When Jonathan was four and a half, he and his family moved to a suburb of Sacramento, California, where his dad had gotten a new job as an industrial sales manager. Situated in the northern part of the state, Sacramento is about ninety miles northeast of San Francisco; nearly four hundred miles away from Los Angeles. While those statistics meant nothing to Jonathan at the time; they would become very significant in the not-too-distant future.
Picking up and moving an entire family is never easy, but Jonathan's clan actually looked forward to making new friends and putting down roots in this clean, growing city. In 1986, when Jonathan's family moved there, many of the surrounding suburbs of Sacramento were new and filled with young families. Houses were spacious with wide lawns. Driveways, more often than not, were dotted with basketball hoops and two-wheelers. The neighbourhoods seemed pristine compared with Bethlehem; just perfect for bringing up two young boys. The school system was well regarded and most parents were quite active and involved in the education of their children. Jonathan and his attentive, well-educated, involved parents fit in perfectly; and before long, the family had settled in. Stephen and Claudine - who continued in social work - were in their new jobs; Joel and Jonathan adapted quickly to their new lives and schools.
Both boys were extremely active and had natural grace and athletic ability. Soccer was one of the first organised sports they played. Jonathan, who remembers sitting on the sidelines watching his big brother play, got his chance when he was just five years old to join a team in a neighbourhood kiddie league. Speedy, focused, and competitive, Jonathan was a natural from the get-go. Once he learned the rules, he could play either offence or defence with equal agility. He was quickly recognised as one of the team's star players, but Jonathan wasn't a show-off. Generous on the field, outgoing, and chatty, he made many friends on his team.
Soccer became a big part of his young life. Aside from learning the basics of a sport that would stay with him, Jonathan also learned something else of value. He got experience in taking direction, following the instructions of a coach or manager. It was a skill that would come in handy in situations far from a soccer field.
In Sacramento, Jonathan took up another pursuit that brought him a lot of pleasure - fishing. He used to go on weekends with his brother and dad to the nearby lakes that ringed the city. He learned to love the peaceful solitude of sitting on a boat out on the lake and then feeling the excitement of a tug on the line. Fishing became his favourite thing to do on vacation, and over the next several years, he was lucky enough to fish in such exotic places as Mexico, Hawaii, and even off the coast of Alaska. "That's where I caught the greatest salmon and halibut," he remembers. He was so interested in the sport that he even began subscribing to publications devoted to it. "I've been reading fishing magazines since I was five," he recently noted. That was no exaggeration: Jonathan started reading at four.
When he turned six, Jonathan followed his brother into elementary school. No surprise, JTT adapted to that as easily as he had to his new home, neighbourhood, and soccer pals. His giftedness was recognised early. He was very advanced in reading, writing, and arithmetic. Once he was taught something, he remembered it. He was immediately placed in an advanced reading group and flew through elementary arithmetic; in first grade, he'd quickly mastered addition and subtraction and was doing third-grade multiplication.
But Jonathan's gifts were not limited to academics. In a way, he was just as gifted socially. Extremely bright and exuberant, little Jonathan was accepted immediately by his new peers and his teachers. There is one memorable incident that really illustrates the kind of kid Jonathan was-and still is.
Each week one child was chosen as "student of the week" and, among other tasks, asked to make a list of six friends. The week Jonathan was chosen, he did something no other kid in that class ever did before, and no one has done since. He stood up and explained to the class that just because he was listing six of them didn't mean he was excluding the others. He went on to say he was still friends with all of them. That sensitivity and kindness is pure Jonathan Taylor Thomas - then, and even more so, now.
Jonathan had successfully settled in to his new life in Sacramento - he was living a busy normal little boy's life at home, at school, and on the soccer field. But this little boy never did forget the idea planted in his brain when he was smaller. He never forgot those people who kept telling his parents that he really ought to be in showbiz. He certainly never forgot about his own decision to be on TV one day. "I just thought the whole idea of being on TV and being recognised and having a good time was interesting, pretty cool" is how he simply remembers it.
Then one day when he was six, Jonathan saw an advertisement on TV that piqued that interest. Aimed at young children and their parents, the comercial said that if you signed up for a thirteen week course, you could learn how to get into commercials. It was all Jonathan needed to hear. He was off and bugging his mom, that is, to let him take that course. After some time had gone by and some investigating to make sure the place was not a rip-off, Claudine agreed that it would be okay for Jonathan to sign up. He has never regretted that day.
