No ‘Oy’ in His Italy

Basta with the pasta, Michele; what about the bagels?

"Ah, the bagels," and Michael Tucker lets out a whisper of wonder, letting on he's a man who's known a good bialy in his life.

"Making bagels in a 400-year-old Italian oven. That's a great idea! It'll be the first bagel in that oven. Let's do it!"

Why not? He's done about everything else: Actor, author, chef, raconteur — racking up year after year of a happy marriage to actress Jill Eikenberry …

He's doing it all while getting away from it all; Michael Tucker may very well be the Lithuanian Jewish Ponce de Leon.

"It's absolutely healthier, especially in terms of stress," relates the low-key Tucker in the high key of accomplishment that comes from running away to the circus at age 60 — when that circus is more Fellini than Clyde Beatty.

Michael and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of … wisdom … and back they came with buckets of baciole and bruschetta as their crowning achievement.

Ah, put that bongiorno in your bonnet; the good life is called that for a reason. No "oy" in his Italy: Tucker writes all about it in Living in a Foreign Language, a delicious dialogue of dishes, drinks and diamond-encrusted landscapes that make living in Italy a roamin' holiday.

It's all about taking umbrage in Umbria, about how the two tucked in their hectic active acting lives for a breather in Italy and wound up romanced by a rustico, seduced by sauces, grappling with grappa — and intoxicated by it all.

He'd even broken the old L.A. Law: Do not covet the fattening! It's easy to be a lawbreaker when the pasta breaks bountifully into a bowl greased with olive oil so drippingly virginal it would make Madonna blush.

But then doing it for the very first time — escaping the "let's do lunch" mishugas for the "let's create a feast of a three-hour lunch" mantra — is what it's all about.

And Tucker — answering to the shout-outs of "Author! Author!" and "Auteur! Auteur!" (he and Eikenberry have produced a documentary on another subject) after decades of "Actor! Actor!" — is musica to the years.

"We're going back in August," he says almost reverentially in reference to their 400-year-old rustico, subsidized and sustained by centuries of sentient living, much expanded since they first purchased it on almost a whim.

But whimsy isn't flimsy; this is a substantial dream they've subscribed to, not losing any sleep over a decision to jettison the jet-style life of Hollywood-a-go-go to go it easier by letting go of the more hollow aspects of life, replacing Hollywood and Vine with holy oaks and vines.

And if the glass is half-full, at least it's with the liquid gold of a good cabernet splashing at the rim of a life that's become a cabaret for the couple in what can only be called Michael's Vineyards.

"We've grown closer as a family, too," he says of Jill and their children adapting "the Italian family-style closeness" that comes from old-style soirees of siblings and relatives more meat ball than snotty social ball.

Not that Tucker's about to jettison those Jewish roots of which he's so proud.

Okay, so the feasts he describes are more pig-outs than pesadic, and the sausage such it would make a kosher butcher cry not kvell, but the much-honored actor honors his heritage every day, reflecting how "Jewish and Italian families are very similar in so many ways."

Of course, not everyone's believed him.

"The first time I went to Italy was to appear in a film directed by Lina Wertmuller," he relates of the fiery film legend, "who insisted I was Italian.

" 'But,' 'I told her, 'my grandparents were Jews from Lithuania.' "

" 'No,' she said, 'they lied to you.' "

Certainly, being Jewish lies at the base of Tucker's understanding of Italian passions. Essen … mangia … food as freilach?

"There are wonderful Italian Jewish recipes," he's discovered, "and a terrific Jewish restaurant in Rome," which he also discovered.

"And let's not forget the Jerusalem artichoke."

But while he's had thousands of years of history to stomach, Tucker kibbitzes and concedes, when it comes to noshing, "I'm self-taught."

Fresh Food, Less Weight
And while his book oozes with oodles of la dolce vita — this is no sybarite-lite — Tucker knows it's vital to waist not.

"I do go to the palestra," he says of Italy's version of the gym, "and all I eat is this wonderful fresh food, which puts on less weight," he says of his totally "nonmedical theory."

It's one that's easy to stomach as Tucker need not tuck it in; his stomach is as flat as a flatbread, belying the notion of no gut, no glory.

In a way, he says, getting a new life is also a glorious way of giving back, tzedakah for the totskeles — although his kids are way beyond shayna punim-cheek-pinching age. "In a way, I'm giving back by offering them a calm life."

Not that all has been peace and quite; more a quiet riot of accomplishments.

Eikenberry, his real and reel co-star on many a project in film and TV, has been in demand for New York theater, while the two of them have produced "Emile Norman: By His Own Design," a well-fashioned documentary about the artist, which received acclaim at varied film festivals. They also have entered another stage of their dual while not dueling lives: "Life is a Duet," a two-hander getting their hands-on attention in which the story of the "Tuckenberrys" is told through song and film clips.

"And the world said, 'They sing?' " and Tucker chuckles at the stir their show may have caused when it first came out.

But sing they do — for their Italian suppers and American appetisers, too: "Jill's a wonderful singer."

And him? "It's another kind of letting go for me; it's very therapeutic."

It's not the same old song; they've had distinctive careers together and apart with a plethora of play and TV/film projects, from Broadway to the broader venues of lecture halls. But one project they shared was a lesson they would rather life had not scripted for them: dealing with Jill's breast cancer, discovered right after their first success with "L.A. Law" in 1986.

It is a story they've told — and been eager to retell — in lectures and programs throughout the country. It's a lecture of hope and a warning of danger from warm-hearted people about a Hydra-headed disease.

And now, Tucker and Eikenberry warm up to the thoughts of returning to Italy and their home, where they let the good thymes roll. "Italy is a lot of things for us — extraordinary people, friends with an appetite for life. And, as you get older, and realize life is more finite, you want to partake of that appetite."

Which may explain why Tucker's Living in a Foreign Language is a success — a meal of memories and mitzvot that, like any good dish, leaves you hungering for more. 



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