There's an old saying, "When one door closes, another opens." The message is to not let disappointment get you down, because another opportunity is often right around the corner. In Jonathan's case, everything happened so quickly, that adage could have been about a revolving door. Before he could shed too many tears about the Bradys bust-up, a new opportunity presented itself. It was early 1991, and he was sent by his agent on an audition for a new TV series. The part JTT was up for was the middle child in a family comedy called (at that early stage of its development and predating the famous rap song) Hammer Time.
On the surface, Hammer Time was a comedy version of This Old House - about a real "Mr. Fix-It" type named Tim Taylor who relies on what's in his tool belt, instead of what's in his head, to solve life's everyday problems. Tim is a married dad of three and host of a cable TV show that demonstrates the "do-it-yourself" method of building and repairing things around the house. Tim's also a bit of a chauvinist who prides himself on his "ultra manly" attitude. It doesn't work on the cable show, where it's obvious that his assistant, Al, is really the one with the know-how, and it certainly doesn't work at home, where his wife, Jill, rules the roost.
Still, armed with his hefty tool belt and an endless variety of power tools, Tim believes himself the master of every household problem from leaky faucets to sticky cabinets. The bigger problem is that he approaches every project as an opportunity to reaffirm his masculinity - usually at the expense of whatever he's ostensibly fixing. The dishwasher broken? "Let's rewire it to give it more power!" is a typical Tim solution. Of course, the "fixed" appliance blows up afterward.
Just below the surface - not too far, really - Hammer Time was really about the differences between the way men and women approach life. While spunky Jill Taylor is completely devoted to Tim, she understands her hardware-hungry husband all too well - at least enough not to let him near any household appliances. As the mother of three rambunctious sons, Jill knows plenty about handling mischievous boys of any age. Jill was the real power chez Taylor, the engine that drives the household (and the car pools!), and the glue that keeps the family together.
Though Tim and Jill clearly have a happy marriage, they do have a problem with communication.
She doesn't understand how a man like Tim thinks; he doesn't understand women at all. She wants to solve problems by talking them through, he wants to rewire them. Both are loving parents to their kids, youngsters Brad, Randy, and Mark. Of course, Tim spends his time trying to instill his "ultra manly" spirit into them, while Jill aims to give them broader, more sensitive values.
In spite of their differences and attitudes, however, Tim and Jill provide a loving, secure home for their children. They may have conflicts - after all, there wouldn't be a show if they didn't! - but no matter how haywire things get, the audience never doubts their unconditional love and support for each other and their family.
With all these dynamics-power tools, parenting, and the modern male mystique - as its comic building blocks, Hammer Time aimed to be a heartfelt and funny family comedy. There were several real powers behind the show. One, executive producer Matt Williams, was particularly famous. He'd helped a stand-up comedienne then known as Roseanne Barr to become the star of her own hit sitcom, ABCTV's Roseanne. After public disagreements with his prima donna star, however, Mr. Williams departed that show. Still, he and his partners, Carmen Finestra and David McFadzean, maintained that the concept of transforming a successful stand-up comic into a sitcom star was a valid one. (They were right, and in doing so, started a trend, later to include Jerry Seinfeld, Ellen DeGeneres, and Brett Butler of Grace Under Fire) Back in 1991 they found their new funnyman in Tim Allen.
Tim, then, was always the main force behind Hammer Time. Just as Roseanne was created for her, Hammer Time was created for him; it's his stand-up shtick it's based on. In other words, Tim was the show; all other casting was done around him.
In truth, the concept of modern man's primal urge to hammer and saw wasn't just a funny stand-up act it wasn't so far from Tim's sit-down real life either. Even when the cameras aren't rolling, Tim Allen is very much a Mr. Fix-It, who actually is obsessed with cars, power tools, and appliances. He is also a "twelve-year overnight success story" who, though hilariously funny, certainly never foresaw a career in show business.
Tim comes by his love for fooling with tools honestly. Born and raised in Denver, Colorado, his fondest memories are of Saturdays spent with his father, Gerald, and four brothers at a nearby department store. They'd head straight for the - you guessed it - hardware section and stay for hours. "Each of us boys had a toolbox," Tim tells, "and every Christmas my mom would get us each a new tool."
