Sometimes Opportunity Knocks More Than Once

Marilu Henner has an uncanny memory for dates, especially the date when she first met Michael Brown.

It was Oct. 9, 1970. They were first-year students at the University of Chicago.

"The doorbell rang, I walked to the door, and Michael filled the doorway," Henner said, "and his presence was amazing."

Opportunities, Lost and Found

Unfortunately, Brown was not there to see Henner. He was picking up her roommate for a date. "I wish I had met him first," Henner said.

But that brief encounter was just the beginning of a story that would span three decades of chance meetings, missed opportunities, and, ultimately, a life-and-death struggle.

Henner is an actress best known for her work in the television series "Taxi" and "Evening Shade," as well as the stage musical "Chicago." She is perhaps better known to millions of readers for her best-selling health and fitness books, including "Total Health Makeover." She also has a strong presence on the Internet, where she is a featured expert delivering daily advice on a number of sites, including her own Marilu.com, FitTV and a subscription-based service at iamplify.com.

Her friends and family are routinely enveloped in the infectious energy and uncommon detail that the slim, magnetic, 5-foot-7-inch redhead applies to every aspect of her life, ensuring that luck has as little to do with it as possible.

"She loves to organize," said her 13-year-old son, Nick Lieberman. "It's like my mother is a ball rolling down a hill and she just picks up everything!"

Brown, cool and imposing, with an easy smile and the looks of a leading man, was an adventurer. He and Henner remained friends in college, but never dated. When his college days were over, he set out to sea in the Merchant Marine and eventually established a business in Brazil, where he married.

Henner plunged headfirst into show business. As she was enjoying her television stardom — and, at the age of 28, was about to marry her first husband, actor Frederick Forrest — another one of those memorable dates involving Brown cropped up.

"This was September the 26th of 1980. It was a Friday," Henner said, "and I was sitting in this tiny little room [in New Orleans] getting a marriage license. I looked out the doorway for a split second, and Michael crossed the doorway. I hadn't seen him in eight years, but because of his physical presence — nobody else looked like him — I knew it was him instantly."

In the Stars?

Only recently had Brown found out that Henner had become a television star on "Taxi."

"I had no idea," Brown said. "I'd never seen it. I'd been in Brazil."

The old friends fell out of touch once again, and more than two decades passed before another opportunity arose. Henner had divorced after a second marriage, this time to director Robert Lieberman. She was on the verge of another birthday when her friend Sharon Feldstein gave her an unusual gift: a visit to a psychic.

"I believe in luck and superstition," said Feldstein.

Henner welcomed the diversion. "I mentioned somebody that I was seeing, and [the psychic] said, 'That's not the person for you. I feel around you, very powerfully, an M, like a Mark or a Michael or a Matthew.'"

Coincidentally, although Henner didn't know it, Brown had moved to Los Angeles to work as an executive in a family business, BrownTrout, the world's largest calendar manufacturing company. Henner, of course, doesn't need a calendar to remember another important date.

"On February the 22nd of 2003, I get this call," Henner said, "and I hear, 'Hi, it's Mike Brown, voice from the past, you know, wanting to talk over old times.' My heart started to pound, I put the phone down and I went, 'Oh my gosh, it's the M.'"

"I just thought I could start a new connection with her," Brown said. "I didn't know what it would lead to."

Finally, a Chance

Henner had two sons from her marriage to Lieberman. Brown had a son and two daughters, and he also was divorced. Finally, both were available, and their first date was for dinner at a restaurant.

"I realized where he was sitting. He looked so good," Henner said she noticed with the finely trained eye of an actress. "The lighting was great on his face, and I thought, 'Oh my gosh, I'm in bad lighting! I haven't waited 30 years for this date to sit in the bad lighting.' So I made some excuse and we switched sides. My legs were twisted like a pretzel underneath the table because I was so excited. … I couldn't believe I was finally sitting across from him after all these years."

As the couple began to date, their children noticed a change. "When he came home, it was like something magical had happened," said Brown's daughter Cassia.

Henner's son Nick was confident that something would come of the relationship. "I said to my mom, 'When you get married, can we give you away?'"

The timing of their reunion seemed perfect. But within weeks, Brown discovered he had cancer.

"My doctor diagnosed it as bladder cancer," Brown said. "It was literally two months into the relationship when that happened. Being a bit naive, I didn't really take in how bad the situation was. It was only later that it became clear what I was really up against."

The cancer was more malignant and aggressive than the first diagnosis had indicated. Using the expertise accumulated from the books she had written, Henner went straight to work, arranging appointments and meeting with doctors.

Then, more tests revealed that Brown also had early stage lung cancer.

'There's No Stopping Us Now'

"We went to nine doctors," Henner said. "I took him all over the country to different doctors because we wanted to find the right combination of East and West medicine, and figure out what protocol he should follow. … And I just felt like, there's no stopping us now. We're going to figure this thing out."

Henner's coping mechanism was adapted early in her life, when she was forced to deal with a family tragedy . Her mother, a once-vibrant dance teacher, was severely crippled by arthritis and was virtually paralyzed from the neck down. She died at the age of 58.

"She had a horrible death," Henner said. "I was determined that this was not going to happen to anybody close to me. So I became a real student of health, devoured books and information from human anatomy classes, doctors, nutritionists, everything. And then when Michael came into my life, I became a real student of cancer. That same kind of focus and energy, I think, went into taking care of him."

Such extensive research led to changing Brown's life radically, including placing him on a diet without refined sugar or meat.

"A key fact, I think, for most people in cancer care is that usually their goal is to get back to their life as normal," Brown said. "They're hooked up to all these tubes, and all they're thinking about is getting home and having a steak or a cheeseburger. What people need to realize is that 'normal' is what got them in that hospital bed to begin with. And what they need to do is change normal, and have a different goal in life."

Eight months after his first date with Henner, Brown underwent surgery to remove the cancerous lobe from his lung.

Out of Trauma, a Proposal

"When I woke up and I realized that I was back … and Marilu was there waiting for me, I just was overcome with the thought that this is the time," Brown said. "Let's just make this permanent right now."

Brown proposed from his hospital bed.

On Dec. 21, 2006, Henner and Brown -- both 55 years old -- were married at Henner's home in the Hollywood Hills. Michael's twin brother, Marc Brown, officiated at the ceremony. Henner's children gave her away.

"I made a list of all the lucky things about our relationship," Henner said. "You could say that the timing of his cancer was lucky, because … if it had even been a year later and he would not have gotten the right kind of treatment, who knows? He may not have called me, right?"

And to that end, Henner remains as organized as ever, for whatever change comes along under the guise of luck.

"You have to be ready for it. You have to get yourself ready, so that you can see it. Because if you don't see it, you're not going to be able to recognize it. It's really about looking at opportunities as they come up, and not to be dragged kicking and screaming to the next step," she said.