FEATURE — Fall 2007

Allen Rucker, A.B. ’67

Sitting Tall

For alumnus Allen Rucker, writing has gone beyond being a career to becoming a life-affirming experience—one that allows him a point of entry into and through events, especially one that turned his world upside down.

By C.B. Adams

Allen Rucker, A.B. ’67, is first and foremost a writer. And, for much of his career, he was bipedal. He eschews the word normal. As he writes in his most recent book, The Best Seat in the House, How I Woke Up One Tuesday and Was Paralyzed for Life (HarperCollins 2007), “‘Normal’ may be stretching it, but … I wasn’t raised by coyotes. I’ve never OD’d on drugs or embezzled money from WorldCom. I’m not a high-risk athlete, a daredevil, or a drunk.”

Then one day, as his book title implies, he was no longer bipedal. Almost 11 years ago, when he was 51, he experienced a sharp pain that lasted all of five minutes. An hour and half later, he lost control of his legs, was rushed to the ER, and a day or so later learned that he had suffered an attack of transverse myelitis (TM), a relatively rare inflammation of the spinal cord that would ultimately leave him somewhere “between FDR (as in Franklin Delano Roosevelt) and perfect,” according to his physician.

The Best Seat in the House chronicles Rucker’s journey from hoping for perfect to accepting he is closer to FDR and will be 54 inches tall in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. The book mirrors Rucker himself—a constant blending of nostalgia for the good ole walking days, acknowledgment of his permanent condition, fist-shaking anger at both the challenges of a disabled lifestyle and the foibles of the able-bodied, family issues, anecdotes about being a show-business writer, and, perhaps most important, bust-a-gut humor.

Case in point: two discarded book titles, A Farewell to Legs and Spinal Destination.

His “brilliant” career
Rucker’s paralysis is just one event, one experience, in the arc of his life’s story line. To borrow from Hollywood, he has gone from The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner to Easy Rider, with plenty of This Is Spinal Tap along the way.

Allen Rucker is surrounded with family: (from left) sons Max Rucker, a sophomore at the University of California–Santa Cruz, and Blaine Rucker, B.F.A. ’98, a graphic designer in Los Angeles; and his wife, Ann-Marie (Sandberg) Rucker, B.F.A. ’67.

He was raised in the small oil town of Bartlesville, Oklahoma. In 1948, his father, a doctor, died in a freak accident when Rucker was 2 years old. His mother struggled as a single parent to raise him and his three siblings. After high school, Rucker attended the University of Oklahoma for one year but was not comfortable there.

“I needed a place where I could take a few risks. I was hungry for knowledge and hungry to learn. That place became Washington University,” says Rucker, who had a teacher whose daughter was attending the University.

Because he loved to read, he majored in English. He also began accumulating new experiences, including participating in campus anti-Vietnam protests and the civil rights movement.

“We weren’t really careerists in the ’60s. We weren’t thinking ahead about what we would do for a living. We were experience junkies, and there was plenty to experience,” he says.

Another important part of his University experience was making friends. Friends is another common word in Rucker’s lexicon, as in “my friend Harold Ramis” (of Animal House and Ghostbusters fame), whom he met as an undergraduate, and “my friend Michael Shamberg,” who is now a major Hollywood producer, with films such as The Big Chill and World Trade Center to his credit. Rucker also met his future wife, Ann-Marie Sandberg, B.F.A. ’67, during this time.

Still seeking knowledge but not necessarily a career, Rucker earned a master’s degree in American culture at the University of Michigan and another master’s degree in documentary film and video at Stanford University.

“I finally realized I wanted to make documentary films or some kind of blend of journalism and film,” Rucker says.

“After spending 30 years in show business, I discovered that this paralysis book is the type of writing I most want to do. All my other writing was preparing me for this.”

His so-called show-business career
Describing himself the day he became paralyzed, Rucker wrote that he was 51, the father of two sons, living in a big house in West Los Angeles, and pursuing “… my so-called craft as a writer of television specials and documentaries. I was at best an aging young Turk and at worst an aging journeyman, i.e., hack.”

