In the early summer of 1991, Jonathan and the rest of the cast began working on their new sitcom. The series was slated for the 9:00 P.M. Tuesday night time slot right between ABC's established comedies, Full House and Roseanne. Why so late? Initially Home Improvement was not thought of as a kids' show since the comedy was built around Tim Allen's "more power macho man" stand-up comedy routine. The target audience was thought to be male adults who would relate to Tim's "Mr. Fix-It" comedy image. It was hoped that women would also tune in just to see how Jill, played by Patricia Richardson, really ruled the roost. Though Tim's character is often puffed-up being a "manly-man," Patricia's role shows her doing a balancing act looking for a job, maintaining a home, and raising a family. There are times when Jill and Tim argue and it seems that, they don't even speak the same language! But throughout, their love and affection for each other is always obvious.
As it happened, Home Improvement appealed to all audiences - old, young, male, and female. Patricia's take on Home Improvement's universal appeal is that it reflects the reality of the typical American home and family, it isn't an idealized version. "If things between Tim and Jill get too soft," she explained, "then it's not as real as what happens in the audience's homes, and that's what they're responding to."
An added attraction for the male audience was Pamela Anderson, who was the first "Tool Time Girl" before she traded her hammer and nails for a bathing suit and full-time beach duties on Baywatch.
On September 17, 1991 Home Improvement joined the ABC fail lineup. It was an instant smash, landing at number nine on the Top Ten list of TV shows after its first broadcast. That proved to be no fluke. In a matter of weeks, it was obviously a solid hit with TV reviewers and critics scrambling to analyze its appeal. Time magazine explained Home Improvement "combines the ironic edge of Allen's stand-up comedy with traditional family-show sentimentality. ... [It] is a show about men, or more precisely about maleness. Tim is a swaggering takeoff on a macho guy who gets his kicks from rebuilding closets and working on his hot rod at 4 A.M."
At the end of its first season, Home Improvement was rated the number one new TV series, beating out all the others that had debuted that fall. Overall it was listed as number five on the official Nielsen Chart. Its popularity was further recognized when Home Improvement won the 1992 People's Choice Award for "Favorite New Comedy Series" and was nominated for an Emmy Award in the "Best Comedy" category.
Though it remained unacknowledged, the main reason for the unexpected popularity with a youthful audience was the three sons, Brad, Randy, and Mark.
Kids immediately took to the cool, but not too bright, Brad, the mischief-making Randy, and the picked-on baby of the clan, Mark. Though the three child actors - Zachery, Jonathan, and Taran - were all adorable, it was JTT who seemed to ignite that special spark with the audience and fates.
Jonathan was finally doing what he had dreamed of for all these years - he was on a successful TV sitcom, entertaining millions of people every week. When Home Improvement made its first season debut, JTT had just celebrated his tenth birthday. Despite his youth and inexperience on a TV series, his adjustment to the daily routine was quite smooth. Most importantly, he understood his character even better now that he was actually playing him. "I'm like Randy because we're both always thinking and scheming," Jonathan revealed in one of his first interviews for Kidsday, a section of the New York newspaper, Newsday. "I have an older brother, so I am always trying to find ways to get back at him for things he did to me." Of course, there are some things Randy got away with on reel life that JTT wouldn't try in real life. "I would never go as far as Randy does," he continued, referring to a silly sibling squabble on Home Improvement. "Like, I couldn't put my sixteen-year-old brother in a garbage can!"
Jonathan did admit that the grind of a weekly series was tough - but there was a major upside. In one of his first press conferences at the Disney studios, he told reporters: "It's fun, but it's work; everybody's always anxious to get things done on time. You have deadlines, you have cues, but you meet a lot of new people like Tim Allen, who's a great guy, and Patricia Richardson and the rest of the cast - don't let me forget anyone! It's just a real nice set to work on."
Jonathan's fife began to take on a familiar pattern, divided between work days and off days. The Home Improvement schedule was an easy one to adapt to: three weeks on, one week off, starting at the end of July or early August and ending for hiatus in March or April. On the days Jonathan's required to be on the set, he wakes up at 7:00 A.M. - "without an alarm clock!"-and is ready by 8:00 A.M. for the hour-long ride to the Disney Studios in Burbank.
While Claudine drives and country music plays on the radio, JTT busies himself reading the sports section of the newspaper or sometimes the classified ads. As he told Disney Adventures magazine: "I love old cars, so I like to see what's for sale. I like the '65 Mustang, the '54 Porsche Speedster, the '58 and '61 Chevy Impala - they're big boats, but they're cool." Or, other commutes, he goes over that week's script. Some people think it must be difficult memorizing all the lines for each show, but it comes naturally to Jonathan. "Once you get into the rhythm of reading the script, you can interpret it very easily," he explains. "The only problem is when the writers keep changing the lines; then I have to remember the new ones."