Tim's contented childhood came crashing to an abrupt end when his father was killed by a drunk driver. The family, though devastated, didn't cave in the face of grief and hardship. They relied on their strong love for each other to get them through. "We were each other's support group before we even knew what a support group was," Tim, who was eleven at the time, explains.
Several years later, upon his mother's remarriage, the family moved to Birmingham, Michigan, where Tim attended high school. Never much of an academic type, Tim did ace at least one subject every year. You guessed it - shop class! He also developed a passion for cars that remains unflagging. He once traded an entire summer's pay for a custom-built dune buggy.
In high school Tim was famous for something else as well - being the class clown. "If I didn't have some thing to be a smart aleck about, I wasn't happy," he remembers. Years later the character of Randy Taylor would be based in part on the young Tim Allen. In spite of all that goofing off, Tim not only managed to graduate but go on to Western Michigan University. Looking toward a career behind the camera, he majored in television production.
Odd jobs followed, including stints at a sports store and an advertising company. At the latter he worked his way up to producing commercials, and every once in a while, he would cast himself as a background extra in one of them. That, however, is not what led to his emergence as a performer. Instead, it was a dare.
"One night some friends and I were at The Comedy Castle, a Detroit club specializing in stand-up. It was open mike night - where anyone could go on stage and try to be funny - and one guy dared me to go up and tell some jokes. And because Tim has never been one to turn down a dare, an entire career was born. "I found that I really could make other people laugh," 'Tim says incredulously. "And I thought, hey this is cool."
Over the years, he developed his patter, testing different routines until he struck upon a winner: the macho man character. With his trademark grunts of "Aaarrgh! Aarrgh! Aarrgh!" he had audiences howling. My comedy celebrates what's cool about guys, Tim has described. Guys love brand names, especially tool brand names and big block motors. That's how men communicate. They do not say, That's a nice outfit. They say, Is that your hemi out there? knowing the other guy will understand ... but few women would. Tim's aim wasn't to belittle women but to point out and parody the differences between the sexes. His real-life experience in the "battle of the sexes" came not only from jousting with his four sisters (he's from a big family) but by this time with his wife, Laura. Learning about the parenting part came courtesy of their daughter Kady.
While working the stand-up circuit, Tim was discovered by a Disney executive who knew Matt Williams and his partners were on the prowl for comics with the potential to become TV stars. Although Tim was interested in television, he held out for the right project before signing on the dotted line. In the end, Hammer Time (soon to be called Home Improvement) was that show.
The role of Tim's smart, spunky wife, Jill, required an actress of varied skills. She'd have to wield the real power around the house. But be sensitive enough not to come off bossy. Jill may rule the household, but always with a loving hand. She'd have to be a competent woman, but one audiences could relate to. In other words, not too perfect.
Patricia Richardson filled the bill. Herself a mother (of three, including infant twins) and wife (to actor Ray Baker), she was already an expert at juggling career with car pools, diapers with dialogue and a loving marriage. An accomplished actress, Texasbred Pat cut her dramatic teeth on stage work and TV commercials before getting regular work on TV series. A veteran of three failed sitcoms - Double Trouble, Eisenhower & Lutz, and FM she'd just about given up on TV altogether to concentrate on plays when Home Improvement came along.
It was completely by chance that she actually got the role - the original actress chosen for the part dropped out at the last minute - and by circumstance that she decided to take it. Also, as Pat cheerfully puts it, "At the time, I'd just given birth to twins and was too fat to play anything else!" Although she has slimmed down over the years, in the beginning, Pat was carrying an extra few pounds, which made her even more perfect for the purposely imperfect Jill. After all, what American working wife and mother can't relate to being a few pounds heavier than she'd like to be? In casting Patricia Richardson, there was an extra bonus: the warm familiarity and chemistry between her and Tim was instantaneous and natural. The two were pals from the getgo and remain so today. That affection plays well on screen.
The roles of the Taylor sons were delineated somewhat less clearly than those of the parents. That was partly because they were thought of as supporting roles, even less important than those of handyman Al (played brilliantly by Richard Karn), or the wise but never fully seen neighbor, Wilson (the wry Earl Hindman). At that stage in the show's development, no one even considered that any of the boys would become a star.
