill credits Mike with helping her cope with their new fame. No longer can they anonymously zip across country to visit Alison at Fordham University or eat pasta at the neighborhood cafe' unnoticed. " I don't like to go to airports alone because I feel self-conscious that everybody is watching what I do, what I eat at the coffee shop, or whatever," she says. "The benefit of being a team is that we help each other out of any kind of situation where we feel pressured. Mike's comfortable with all of this. He doesn't feel his privacy is violated at all. So I've gotten more comfortable with it too. Besides, people are so nice; it's sort of like having a lot of friends wherever we go. Now that the show is doing so well in Europe, it's become an international thing."

Any minor irritations caused by the show's popularity are far outweighed by the freedom it ensures. Eikenberry and Tucker are free not only financially, but creatively too. Opportunities and offers are coming from every facet of the entertainment business. They now have the luxury of picking what they want, rather than grabbing what is offered. The choices they've settled on may seem odd for anyone but Jill and Mike. For instance, Jill recently narrated on tape Anne Tyler's bestseller Breathing Lessons. She tackled the three-hour, two-cassette project simply because she had never narrated a book before and she's

crazy about Anne Tyler's work. "

Another major release for Jill is in a sense a repeat of an earlier triumph. The TV documentary "Destined to Live, " first aired last October, will be shown again this spring. Jill's involvement with the hour-long project is much greater than her title of co-producer implies. The show is an in-depth look at breast cancer, and the focus is on the recovery of its victims. Jill herself experienced a malignancy three years ago (she was treated for it during the filming of the first six episodes of "L.A. Law"), and she feels an emotional attachment to the subject and to the 100 women interviewed for the documentary. Jill has had no further sign of cancer since she opted for a lumpectomy, which removed only the affected tissue rather than the entire breast.

"To tell you the truth, except for when it comes time for another mammogram or another examination, I don't feel cancer is a big part of my life now," she says. "It certainly was when I was reliving it and doing the documentary, [which) was important because it was two years after the diagnosis and I was able to resolve some things that, at the time, I was too scared to resolve. It was a kind of catharsis to bring it all back and go through it. Now I feel I've been able to get on with my life in a different way. I don't think, Oh, God, if I can just make it through five years. I don't wake up with it every morning like I used to."

Mike is equally busy with a range of projects that have him playing the scientist who conceived the atomic bomb in Day One, a CBS-TV movie, and a neurotic little guy in the upcoming Checking Out.

Two years remain on the couple's "L.A. Law" contracts, and if the show continues to dominate the ratings, Kelsey and Markowitz may be around for a long time. Jill and Mike hope so. They see their characters becoming more like themselves, and the Markowitz marriage more closely reflecting the Tucker union. It's inevitable, they say; the writers know the foursome well, and the 16-year Tucker marriage, strong since pre"Law" days, serves as a good role model for the TV newlyweds.

Jill and Mike are aware that success sometimes breeds discontent, and that money often encourages materialism. Somehow they want to prevent all that. They surround themselves with close friends, most of whom date back to drama-school days. They set aside plenty of time for Max, their seven-year-old; Mike spends hours in the kitchen (he does most of the cooking); and Jill hopes to paint again soon (she's studied art for years).

"Suddenly we're Mr. and Mrs. America and everybody knows who we are," Mike says. We're popular, we have this wonderful job, we have a great family, a lovely new house--we've got it all, you know? At this point it's a real crossroads in life. We can either go for material possessions and narrow our view, or we can step back and broaden our view. What we're trying to do almost desperately is remind each other that this is the time to broaden the view."
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Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:television program L.A. Law actors
Author:Miller, Holly G.
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Article Type:Biography
Date:Apr 1, 1989
Previous Article:Something to Bark About.
Next Article:The Young Visitor.

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