Heads turn and a man unabashedly points his finger as Michael Tuck strolls through the restaurant. A few minutes later, a waitress shyly asks about Tuck's impending move to Los Angeles.
"I'm going to miss you," she says. "You're always in my living room."
Tonight, Tuck begins work as a co-anchor at KCBS-TV Channel 2, after 10 years as the dominant television news personality in San Diego. He arrived in San Diego in 1978 and soon helped KFMB-TV Channel 8, the local CBS affiliate, become the top-rated news operation in town. In 1984, he jumped to KGTV Channel 10, the ABC affiliate, where he accomplished a similar feat, teaming with anchorwoman Bree Walker, now with KCBS.
Thanks to his uncanny ability to stir up controversy and post ratings victories, he became a celebrity--in every sense of the word. Both on and off the air, his activities have been regular fodder for San Diego newspaper columnists and morning conversations around water coolers.
"San Diego is the biggest little fish bowl in the world," he says between bites of a tamale. His accent betrays the slightest residual effect of his Texas roots. "There is not a heckuva lot going on here for people to talk about."
Not an extraordinarily handsome anchor in the classic Barbie and Ken mold--people often say he looks like Eddie Munster--the 44-year-old Tuck became famous for his acerbic nightly commentaries, in which he regularly railed against the San Diego Establishment, often invoking a tone of righteous indignation.
Although there are no immediate plans to bring Tuck's "Perspective" pieces to KCBS, his contract specifically states that he was hired as an anchor and commentator.
KCBS management, desperately in need of people to be talking about their low-rated news shows, may not look upon Tuck as a knight on a white horse riding in to save the day. At first, Tuck is slotted only to anchor the 6 p.m. newscast and report for the 11 p.m. program. But station officials undoubtedly hope he will provide a much-needed spark to their ratings.
In the language of sports, they are not paying Tuck big bucks just to have him sit on the bench. Reports have placed his annual salary in the $750,000 range, although Tuck says that is far too high.
"He's a winner," says KCBS general manager Bob Hyland. "He's a take-charge type, aggressive. We call ourselves 'Action News' and he fits in with that."
Not everyone in San Diego is sorry to see Tuck leave.
"Good riddance; don't let the door hit you on the way out," says Det. Ron Newman, president of the San Diego Police Officer's Assn.
Tuck's "Perspective" segments touched nerves. His ability to attract ratings as an anchor made him a star in the television-news industry, but most San Diegans will always think of him as Tuck the commentator, the avenging angel of the airwaves, ending each commentary with, "I'm Michael Tuck and that's my perspective."
"Let's just say he never let facts get in the way of a good story," says Newman, declining to give specific examples.
The commentaries aired during the 11 p.m. newscasts, which he didn't anchor. Sleeves rolled up, tie loosened, he would lean toward the camera, vocally punching words for emphasis. The look was specifically designed to separate his anchor persona from his commentator persona.
When Ed Quinn first took over as Channel 10's general manager in 1986, he was "stunned" at the concept of an anchor doing commentaries. His first reaction was to drop them.
"I was afraid the audience would see Michael anchoring as a commentator and vice versa," Quinn said. However, surveys told Quinn that San Diegans basically viewed Tuck the commentator and Tuck the anchorman as two separate personas.
Indeed, while his commentaries often put him at odds with the people he criticized, Tuck's pieces brought him awards--including nine Emmys, a Golden Mike and a national Sigma Delta Chi distinguished service award for a series on a San Diego city councilman who misused his city credit card. He also endeared himself to those spearheading the causes he supported. He could be a powerful ally. Disabled people, animal-rights activists and the gay community are among the groups that often appreciated his support.
"He was able to cut through the rhetoric and get right to the heart of issues," says Lynn Benn, a leader of the county's slow-growth movement. "He can take complex issues and make them understandable to people on the street."
Tuck also cites the commentaries as a primary reason for his having attracted the type of press usually reserved for entertainers and politicians.
Tuck's name regularly appeared in local gossip columns, for everything from a failed business venture, a travel agency, to the disintegration in 1988 of his third marriage. He also was in the news again earlier this year when a grand jury, which was investigating the conduct of the San Diego Police Department, called Tuck to ask him if he had received any special treatment from the department, stemming from his alleged relationship with a minor several years earlier. The city attorney's office refused to press charges.
Tuck testified behind closed doors that he never asked for nor received any special treatment. The episode would have died there, except that the San Diego Union, quoting unnamed sources, included details of Tuck's testimony in a page one story about the grand jury hearings. Tuck had made headlines again.
A few days later, a rival television station received copies of Tuck's police file, delivered by an anonymous caller.
"I've made a lot of friends and a lot of enemies over the years," he says.
It is unlikely that Tuck will attract the same type of scrutiny in Los Angeles that he did in San Diego. There are more television news people, bigger and better celebrities to discuss. Surveys show that, in terms of name recognition, the most popular anchors in Los Angeles are recognizable to only about 60% of the populace, industry experts say, a far smaller percentage than in a city like San Diego.
The plan is to gradually introduce Tuck to the Los Angeles market. Any thought of giving Tuck a commentator slot will be decided far down the road, says Hyland. For two decades, Channel 2 featured the commentaries of Bill Stout. Stout died last year, and Hyland says he is not sure if he wants another commentator.
Tuck is more than aware that he is entering a tumultuous shop. Since he was first approached about a job more than a year ago, he has seen two changes in the KCBS news director position. He was hired by Erik Sorenson, a former Channel 8 producer who now heads the "CBS Morning News." Sorenson was replaced by Michael Singer, who was replaced as news director in late August by Jose Rios.
If he fails in Los Angeles, Tuck will always have San Diego. His "Perspective" pieces became such a staple for Channel 10 that the station has signed a one-year contract with Tuck to have him continue doing commentaries twice a week after he joins KCBS.
"We are winning at 11 and I didn't want to take that element totally away," says Channel 10's Quinn.
Tuck looks forward to winning again. He has been preparing himself for Los Angeles in many ways, including minor plastic surgery on his eyes ("My lids were always a little heavy," he says). On the way out of the restaurant, he recalls the feeling of victory, of building a ratings champion, sounding something like a football coach.
"My reason for going to Los Angeles is I'm really looking forward to that professional challenge," he says. "One of the joys of winning was the way everybody stuck together, patting each other on the back."
In the parking lot, he proudly shows the reporter his new sports car. It looks like it would be comfortable on the freeway. "I'm ready for Los Angeles," he says.