Although the course itself didn't immediately propel its students into national television commercials, Jonathan and the others enrolled did learn how to model clothes for catalogs, to pose for department store fashion shows, and to project confidence and charisma. Of the last two, Jonathan didn't have much to learn: he was naturally confident, cute, and charismatic. After the thirteen weeks, the school sponsored a graduation dinner where the students modelled clothes and demonstrated the poise they'd learned. Of course, family and friends attended, but to the school's credit, so did a few talent scouts. If these scouts weren't exactly from Hollywood (and they weren't), some were from as far away as San Francisco, a media center in its own right. No surprise, Jonathan was snapped up immediately by a talent scout from a San Francisco agency called Grimme Talent.
It took some persuasion for Claudine to allow Jonathan, who was barely seven years old at the time, to sign up. Had she known what would follow - two-hour drives each way back and forth from Sacramento to San Francisco, just so Jonathan could try out for modeling assignments - she might have thought twice before agreeing. For once committed to something, Claudine was not the type to do it halfway or halfheartedly. If she allowed Jonathan to do this, she would support him wholly and try to make his new endeavour disrupt the other members of the family as little as possible. It is to her credit that she did - and to Jonathan's that he learned valuable lessons in dedication and commitment by her example.
Besides, Claudine could see how enthusiastic Jonathan was. Anyone could see how perfect he was - it didn't take a crystal ball to predict just how successful he'd eventually be.
Under the guidance of Anne Grimme, owner of the agency, Jonathan appeared in fashion shows and started to model clothing in kids' catalogs for San Francisco department stores. He also appeared in magazine and newspaper advertisements. Sometimes the modeling would mean he'd have to miss a day or two of first or second grade, but he never blew off any of his schoolwork. Jonathan always knew to put schoolwork first. Not only did he always make up assignments, he began a practice that he adheres to today: doing more work than is required. Call him an "extra-credit" kid.
More to his personal "extra credit," Jonathan never bragged about his burgeoning modeling, career. While another kid might reenter the classroom with an even bigger ego after coming out in a big fashion spread, Jonathan took pains to show and tell what he was doing, not show off and tell. He once brought in some of the clothes he was modeling, along with some black-and-white proofs, and explained to the class about the process of creating an advertisement. Bringing others into his world, without bragging about it, has always made Jonathan happier than any individual achievement.
His world, however, was getting busier by the nanosecond. It didn't take long for Jonathan to progress from standing still and silent in advertisements to being animated and articulate on stage. Jonathan first displayed his natural acting ability in a local production of the play Scrooge at the Chatauqua Theatre in Sacramento - in a dual role, no less. He played both the parts of young Scrooge and Tiny Tim in a holiday production and received glowing reviews and standing ovations. He also developed an affinity for acting. The kind of acting he would do, and everything it would lead to, would make his life much more complicated, but he has never lost that love for the craft itself.
In the earliest stages of his career, Jonathan also began doing something that would ultimately lead to his big break. Voice-overs are the show business industry term for any type of narration: any situation where the actor's voice is heard, but he or she is not seen. That includes all radio work, most commercials, many TV shows and movies, including all animated films.
Jonathan modestly describes his speaking voice as "just an ordinary kid's voice," but anyone who has ever heard him knows just how distinct that voice is. As opposed to the high-pitched, squeaky tone most young children have, Jonathan's is raspy and gravely. It's an all-boy voice, curious, mischievous, and distinctly discernible. That recognisability combined with Jonathan's superior reading skills, ability to take direction, and natural acting talent made him perfect for voice-over work - and lots of it came his way.
The first voice-over commercial he ever did was a true test of his talent - it was in Japanese! To the animated actions of a character speaking in Japanese, Jonathan had to speak the words in English, make it convincing, and sound right. He executed it perfectly. It was a great experience for all that was soon to come.
It had been a year since he took that thirteen-week course. Jonathan was incredibly successful, and each step led to the next. Perhaps that next step might not have come quite so quickly if Jonathan and his mom hadn't attended a seminar given by a Hollywood talent manager, but they did. And if that day didn't change the course of Jonathan's life, it sure speeded it up.
The seminar was mainly for parents who wanted to learn about children and show business: how to get in, and what to expect if you got there. Given in various parts of the country by a respected manager, it taught parents with no connections what type of child was likely to be successful as an actor, and which would have a harder time getting started. Normally, certain precociousness is valued. While a timid child would find it tough breaking in, a child who speaks easily and articulately, who can interpret the words on a page and perform them (not just read them), who can take direction, given by a stranger and who, for good measure, is adorable - would not only attract the attention of an agent but would probably find work easily and often. Naturally, those traits described Jonathan right down to his button nose and ever ready smile. At the end of the seminar, those who were still interested were invited for an impromptu audition. Jonathan was interested.