As comic foils for Jill and especially Tim there were to be three of them and fairly close in age. As the show began, they were about six, eight and ten years old. Mark, the youngest, was described as the one who idolizes his know-it-all dad and wants to be just like him. Brad, the oldest, was supposed to be the sports-crazy kid on the brink of being girl-crazy. Brad related to his dad with an interest in (if not an identical passion for) cars and tinkering.
And then there was the middle son, Randy. When Jonathan tried out for the role, the character was described as "always in the middle of things, he's the family troublemaker." Randy shared Tim's smartaleck sensibilities, but not his mechanical sense. An artist, magician, and computer buff, he had not a whit of interest in building or repairing anything, unless it was a scheme. Randy Taylor was a rascal, and a smart one to boot. He earned A's on his report card, while blustery brother Brad's cards said "needs improvements." The two of them, however, put their heads together when it came to teasing Mark - like flushing his tadpole down the toilet or delivering the news bulletin that, in fact, there was no Santa Claus.
Even though he was only ten, he understood the character he'd be trying out for. "Randy is the middle son," he described. "He has two parents and a very loving home. He realizes he's secure, but he's still insecure in a way. He feels he has to joke around. That's how he relates to people. He's also a huge con artist. He's always getting into mischief, his wheels are always turning."
There's one obvious reason Jonathan could be so clear about the character. Bright, athletic, clever, and articulate, Randy really wasn't all that unlike Jonathan himself. Of course, there were differences. True, cutting up came naturally, but Jonathan also knew when to stop and get down to business: his teachers attest to that. And though no one can think up and deliver a one-liner faster and funnier, Jonathan also has a sensitive, caring side. His jokes never were at the expense of someone else.
As Jonathan analyzes it, "I think we're alike, because I also get into mischief, but I'm a good kid. I'm also a good student, but I do like to scheme. I'm always thinking about the next thing I can do - but I would never take things to the extent that Randy does." Though he doesn't have a younger brother, he's especially considerate of younger kids: he'd never act the way Randy does toward Mark.
Just because Jonathan knew he was perfect as the raspy, rascally Randy, however, didn't mean he was able to nail it right out of the gate. Hundreds of boys were tested, not only for his part but for the roles of Brad and Mark too. Groups of young hopefuls were asked to act out scenes alone, and then with two other boys. Producers were not only looking for a trio of talented tykes but three who looked and acted enough alike to be believable as brothers. It wasn't an easy task. As the months-long casting process wore on, the choices were whittled down as the finalists were called back to test again and again in different combinations. In all, JTT was called back four separate times. At the end of his fourth audition, he was given the news he'd been hoping to hear: he'd won the role of Randy Taylor.
He won it mainly because of his irresistible look, comic timing, and natural acting ability. But there was another reason Jonathan was chosen, and he freely admits it. "I do resemble Tim Allen," he said on a national talk show, "I saw the other kids who auditioned, and it was obvious - all of them looked kind of similar, as if they could be Tim's son, or least a part of the family." He added. "I think I have similar characteristics to Tim."
Speaking of the other boys who tried out, Jonathan first met Zachery Ty Bryan and Taran Noah Smith during the audition process. As he got to know them a little bit, he was surprised to find out that Zach, who'd won the role of Brad, was actually younger than he was by one month. Of course, Zach was quite a bit taller than Jonathan and, for sitcom purposes at least, did look older. Because they were so close in age and would soon be playing brothers, Jonathan and Zach bonded immediately.
Just as Jonathan was a perfect fit for Randy, so Zach was Brad to the bone. Cheerful, outgoing, and optimistic, Zach was an accomplished athlete, popular with guys and girls alike. An older brother in real life (to sister Ciri) he, too, comes from a loving, twoparent household not so very unlike the Taylors.
There were some differences between young actor and character, though. As Zach explained, "I am athletic, but I'm more sensitive and caring about other people's feelings than Brad sometimes is. Besides, at school I'm an A student and I'm not a brat." If Zach could improve his character in one way, he wouldn't tinker with his mischievous streak, but make him smarter, in school and at home. In the Taylor household it's Randy who's the leader and Brad the follower: Randy thinks up the schemes, and Brad goes along with them. That's not the case off-camera, where, as Zach points out, "I definitely consider myself a leader."
Zach took his first crack at showbiz before he was old enough to really know what it was all about.
