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
Miller, Holly G., The Saturday Evening Post
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? …