Gary Scalzo was the Hollywood manager and he knew talent when he found it. He was the man responsible for bringing Elijah Wood (The Good Son, North, The War) from the cornfields of Iowa to the movie screens of Hollywood; he discovered Step by Step's Angela Watson and The Brady Bunch's Paul Sutera, who both attended seminars in Florida. Gary was soon to convince Jonathan and his mother that Hollywood was waiting - and he could help.
Gary had a system set up, where he brought his most promising finds to Hollywood, got them set up in an apartment complex, and hooked them up with legitimate agents. The agents would then send the kids out on auditions for commercials, TV shows, and even movies.
Not very many people who attended Gary's seminars actually made the move to Hollywood. After all, it takes an incredible dedication to uproot a family and relocate-even if it's just for a few months to test the showbiz waters. How many parents, after all, can quit (or take leaves of absence from) their jobs, and leave spouses and other children in the family behind to pursue what amounts to a dream - an uncertain one at that. The reality is that most people - children and adults - who want to become actors never do. They may try out hundreds of times, but they don't land the parts. If they do, the parts aren't numerous or lucrative enough to pay the bills.
And there is that - the expense - to consider, too. For although Gary was committed to helping these talented tykes break into showbiz, the families footed the bills: for transportation, rent, food, clothing to go to auditions in, all Living expenses. And most, of course, maintained households in whatever other part of the country they came from. Showbiz might eventually be glamorous and financially rewarding, but it almost never starts out that way.
It takes an extraordinary and dedicated family to make all these sacrifices. But Jonathan, an extraordinary child, was lucky enough to have one. He was intrigued by Gary's suggestion. After all, he'd gotten a taste of acting and knew he wanted to do more.
After much careful thought and consideration, Claudine agreed to give it a try. She and Jonathan made the four-hundred-mile drive down to Los Angeles just to see if they could really do this. If several months passed and Jonathan didn't land an acting job or was unhappy, they'd simply go back home. Of course, it never came to that. Not only was Jonathan successful from the start, he clearly loved every second of what would soon be his new life.
Mother and son settled into an apartment complex where several of Gary's other finds - Angela Watson and her mom; Paul Sutera and his; Carol Ann Plante (who eventually landed a role on the syndicated TV series Harry and the Hendersons) and her mom - were doing the same thing, "testing the waters" to see if their talented children could break into showbiz and, more importantly, be happy and live a normal life, too.
They all have particularly wonderful memories of the little community formed by these people from different parts of the country, joined together by Gary Scalzo and a common dream. Paul Sutera, Elijah Wood, Carol Ann Plante, Angie Watson and Jonathan were all there to support one another. No one was jealous. If one of the kids had an audition and needed something to wear to it, the others would run to their closets to see if they had something to lend. And the kids would practice their scripts together, read monologues, and help each other memorise them.
The best part was when the little group of actor hopefuls got together and put on impromptu plays. Once the group put on The Wizard of Oz. They made their own costumes and performed this little play for each other. To the parents watching them perform it was a reaffirmation of why they were there in the first place. They really were little actors.
Gary Scalzo, of course, kept a steady hand in the progress of his group and delivered what he'd promised: to help each one sign up with an agent and coach them for auditions.
The agency Jonathan signed with was called Helfond, Joseph and Rix. It had a particularly successful and active children's department at the time. His new agent saw Jonathan's potential immediately. Jonathan was the kind of kid casting directors clamor for: he could read and memorise scripts easily and all those years playing soccer had taught him to take direction well. Plus, Jonathan had another quality that could not be taught. He simply sparkled when he walked into a room - even a roomful of strangers for whom he had to perform. Everyone remembered him.
The sparkle was no act. Jonathan truly loved being in Los Angeles among this little group of talented peers. He even enjoyed auditions, which most actors dread. He wasn't upset if he didn't get the role he was up for; he simply prepared for the next one. He thrived on all of it. Seeing new places, meeting new people, and facing a new challenge each day didn't frighten Jonathan. He saw it as a whole new world, the one in which he truly belonged.
Within two weeks of arriving in Los Angeles he landed his first national commercial! In at least one way it really tested Jonathan's acting ability. The commercial was for the giant fast-food chain Burger King, and by that time, Jonathan, a vegetarian, hadn't eaten red meat in three years. Yet the budding professional did a more than convincing job of making the burgers look appetising.
Within another few weeks, the tiny thespian tried out and was hired for several -more television commercials. He appeared in regional ads for such products as Kern's bread and Vivident gum, and in national ads for Kellogg's Product 19, Mattel Toys, and Canon Camcorders. Jonathan also nabbed a role in an industrial film. It wasn't shown to the public, but he did get his first on-camera experience, as well as entry into the Screen Actor's Guild, the organisation all working actors must join.