Rucker’s self-deprecating description belies a career that more than once almost made him as famous as some of his friends, including David Chase, Martin Mull, Teri Garr, Harry Schearer, and Fred Willard, among others. He entered the business by exploring the early uses of portable video with a group called TVTV (Top Value TV). Rucker founded the group in the ’70s with friend and schoolmate Michael Shamberg, A.B. ’66. Along with Harold Ramis, A.B. ’66 (now a University trustee), Bill Murray, and others, they made experimental documentaries with a comic edge on topics ranging from the Republican National Convention to the Super Bowl. They garnered critical acclaim, but not much else, including money. TVTV broke up in 1977, but its reputation lives on. The Museum of Television & Radio gave TVTV a full retrospective in 2004.

Among Allen Riucker's books are The Sopranos Family Cookbook, a New York Times No. 1 bestseller and The Best Seat in the House (released in January 2007).

Rucker’s next “fringe success” was a series of cable shows starring Martin Mull called The History of White People in America. Rucker describes the series as a “… quirky faux-documentary look at mayonnaise-eating Midwestern WASPs.” This small-c “cult classic” went on to generate two books co-written by Rucker and Mull, a line of greeting cards, and a tribute from the Museum of Television & Radio. It did not, however, propel Rucker from the “showbiz ghetto.”

He went on to write countless television pilots, movie scripts, tribute shows, and even award shows like the People’s Choice Awards (“a strange form of literary harlotry—part comedy, part exposition, part shameless cant”) that earned him an income if not notoriety. He also wrote Big Guns Talk, a history of the Western, and Family Values: The Mob & The Movies.

Note from a Friend
I know four people confined to wheelchairs, two with MS, one with a spinal cord injury, and Allen Rucker, my good old friend who at the age of 51 suffered a disabling illness as rare as a shark attack or lightning strike. Now, 10 years later, he offers us a remarkably honest, insightful, sometimes painful, but above all wryly funny account of what it’s like to be literally struck down and to never walk again. But this is much more than a book about physical paralysis. Like many of us in mid-life, prior to his illness Allen was already in another state of paralysis—personal, professional, and financial—and as he reacts to his physiological disaster, he makes a powerful psychological and spiritual recovery. Allen has something to say to all of us about facing ourselves and getting on with it, and he says it straight without sentimentalizing or sensationalizing.
—Harold Ramis, A.B. ’66, co-creator of Animal House

The Family Values show was newly finished just as David Chase’s The Sopranos was taking off. Chase saw the show and offered Rucker the chance to write a Sopranos companion book. Rucker wrote The Sopranos: A Family History and Entertaining with the Sopranos (with Michele Scicolone), and his The Sopranos Family Cookbook (with Scicolone) was a New York Times No. 1 bestseller. The memoir co-written with country music star Gretchen Wilson, Redneck Woman, made it to No. 29 on The New York Times best-seller list. He is the recipient of the DuPont-Columbia Journalism Award, the Writers Guild Annual Award, and two CableACE Awards, among others. Not bad for a hack.

Rucker’s most recent TV project, Two Days in October, is an adaptation of David Maraniss’ best-selling book on Vietnam, They Marched into Sunlight. Originally broadcast on PBS’ American Experience in October 2005, Two Days in October won the 2006 George Peabody Award and the 2006 Emmy Award for Exceptional Merit in Nonfiction Filmmaking. Again, not bad for a hack.

Of all his writing, Rucker is most proud of Best Seat. “After spending 30 years in show business, I discovered that this paralysis book is the type of writing I most want to do. All my other writing was preparing me for this,” he says.

Ever the non-careerist, Rucker does not know what his next big project will be. But he is hoping to travel around the world working on travelogues in the same vein as Flaubert and D.H. Lawrence.

“I can’t get enough of the real world. Maybe that’s why I have this desire to go around the world in a wheelchair and write about it,” he says.

C.B. Adams is a free-lance writer based in St. Charles, Missouri.

Visit Allen Rucker’s Web site:www.allenrucker.com.