Depending on the traffic and how badly the L.A. freeways are backed up, Jonathan arrives at Stage 4 of the Disney Studios around 9:00 A.M. That's where he meets Zach and Taran in the on-set school trailer. By law, the kids are required to do three hours of school every day. They are taught all the appropriate subjects for their respective grades by a special onset tutor who gets the class work from the boys' regular schools.
"In the morning we do an hour of school," Jonathan explains, "then rehearsals start. On Mondays we have what's called a table reading where producers and everyone in the cast sits around a table and reads over the script to see if it's funny, if the jokes are good, if the script comes together."
After the read-through, it's back to school for the boys while the rest of the cast continues rehearsal until lunch break. Everyone either drops by the Disney commissary for their midday meal or picks up something from the catering service table on the set. Since Jonathan is a vegetarian, he usually sticks to fruits, vegetables, soups, or pasta for lunch. However, the food selections in the cafeteria don't vary too much, and Jonathan admits he sometimes gets "sick of it, so I go to the health food store for variety." He also tries to squeeze in some extra study time during this break because he's determined his school work is not going to suffer because of his career. The rest of the day is broken up between more school, more rehearsals, and staging the exact positions of the actors on the set.
As the week progresses, the show gets closer and closer to a finished product. Tuesday and Wednesday are devoted exclusively to rehearsals. By Thursday everything should be almost perfect - all script changes made, new scenes added, and those that aren't working cut. Then it's dress rehearsal. That's when JTT and the rest of the cast first put on the clothes selected by the wardrobe department for that particular episode. "They supply all the clothes," explains JTT, "but if there is something we don't like, we do have a say.... I'm allowed to tell them the clothes I like."
Monday through Thursday, Jonathan heads home around 6:00 P.M., and he usually does his homework during this end of the commute. But if he's caught up, he reads auto and fishing magazines and just chats away with his mom.
Friday is tape day, Jonathan's favorite day of the week. Actually, like most sitcoms, Home Improvement has two tapings on Friday, first in the afternoon and then later in the evening. The cast spends the morning and late afternoon having their makeup and hair done, going over last-minute changes, and wishing each other luck. Although JTT is always prepared, he admits he has occasional butterflies on tape day. "You can do this a million times, and you are still going to be nervous because you can't beat stagefright," he says. "Sometimes I go to my dressing room and watch TV to mentally take that pressure away."
Part of the pressure, of course, is taping in front of a live audience, but once Jonathan gets on the set, all those butterflies fly away. He thrives on the give-and-take of actor and audience and says: "I love performing in front of an audience.... I like to hear the reaction of real live people. Since the show is taped before a live audience, all the laughs are real. We have microphones that hang out over the audience and pick up the laughs.... It's much better than a laugh track."
Actually, in those early days there were a lot of laughs on the set of Home Improvement - both in front of the audience and behind the scenes. The cast was close and the gregarious Jonathan made friends with everyone almost instantly. Jonathan even found common ground (or seas) with some of the crew members, especially those who share his love of fishing. "There are a couple of fishermen among the crew members on the set," Jonathan explains. "I like to sit back with them and swap exaggerated fish stories - I caught a ... nine-footer! Oh yeah!"
In those early days, of course, his costars Zach and Taran had the most in common with JTT since the three were the only kids on the set. Though they'd originally bonded because none had real friends his own age in L.A., it didn't take long for JTT and Zach to find other common ground. Sports was a big link. Both Jonathan and Zach were serious sports fanatics and loved to play basketball, football, and especially soccer. In their respective Los Angeles areas, the first thing each had done after registering at school was join a soccer league. Between scenes they'd often kick a soccer ball around the Disney lot.
Besides sports, the two shared an impish sense of humor. Both were high-energy kids who loved to play pranks and dash around the set between takes - yet both could stop on a dime and be ready to deliver his lines on cue. And neither, of course, was very different from the character he was assigned to play - their roles seemed "Taylor"-made for them.
"Zach and I gravitate toward each other naturally," Jonathan once explained of his early relationship with his costar, adding in typical preadolescent fashion, "but I'm the oldest and the leader. I like that. I like being the leader. I may not be the biggest, but I can always say, `I'm the oldest - we do this!'" Of course, Zach didn't always agree with that assessment.
And then there was Taran. On the show, as Mark, he's always being picked on and teased by his big brothers, but when the cameras turn off, things were a little bit different. JTT and Zach never ganged up on Taran. Like typical older brothers, there were times when they looked out for Taran and times they did their own thing. "We don't leave him out," supersensitive Jonathan said, "even though he's three years younger - that's a big difference in mentality and athletic ability. We're more coordinated, so when we play sports, we just pair him up with a bigger person."
