Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13 Chapter 14

Jonathan has always been happiest when he's busiest and after several seasons of Home Improvement, he was pretty content. He thrived on his nonstop schedule that combined the show, voice-over work, charity functions, school, sports, and social life. To an outside observer, it seemed JTT didn't have time to even think about adding anything else to his routine. But when The Lion King roared, Jonathan listened. "I didn't expect ever in a million years to be doing TV and movies," Jonathan said with delight when he won the role of Simba, the son of the lion king, Mufasa.

If Jonathan was surprised about landing his role in The Lion King, it's pretty fair to say no one expected his first venture into feature films to become one of the all-time box-office mega-winners. Of course, from the very beginning The Lion King had the earmarks of being a major sensation. It was being released by Disney Pictures and from the same producers who had put together the smash hits Beauty and the Beast and Roger Rabbit. By the time Jonathan auditioned for the voice of Simba, some of Hollywood's biggest names had already signed on the dotted line: James Earl Jones, Matthew Broderick, Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin, and Jeremy Irons. Music greats Elton John and Tim Rice had been commissioned to write the songs for the film. When Jonathan was asked why he wanted to add yet another project to his already heaping plate, he merely answered, "A lot of great actors are involved. It's a real, real nice film."

Actually Jonathan related to the character of Simba. "He is a lot like me," JTT explained. "He's real curious, fun-loving, always getting into mischief."

Not surprisingly, Jonathan felt that Simba was also similar to his Home Improvement character. "Simba and Randy are both curious kids, they're both intuitive and confident, always ready to throw that fast one in, that little comment," remarked JTT astutely.

Not only was The Lion King a "nice film" but it was new creative ground for Disney, the grandfather of all animation companies. The Lion King was the first Disney cartoon feature not based on an existing fable or a literary work, and it was the first time there were no human character or human influence in the story. However, there was one "first" on which Jonathan didn't want to take a chance - singing the songs! When he got the role of the speaking voice of Simba, he was also asked to audition for the songs young Simba performed. Jonathan's always up for a challenge, but he knows his limits. "I didn't do the singing," Jonathan explained quite candidly. "I can carry a tune, but not for anything that I would want millions of people to go see. I told the producers it won't be pretty."

Disney then turned to the young actor/singer Jason Weaver, who had appeared in the short-lived TV sitcom, Thea, and played the young Michael Jackson in a TV movie, to do the singing for the film. It was a perfect chance, since Jason has an incredible singing voice, as well as talent to "match" it to Jonathan's speaking voice. Still Jonathan admitted that whenever he heard "Hakuna Matata," his favorite song from the movie, he sang along ... quietly!

There was no one, however, who was a better choice as Simba than Jonathan. "We had this role for a scrappy young kid to play Simba, and we looked at dozens and dozens of actors," recalled producer Don Hahn. But the funny thing was, in the end, they didn't have to look any further than across the way on the Disney lot! "We saw him on Home Improvement and just thought his voice was right," Hahn continued. "It gives him a very distinctive character."

What was Jonathan's response when he heard that his voice was one of the deciding factors to cast him as Simba? "My voice is just a regular kid's voice," he said with typical modesty, then added, "maybe kind of raspy. The role called for an energetic cockiness. But I didn't have to invent a voice or anything. I just had to talk with a real kid spirit."

As an actor, Jonathan already was used to doing certain voice exercises to strengthen its tone and timber. But when he took on the voice-over role of Simba, he had to protect his vocal cords even more than usual. A few things had to change. "When I'm playing soccer, I tend to yell and scream on the field," he admitted. "I wasn't able to do that anymore." And when he did strain his voice by overusing it, Jonathan soothed his throat with hot tea with lemon and honey.

Of course, it wasn't only Jonathan's voice that made him the perfect choice for Simba - it was his talent and his own spunky attitude. That attitude came in handy during the long recording and editing sessions over the next two years. It wasn't all fun and games, recalled producer Hahn only half jokingly in a People magazine profile on Jonathan. "We darn near beat Jonathan up when we were recording. We had to make it sound like he was being flung down chutes in the elephant graveyard and being chased by wildebeests. So we would rough him up at the microphone and try to make him out of breath."

There were times over the next two years when Jonathan claimed he didn't know if he was coming or going. Dividing his time for his personal life, Home Improvement, and Simba, he said, "I had to kind of go, 'Oops! Time to be Randy' ... `Oops! Time to be Simba.' You have to prepare yourself to become this totally different person. I mean, we're not lions, right?"

The whole project was definitely a challenge, and though Jonathan was not unfamiliar with doing voice-overs, a Disney feature film like The Lion King was major! "I'm used to having all these other actors and actresses around on the set of Home Improvement," Jonathan recalled of the time spent in and out of the soundproof booth from the fall of 1992 to the spring of 1994. "In this case, I didn't. I was in there in a room alone, and I not only had to play my character but also the people I was talking to. I had to get inside their heads so I could know what Simba would be reacting to.... I learned a lot about comic timing. And the nice thing about doing an animated film is that they're for all ages and all time."

