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Allen Rucker - 'The Day I Woke Up Paralyzed'

One morning, life started anew for former TV producer, author and humorist Allen Rucker. “Like the day Elvis died or O.J. was acquitted,” he says, “the Tuesday you wake up paralyzed is not a day you soon forget.” His rare condition, transverse myelitis, diagnosed more than a decade ago, is one in which the immune system mistakes the spinal chord as the enemy and attacks it. While his life as a TV producer was ending, his career as an author was just taking off. ABILITY Magazine’s Chet Cooper and Gillian Friedman, MD visited him one day recently for a lively conversation.

Gillian Friedman: I saw one of your Sopranos books at the flea market the other day.

Allen Rucker: Really? Which one?

GF: The cookbook.

AR: That book still sells. That book’s an evergreen.

GF: Have you written all of the existing books about The Sopranos?

AR: I’ve done every official Sopranos book. There are three of them. I was the official chronicler of The Sopranos.

GF: How did you get involved in writing about The Sopranos?

AR: That was a very fortuitous event in my life. I went to film school at Stanford, where I met a number of lifelong friends. One of them is David Chase, the guy who created the Sopranos. He hadn’t created the Sopranos then, but he was always fascinated with mobsters. He’s a wonderful guy, and we’ve remained friends all these years. He’s known in LA as kind of a writer’s writer. He did shows like Northern Exposure and I’ll Fly Away and The Rockford Files. But they weren’t his shows. He didn’t create those shows. He’d always been a producer—showrunner is what they’re called—until he got this opportunity, relatively late in his life. He had this idea about a mob guy driven crazy by his mother, and he had to go see a shrink. That’s basically the original idea. And he got that off the ground at the same time I was doing a documentary about the mob, coincidentally.

He called me up one day and said, “Do you want to write this companion book about The Sopranos?” I said, “Sure, what’s a companion book?” (laughter) I didn’t really know what it was. He gave me a lot of latitude. That’s what began this kind of creative roll. I’ve written eight books in the last six years, and that first one was what set it off.

Chet Cooper: Can you tell me more about the books?

AR: I’ve written three books on The Sopranos. One of them was the original book called The Sopranos: A Family History, which is kind of a faux history of a faux mob family. It’s as if I found all these records of a family from some second-rate crime reporter and put them all together.

Then they came to me and said, “Do you want to do a book called The Sopranos Family Cookbook?” I said, “Sure, but I don’t know how to cook.” They said, “Don’t worry.” They got someone to write the recipes, and I wrote introductions to the recipes from the characters’ point of view. The cookbook is pure comedy. The big 300-pound guy is complaining about the cult of thinness that’s ruining American youth. (laughter) “It’s bad enough being young anyway, why do you have to make them young and thin?” That kind of thing. And that went through the roof. That was a big-selling book, a No.1-selling book. It’s a perfect combination: Eat and watch the show.

CC: How did you get started in the entertainment industry?

AR: For the first 10 years of my so-called career, I made documentaries with a group called TVTV. We created a group and made experimental documentaries using videotape. We didn’t make any money, that’s why we broke up. The programs became pretty well-known and still are shown in some dark circles of the underground today.

Through TVTV, I met Martin Mull, who was my writing partner for many years. We came up with the crazy idea called The History of White People in America. Because by God, they were doing shows about roots, about black Americans, and The Godfather was about Italian-Americans, and what about the really dull white guy in the plaid Bermuda shorts? No one’s ever done a history of him. And since we can only think back to our parents in our history, and we didn’t even know our grandparents, we thought, “Where did they come from?” “I don’t know. I think they always lived in Ohio.” (laughter) So we did this silly thing for HBO, and it led to a couple books.

CC: Did you always know you wanted to write, or did that happen over time?

AR: I think I knew that I wanted to write in high school, but it took a long, long time for it to come out. It was always a terrible struggle for me. It took me 20, 30 years to learn to write. But something told me that’s what I wanted to do. I kept doing other things: making documentaries, producing television, all kinds of things, until finally they didn’t hire me to do anything else, so I thought maybe I should learn to do this.

CC: How did you improve? Who was your coach?

AR: Basically I worked with a lot of people, starting in college or right after college, I tried to write in every single form that writing comes in: journalism, fiction—

CC: Mandarin?

AR: (laughs) I tried Mandarin. It didn’t work. I worked writing fortune cookies for a while. I came to Hollywood and tried to write sitcoms and movies and TV movies and dramas, and I wrote a lot of sketch work. I’ve written movies that HBO’s made. I’ve written sitcom pilots and sitcom shorts—I produced and co-wrote the TV series spin-off of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, the famous movie. It only lasted seven shows, because it was on the wrong network. But I tried everything.