Like all the actors on Home Improvement, each of the boys had his own dressing room. A sign on Jonathan's door read "The Great Randini," and inside he plastered his walls with posters of his favorite baseball, basketball, and hockey players, as well as posters from cool movies like Boyz 'n the Hood. When you walked by JTT's home away from home in those days, you heard music constantly. At the time, he was into rap and the sweet harmonies of Boyz II Men.
During the show's first few years Zach's and Taran's rooms were situated right next door to Jonathan's, making it that much easier for the boys to hang out together. Truth is, the guys had gotten so tight; they used to cut up behind the scenes constantly, running around the set, whooping and hollering. It got to the point where they'd earned themselves the reputation as the "Home Imps!" That not entirely positive image became a little more public when Entertainment Tonight did one of its first behind-the-scenes pieces on the show. "ET came in and made it look like we were little monsters," Jonathan said later, "when we're really just active, energetic normal kids." It wasn't a big deal, but it was the first time Jonathan was surprised at the power of the press to misrepresent him. It wouldn't be the last time.
All three boys had something else in common. Since all were minors, they were required by law to have a guardian on the set at all times. Most of the time it was their moms: Claudine for JTT, Jenny for Zach, and Candy for Taran. The young mothers gravitated toward each other in much the same way their sons had. Since each woman had another nonprofessional child at home to take care of also (Jonathan's brother Joel, Zach's sister Ciri, and Taran's sister Aria), they often would take turns watching each other's boys on the set.
By the end of the first season of Home Improvement, it was obvious that Tim Allen, who has a reallife five-year-old daughter, had developed a close relationship with his TV-sons. But insiders insist that there was something very special between Tim and Jonathan from the beginning. Perhaps because Zach and Taran live with both parents, unlike Jonathan, who by that time wasn't seeing much of his dad, Tim took more of an interest in JTT. For, though it was under different circumstances, Tim also lost his dad when he was young, so he understood how hard it can be on a boy not to have a father figure. Of course, it could also be that Tim and JTT naturally share the same wise-cracking sense of humor! Whatever the reason, it was clear from day one that Jonathan adored and admired Tim - and was his best audience - and Tim took Jonathan under his wing.
Once you get Jonathan started talking about Tim Allen, it's almost as if he can't stop. "He's been doing stand-up for years," JTT told a magazine reporter, "and sometimes acts as if our cast and crew is his own little private theater. He never stops with the one-liners - it's like he's doing an act twenty-four hours a day!"
Though to some, it seemed like a laughathon between Tim and Jonathan, others noticed that the young actor was absorbing a great deal about being a professional from his mentor. Jonathan soon learned there were times to kid around and other times to get busy. "Tim blows his lines the most, but it may be deliberate - he's a very funny guy," Jonathan continued with his Allen analysis. "Tim keeps everybody loose on the set, You can threaten Tim with the worst of things, and he'll still turn it into a joke. He's amazing, but at the same time very professional, gets his work down. He's the loosest, mellowest guy you'll ever know - a blast to work with."
Tim and Jonathan's offscreen relationship mirrors their father-son image on screen. And if Brad is the son Tim's TV character is close to because of a shared interest in cars and all things mechanical, it is JTT who really shares his offscreen sense and sensibilities: of humor and intellect. 'Tim has really taken Jonathan under his wing, and there is definitely one person who is very grateful - JTT's mom, Claudine.
"Tim Allen is a big help." she explained to a national magazine. "He keeps an eye on Jonathan and takes a special interest. Tim knows that Jonathan's dad and I are divorced, and his dad, who lives in Sacramento, doesn't see him a lot. Tim helps keep Jonathan's head from swelling. If he sees any ego flaring, he playfully teases Jonathan."
If on the set of Home Improvement it was Tim Allen who helped keep life normal for Jonathan that first season, at home it was all up to Claudine. She was determined not to let Hollywood change her young son, so he definitely didn't get the star treatment there. As in any household, Claudine assigned both her kids duties. "I have my chores to do," Jonathan described to a reporter. "I have to make my bed and vacuum the pool. I've gotta make sure the litter boxes are clean and that my cats and dog have fresh food and water. And I take the trash out."
But once that was out of way, and all his homework done, Jonathan enjoyed himself like any other kid. During weekends, hiatus time, and vacations he went to L.A. Dodger baseball games (he even caught a ball at one!), went fishing, watched his favorite TV shows like Full House, Roseanne, Who's the Boss? and Growing Pains, and played sports whenever he could. Even for Jonathan, though, there was some quiet time, and that was when he loved to lose himself in books like Hatchet, James and the Giant Peach, and Island of the Blue Dolphin.