Born and mostly raised in Denver, Colorado, he was, like Jonathan, an adorable baby, wide-eyed and talkative, the type everyone said should be in front of the cameras. By the age of three he was. Picked to pose for a newspaper advertisement, Zach's too cute, happy face was the talk of the neighborhood. The little guy thrived on all the attention. A few years later, while watching children like himself in TV commercials, Zach was inspired to give that a try, too. "I said to my morn, I can do that - I want to do that.'" Lucky for him, mom Jenny, a former gymnast, was listening. She signed him up with a local talent agency, and the blond, blue-eyed seven-year-old got his start in local commercials.
A few summers after he'd begun, Zach attended a camp for aspiring young performers. There he was discovered by a New York talent agent and soon signed up for more acting roles. His biggest, before Home Improvement, was a TV movie called Crash: The Mystery of flight 1501. So much did Zach enjoy acting that he decided - with his parents' consent and support, of course - to go to Los Angeles and try out for parts in TV-series and movies.
Winning the role of Brad meant major changes in his life and that of his entire family because it meant pulling up stakes and moving from Denver to Los Angeles. It meant changing schools and soccer teams - for Zach has always been as devoted to that sport as he is to acting - leaving all his friends and cousins behind to form new relationships.
When he started on Home Improvement, Zach felt a little like a "stranger in a strange land." Although Jonathan had been in Los Angeles a bit longer, he had left family and friends behind in his hometown, too. That is one of the reasons the boys reached out to each other and became friends.
With Jonathan and Zach set as the older Taylor boys, that left the part of the baby of the brood, Mark, to complete the picture. After testing tons of youngsters, the one who came out ahead of the pack was Taran Smith, barely seven years old. He may have been the youngest, but Taran was actually the only one whose family had some showbiz savvy. His mom, Candy, worked as a script supervisor for movies. Not that Taran got the part because of it; his look and his natural abilities won him his role. But he did get started just by being around his mom's work. As a baby, Taran was a model for kids' magazines and clothing catalogs. He made the switch to commercials but had never been a regular on a TV show until Home Improvement.
Taran might have had a bit more showbiz savvy than either Jonathan or Zach, but he also had to move away from home (at least temporarily) to costar as Mark. Taran, who actually lived on a boat built by his father for the first four years of his life, is a native of San Francisco. Like the bigger boys, he had no friends in Los Angeles. But because of the three-year difference in their ages, Taran didn't immediately become as close to them. Eventually, though, he formed a tight bond with Zach.
Like the others, Jonathan and his family had a decision to make: whether to move permanently to Los Angeles or continue to try and maintain two households.
When Jonathan got his first series, The Bradys, he and his mom weren't so sure that a permanent move to Los Angeles was the right thing to do in such an uncertain business. And as it turned out, The Bradys wasn't to be a long-lasting gig.
But by the time Home Improvement came along, things had changed. It wasn't so much that JTT knew the show would be a hit - no one did. Jonathan recalls, "The script made me laugh, but no one knew if that meant the show would be successful." He figured that it probably would appeal to a wide audience "People can relate to the struggles between siblings and the parent issues," as he put it. But that still wasn't a formula for great ratings.
Even ABC, the network that picked it up, couldn't predict its popularity. Although each actor was required to sign the standard seven-year contract, it's doubtful many thought it would last that long. In showbiz speak, Jonathan confides, "They only guaranteed us seven episodes." As he well knew, that wasn't much of a commitment, based on the twentysix episodes that make a full season.
At the time, it was believed that Home Improvement would succeed or fail based on America's appetite for Tim Allen's comedy. But since humor is so subjective, no one could really predict if enough people would find it funny enough to keep on the air.
Knowing all that, Jonathan and his family decided to move. In the end, it had less to do with Jonathan's career than with the family's domestic situation, which had gone through some tough times. In 1990 Jonathan's parents had separated. By 1991 they were divorced. While his dad elected to stay lip in the Sacramento area, there seemed to be no reason for the rest of the family to be there. After much discussion, Claudine, Joel, and Jonathan made the decision to move permanently. A change of scenery and lifestyle could be the best thing for all of them. Jonathan had already established himself in the industry and was happy. Even if Home Improvement didn't work out, by now it was clear that Jonathan had something very special to offer the entertainment industry; if he wanted to, he'd always be working. Claudine was thinking about putting her own career on hold to manage Jonathan's. If the show was a hit, she'd have to: who else was going to accompany him during his ten-hour day and look out for his welfare? And they had every expectation that Joel, while never interested in showbiz, would also settle into a new life in southern California.