Over time, I realized that I’m best at writing creative nonfiction or narrative nonfiction, as opposed to historical or research nonfiction. Believe it or not, it probably took my sudden paralysis to jar me into writing in the way that I can write best.

GF: In what way?

AR: First of all, I had to keep working. I’d been earning a living as a writer in Hollywood when I became paralyzed, which was 10 years ago today, so it’s been a weird day, but it’s turning out nicely. I was a working writer with a big mortgage and a family. I had to keep working. I’d been doing a lot of specials and documentaries, that’s how I made my living. But if you operate in Hollywood and you’re not a mogul—and I know you’re surprised to know this, but I’m not a mogul, although you did see my pool. That was pretty impressive.

CC: Especially since it spelled out “mogul.”

AR: (laughter) In the tile! It’s a hustle. It’s called the Hollywood hustle. You’ve got to hustle all the time, especially if you are, like me, a freelance writer. You’ve got to go to lunches and pitch meetings and meet with people and belly up to stars, go out with producers. You’ve got to be out there hustling, keeping your name out there.

After I became paralyzed, I felt very self-conscious about hustling. If you’re in a wheelchair for the first time, would you like to roll into a meeting at CBS? You feel self-conscious as hell. You feel like an adolescent. Everybody’s looking at you. Everybody’s talking about you. Everybody sees every little thing you do. Especially if you do some bone-headed thing like back up and flip over on your back in the middle of an edit session, which has happened more than once, and everybody’s coming around and picking you up. Then they feel sorry for you, which is the worst feeling in the world. When that sort of thing happens, you don’t want to go out that much. I was 50 years old when I became paralyzed, and I didn’t know how to behave. I didn’t know what you’re supposed to do.

All of a sudden the Hollywood hustle’s not so much fun. It wasn’t that much fun anyway. I hated to go to pitch meetings. I hated to go to long production meetings where they go over every detail of a production, or go to casting sessions that last for days. I always thought they were a waste of time. Plus, it was a hassle to do that after I became paralyzed. Even if I wanted to do it, it was still a hassle. I’d go to a producer’s meeting and realize that there was no elevator, so all of a sudden three guys are hauling me up the steps. It was awkward, troublesome. So writing became the obvious thing to do.

I began working on my book, The Best Seat in the House, three days after I became paralyzed. I said, “Here’s something to write about.” (laughs)

But it wasn’t until David Chase came along and suggested writing something that straddles the line between fiction and nonfiction that I really began to write, and every time after that, when one of my books came out and did well, it just gave me that much more confidence, until finally I turned the corner. Now writing’s all I do, and all I can imagine doing. All those other things, like producing a TV show, it’s impractical.

So you find the things that you can do. You go with your strengths as opposed to fighting off your weaknesses. I know there are lots of people who’ve been paralyzed who want to play sports, or climb mountains or become dancers. I thought about it, but ballroom dancing didn’t seem like an option. It seemed to me like that was just pushing against the grain. A guy I know, a country singer who’s like a Zen philosopher, he says, “Why do you keep hitting your head against the rock? Why don’t you just go around the rock?” I never for a minute wanted to hit my head against any rocks. I just wanted to go around the rocks. And that’s what writing allowed me to do–go around the rock. ....Continued in ABILITY Magazine

ALLEN RUCKER bloged his trip to the Middle East

raod to Qatar

book cover - Best Seat in the House

“Rucker has you laughing and crying at his exploits…he has you right in his head…”  Philadelphia Inquirer
Allen Rucker describes his new life with honesty, accessibility, and impudence...very funny."
— "Talk of the Nation," National Public Radio

ALLEN RUCKER on the Montel Show

Video of Allen Rucker on the Montel Show


ABILITY Magazine
Articles in the Teri Garr Issue; Senator Harkin — Promoting the Wellness Act; Humor Therapy— Don’t Go There; Headlines — Ford, GE, Carlson Hotels and more; Faces of MS — Increasing MS Awareness; Brain Aneurysm 101 — What You Need to Know; Rucker Book Excerpt — Best Seat in the House — Doidge MD Book Excerpt — The Brain That Changes Itself; Zoo Fight — Disability Legal Rights Center; Blind Leading the Blind — CA Dept of Rehabilitation; Media Access — 24th Annual Awards; Michael Weisskopf Book Excerpt — Blood Brothers; ABILITY’s Crossword Puzzle; Events and Conferences... subscribe

Excerpts from the Teri Garr Issue:

Teri Garr — My Life So Far

MS Under a Microscope — Up-to-the-Minute Research

Allen Rucker — 'The Day I Woke Up Paralyzed'

Miss Deaf America — Chelsea Tobin

Brain Aneurysm 101 — What You Need to Know

Humor Therapy — Don't Go There

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