Another one of Jonathan's favorite pastimes was adding to his collection of sports cards and soccer pins, some of which were from teams as far away as Russia, Australia, and Germany. Actually Jonathan's bedroom was looking more and more like a huge sports memorabilia showcase. Naturally that Dodger baseball went right into his collection, as did the various autographed cards and balls he amassed. Tim Allen even made a contribution when he got running back Barry Sanders of the Detroit Lions to sign a football for Jonathan. Of course, Jonathan's celebrity did help a bit. "I did a photo shoot with Dennis Eckersley of the Oaklands A's, and he signed a ball for me," Jonathan recalled. "I also met Reggie Jackson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and they signed balls for me."
Adjusting to an entire new lifestyle in Los Angeles wasn't always easy, however, and there were times when work spilled over into Jonathan's playtime. But on such occasions, as when he had to make personal appearances on weekends, he and his mom found a way to compensate for his loss of free time. They'd make what was essentially a "business thing" into something fun. Whenever they traveled they'd check out all the historical and geographical points of interest and history buff Jonathan began to look forward to those excursions.
Jonathan's favorite time off the set of Home Improvement, though, was when he hung out with his friends - his non-showbiz pals from school and his soccer teammates. "I really prefer just being a regular guy," Jonathan has said. "When I first got to the school, not many kids knew me, so they asked a lot of questions. It was a little difficult in the beginning. Most of the kids are very nice, and I haven't had any problems. Sometimes they'll talk about last night's episode of the show or something-they might say, `I didn't like those overalls you wore, they were dorky.' Or `Hey, cool hat,' you know, stuff like that. I never mind, as long as it's not the whole conversation."
Still, Jonathan's closest friend at the time remained his on-screen brother, Zach. Even on weekends, Jonathan and Zach chose to get together. "We'd pop over to each other's houses and listen to music," JTT recalled.
More often than not, the two would be comparing soccer notes. Unfortunately, because of their schedules, neither could make all of the practices or games, but it was still very important to them. To Jonathan, belonging to a soccer team meant he could be "just one of the guys," that he wasn't singled out because he was on TV.
Similarly Jonathan preferred regular school to the tutoring he got on Home Improvement. By the time Jonathan was in the fourth grade, he was an old pro at splitting up his time and studies. "I love being on the set and doing work there, but I also love going back to the classroom and seeing my friends," he admitted to friends. "Also I like seeing the grass around the school. At work it's just asphalt - no fields to run in."
When the first season of Home Improvement ended, Jonathan was ready for a summer vacation, but when it came time to report back for the 1992-93 season, he was raring to go! Home Improvement started its second season on Wednesday, September 16th - same time, 9:00 P.M., but a new night, which turned out to be just the first of many changes for the cast on-screen and off. Jill Taylor got a job that season, requiring Tim to pitch in more with the household chores, which almost always led to a disaster since he wanted to apply "more power" to the simplest of tasks. Jill's mom was introduced on the show, giving Tim an on-screen mother-in-law. More laughs. Meanwhile, down on the set of Tool Time, Tim got a new boss - and it was a woman. His reaction? The typical "Arrggh! Arrggh! Arrggh"!
Changes were in store for the boys as well. Randy got to fly as Peter Pan in a school play, which Tim nearly destroyed. Brad got interested in girls, and Mark, well, he was still picked on by his older brothers.
Once again the series was pulling in huge ratings and Jonathan was getting more and more into his character. He had only one unfulfilled desire. "The only thing I wish is that they'd start getting him interested in girls. But I like Randy. I'm happy playing him."
Clearly the second season was a lot of fun for JTT. He laughed constantly at Tim's antics, never more so than when they taped an episode dealing with Tim's fears of snakes. Jonathan still refers to that Episode as his all-time favorite. "That was very funny, especially when the snake, which was hiding in the wall behind the phone, slithered down Tim's Shirt. - Jonathan still feels the expression on Tim's face in that scene was one of Home Improvement's classic moments.
It seemed that a lot of people tuned in for that Episode - and all the others - because by the end of the second season, Home Improvement was a true TV phenomenon. Reportedly, it attracted thirty million viewers each week. Once again it was a winner at the People's Choice Awards, this time for Favorite Comedy Series and Tim received a nod as Favorite Male TV Performer. The show also garnered five Emmy nominations and ended the season in the number three place on the Nielsen charts. It also made TV history when it was given a three-year renewal by ABC in an unprecedented vote of confidence. It was a good move by the network - Home Improvement attractedtwice as many men, women, and children as any other sitcom at the time.
When asked why he thought Home Improvement had taken the nation by storm, Tim Allen modestly responded: "The show's special because of the chemistry between cast members. It really becomes apparent when you watch it."
When the exhilarated cast celebrated their season "wrap party" on the Home Improvement set, everyone was talking about the vacations they were planning for that summer's hiatus. Everyone, that is, except Jonathan. He had other plans!
Part of The Jonathan Taylor Thomas Archive - JTTArchive.Net
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