It was when he signed up for SAG that he found he couldn't use his birth name professionally. There already was an actor registered by that name and the rules state that no two actors can go under the identical name. That's when he became, for professional purposes, Jonathan Taylor Thomas. Taylor was his own middle name; Thomas was Joel's.
Racking up acting credits and on-screen experience was on-the-job training for Jonathan. Never during his early days in Los Angeles did anyone suggest acting lessons. Jonathan's timing, his emoting, his comic ability, all came naturally. It was just his gift.
At this point, even though Jonathan was landing commercials one after the other, he and his mom still weren't sure how much longer they could stay in Los Angeles. As successful as he was in commercials, they questioned whether that was enough to pull up stakes and relocate permanently. As it was, whenever Jonathan was between auditions and commercials, he and his mom journeyed back to Sacramento to resume their "normal" lives. Jonathan would rejoin his class, picking up as if he'd never left, only to depart again when another acting opportunity came along. Being flexible has served him well.
In early 1990 Jonathan got the opportunity to try out for his first television series. The Bradys was a half-hour CBS sitcom revolving around the lives of the now grown-up Brady bunch. The actors who'd played the kids on that legendary '70s series were all reprising their roles, this time as adults with their own families. Barry Williams, who played Greg, the oldest of the original bunch, would be married and a dad in The Bradys. The part of his son Kevin went to Jonathan.
Playing Kevin was a neat piece of acting on Jonathan's part. For the character was completely unlike him in real life. Kevin was the scriptwriter's idea of a seven-year-old - not very articulate, extremely silly, and childish. Jonathan, of course, was never like that; but when he stepped into Kevin's sneakers, he became the character completely.
Being on a television series changed everything for Jonathan and his mom. It was a whole new schedule, a whole new lifestyle: and JTT, as usual, was a quick picker-upper of the ropes. Even though he didn't work every day on the show - because of the large ensemble cast, no one really had to - he was required to be in Los Angeles and be available on a moment's notice. The studio provided a tutor who would get assignments from his third-grade teacher in Sacramento. He found out that kids on TV shows were required to put in only three hours of schooling per day. From day one, Jonathan always put in more.
Being on The Bradys was his first experience with the lifestyle of a young TV actor. And Jonathan liked it an awful lot. He had no trouble adapting to his new schedule-being on the set one day, working with a tutor and actor, being home the next, and so on.
He revealed in the challenge of playing a kid so very different from himself. He got along well with all the adults in the cast and became friends with all the kids. In between scenes, he and the other kids in the cast would go outside on the Paramount Studios lot, where The Bradys was taped, to play. Sometimes they'd run around playing tag, other times they'd toss a football around.
One memorable day JTT was playing ball with Michael Melby, who played Mickey Logan on The Bradys, when who should walk over to them, but comedian Arsenio Hall. At the time Arsenio was hosting his own very popular late-night show, which just happened to tape over at Paramount. A sports lover himself, he took a few moments to hang out with Jonathan and his little buddy. The next day Arsenio came back to where the kids were playing - this time, bearing a gift. It was an autographed Nerf football for Jonathan.
Naturally, JTT, all of nine years old at the time, was thrilled. Arsenio was a big star, and here was an autographed treasure. Not surprisingly, his elation was not shared by the other little actor. "He was kind of upset that Arsenio had given the ball to me and not to him," Jonathan remembers. Without a moment's hesitation - and without any prompting from anyone - Jonathan simply gave his treasure to his young costar. It was a typical move for bighearted Jonathan, who couldn't bear to see someone left out. He still can't.
Jonathan's largesse didn't go completely unrewarded. His mom, who all along had been the one to teach him respect for the feelings of others, went out and bought him a similar Nerf football. Of course, it had no autograph, so it wasn't the same, but it did symbolise just how nice Jonathan had been. That football remains on a shelf in his room to this day.
The Bradys, which began its run on CBS in September 1990, was Jonathan's true first taste of being a regular on a TV series. It tasted good. Jonathan learned by leaps and bounds - how to work with an ensemble cast, how to take direction, hit his marks, memorise his script and deliver his lines, and create a believable character.
He learned something else about life in the showbiz lane - all about disappointment. For just as JTT was getting used to his new routine, The Bradys was abruptly canceled after seven airings! It hadn't done well in the ratings, and the network simply exercised its option to cease production. No further explanation was required: the sets were torn down and the actors told not to report to work anymore.
Suddenly Jonathan was jobless. He knew he and the other actors had done really good work, but he found out that in showbiz being good at what you do isn't always enough. He began to understand the role luck - and timing - plays in this world.
Although he didn't know it at the time, an improvement in his luck was just around the corner.
Part of The Jonathan Taylor Thomas Archive - JTTArchive.Net
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