Needless to say Jonathan and the other actors weren't the only ones putting in long hours and hard work. Over six hundred Disney illustrators created more than one million drawings for The Lion King over a period of three years. But whenever anyone who was connected with the film was asked what made it worth spending so much time and energy on The Lion King, almost everyone would say ... "The story!"

Jonathan was no exception. He fell in love with the coming-of-age tale the minute he read the script. "It's about a place in Africa called the Prideland, and it takes place in this huge rock formation in the valley," Jonathan explained shortly after he began work on the project. "Simba is this lion cub and his dad, Mufasa (James Earl Jones), is the Lion King.

Simba will become the king when he gets older, but his evil uncle Scar, (Jeremy Irons), wants to claim the throne for his own, and the only way to do that is to kill Mufasa and make Simba think it's his fault.

It's all about responsibility and life, kinda, what you have to go through, the challenges that you face. It's a very nice film. It's gonna be great."

Jonathan was right on the mark with that prediction!

With The Lion King, Jonathan entered a whole new world. The first step was doing the voice of Simba. He would go over to the Todd-AO Studios for his recording sessions. He would work an hour at a time in a soundproof cubicle, wearing giant headphones and speaking directly into the microphone. Everything had to be fit in around Jonathan's other commitments. "We were able to schedule an hour here, an hour there for me to record," he recalled. "It's amazing how much you can get done in an hour."

The recording in Los Angeles was only part of the job - there was more to do in Orlando, Florida. When Jonathan flew to the Disney/MGM Studios, he was treated like a prince. He got to meet the main Lion King animators. Chief animator Mark Henn videotaped Jonathan during several recording sessions so the artists could use his facial expressions and body language as a guide when they drew Simba. "The animators are incredible," Jonathan said when he returned from Florida. "They videotape your face as you're reading, and then they take your expressions and put them into the drawing. It's so cool. You can see some of my expressions in Simba, like when he gets scared and stuff."

Besides the videotaping, Jonathan had to sit for a photo session for headshots so each of the animators could work from it when they were drawing Simba. They must have captured that special JTT quality because many of the reviews of the movie mentioned that Simba's expressive face seemed almost human.

The Lion King premiered in Hollywood on June 17, 1994. Jonathan was front and center, participating in all the special events surrounding the film. The funny thing is, it was at the premiere that Jonathan met his costars for the first time. "I never had the pleasure of working with them," he recalled, since all of the actors had done their voice-overs just as Jonathan had - alone in sound booths. But after the movie opened across the country and started getting rave reviews, Jonathan saw his fellow actors a number of times - mostly at awards shows.

The night of the premiere itself was everything Hollywood is famous for - glitz, glamour, global attention. Celebrities arrived and were interviewed and photographed by journalists and paparazzi from all over the world. Everyone knew from the minute the opening credits rolled that The Lion King was going to break all records. But on a more personal level, Jonathan and his mom watched the culmination of two years work, the results of cross-country efforts on the part of the young actor. And they were pleased.

"When I saw the movie with my mother, she said, `That's what you do when you get sad. That's what you do when you're happy.' It's pretty cool to be immortalized in a Disney classic!" Jonathan said after The Lion King's premiere.

The Lion King grossed $42 million on its opening weekend. Throughout the summer and fall of 1994, Lion King mania swept the country, even the world. The film broke all box-office records, but that was just the tip of the iceberg. Kids everywhere were acquiring Lion King merchandise - from lunch boxes to Halloween costumes - like nothing before. Then, just in time for the Christmas holidays' spending spree, The Lion King was re-released in November of 1994. At latest count The Lion King soundtrack album sold more than seven million copies, and over one billion dollars in officially licensed products were sold.

As 1995 arrived, The Lion King proved it was not just a flash in the pan, not just last year's headlines. It created all-time records. It grossed $751 million at the box office worldwide. Of course, it was the biggest animated film that ever hit the theaters, but it also made more money in 1994 than any other film (not just animated); it joined E.T. and Star Wars as the top moneymaking films ever; it earned twice as much as Hollywood's "experts" had predicted. And that was just the beginning. The award shows began.

In January 1995 The Lion King walked away with Golden Globes for Best Musical Comedy Film and Best Original Song - "Can You Feel the Love Tonight." In February "Circle of Life" and "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" were nominated for Best Song of the Year at the Grammys. In March The Lion King won Oscars for Best Original Score for songwriter Hans Zimmer and Best Original Song for "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" by Elton John and Tim Rice.

Also in March of 1995 The Lion King video was released and quickly became the fastest selling home-viewing movie ever. It shattered all records, selling over twenty million copies in less than a week. It far surpassed even Disney's other major video releases: Snow White, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast. And it's still not over - there are plans to release a sequel to The Lion King direct to video in 1996.

All the success of The Lion King would make anyone's head spin, but Jonathan, who received rave reviews for his work on the film, took it all in stride. "When I did it, I had some idea it would he a success because of Disney's long-term success with animated pictures," he said. But Jonathan had no idea just what an effect 'The Lion King would have on him both professionally and personally. He was soon to find out.