They began by scouting out neighborhoods in which to settle. It didn't take long before they found exactly what they wanted: an area in the San Fernando Valley that boasted a top school district and competitive sports programs, yet wasn't so far from Hollywood that Jonathan couldn't commute to work.
They were lucky enough to find a beautiful house that suited their needs perfectly. On a wide, treelined street, it was a split-level with a fireplace in the living room and swimming pool in the back. Each boy had his own bedroom, and Jonathan got to work immediately decorating his. He put up shelves and lined them with his growing baseball card and soccer trophy collections plus souvenirs from his fishing expeditions, including a stuffed yellowtail he'd caught on vacation in San Diego. He taped posters to the walls; some depicted calm, aquatic scenes; others were action shots of his favorite sports heroes.
The most important aspect of Jonathan's new life was that it never be too one-sided. "When I got into this business," Jonathan tells, "my mom was worried that I wouldn't have enough free time to be a kid, so there's always a balance between work and play."
Jonathan honestly feels that showbiz kids who don't have a balanced life are the ones who get into trouble down the road. As he told a newspaper journalist, "You have these kid actors who grew up and eventually go on Geraldo, crying that they never had any time; that they were totally corrupted by this business. Probably most of them didn't have much to fall back on. It's easy to get twisted in this business."
To make sure he had something to fall back on and didn't get "twisted," school naturally became a big part of the equation. When Jonathan got the role in Home Improvement and the family moved, he was in the middle of third grade. It's never easy changing schools in the middle of the term; no one, after all, likes to be "the new kid" when everyone else has already made friends. But if anyone could weather the discomfort of breaking into a new crowd, it was friendly, outgoing Jonathan. He entered third grade at a Los Angeles area public school in February, by March, he'd made friends who considered him "just one of the guys."
Academically, he had no problems either. Immediately put into the school's program for gifted children, Jonathan nevertheless worked hard at maintaining an A average. "I keep my grades up because you never know how your acting career is going to go," he told a reporter. To another he said, "Acting careers don't last a lifetime, so you ride it out and get the best education you can." Career or not, chances are Jonathan would have kept his grades up anyway: not only is he truly brilliant, he has a burning desire to learn about new things. And he cares. He likes to be a winner- academically and athletically.
Speaking of athletics, Jonathan signed up for his new town's soccer league, the Shockers, as well as their basketball team. He was welcomed to both; his ability and his spirit were appreciated. Never did Jonathan want to stand out as the TV-star player on any team. He tried hard, as he did in school, to be just one of the kids, accepted for his personality, friendship, and ability.
There was perhaps one thing Jonathan and his family were missing in their new digs - a couple of pets. McCormick, nicknamed Mac, a Lhasa apso puppy soon became a member of the family. He even had his own doghouse built in the backyard. While Joel bonded with Mac right away, Jonathan's heart was stolen by a Himalayan kitten named Samantha, who has always been called Sami.
Normal home life, as JTT would know it for the next couple of years, had begun.
Over at Disney, things were progressing behind the scenes as well, as the new comedy was getting ready to debut. First, there was some tinkering done with its name. The show that had started out on paper as Hammer Time went through two incarnations before becoming the one audiences are familiar with. Hammer Time went out the window before the pilot was filmed; afterward, it was known as Tool Time. After much discussion among the show's creators, Disney TV, Tim Allen, and The ABC network, it was decided that Tim's fictional cable show would retain the Tool Time title, while the show as a whole was rechristened Home Improvement.
There was a bit of fine-tuning done with the boys' names as well. Jonathan had been using "Taylor Thomas" as his professional name ever since he became an actor. Zach's real full name is Zachery Ty Bryan, and that's how he'd always been billed. Whether it's because he felt left out, or was just trying to keep up, at the last minute, Taran added Noah - his real middle name - to his stage name.
This inevitably led to some carping by critics: "Three boys; nine names." There was more criticism to come, but in the end, none of it would amount to a hill of beans.
Home Improvement would overcome that and a whole lot more.
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