The Home Improvement cast entered their fourth season in the fall of 1994 in high gear. When they had said their good-byes for the summer hiatus, Home Improvement had been rated the number one prime-time series and had racked up a Golden Globe award for Tim, an Emmy nomination for Patricia, and a People's Choice Award for the show itself. America wasn't the only place that was on a Home Improvement kick - the show was also number one in Canada and Australia. Tim spent his summer making The Santa Clause and writing a book, Don't Stand Too Close to a Naked Man, both of which attracted huge audiences.
That September Jonathan was on top, too. In previous seasons, to most of the adult TV-viewing audience Zach, Taran, and Jonathan were seen as an indistinguishable group, lumped together as a unit. No one had been singled out until Jonathan became the voice of young Simba in The Lion King. Things changed drastically after that. In reviews of Home Improvement, JTT was suddenly being referred to as the "number one son." In an article on the series, the trade publication Variety discussed the popularity of Home Improvement and stated that its cast was especially talented, "particularly Jonathan Taylor Thomas as the middle son - he's capable of generating laughs."
Because of The Lion King, Jonathan was sought after for many magazine and TV interviews. He was profiled in national publications such as People, US, Entertainment Weekly, and USA Today, plus the prestigious L.A. Times and L.A. Daily News. The Hollywood publicity machine was running at top speed. Jonathan was in demand, second only to Tim Allen, on Home Improvement. While flattered, Jonathan was not yet wise enough in the politics of showbiz to understand that this might change things. Since he wasn't envious by nature, he didn't realize that others might resent his success. So he went back to Home Improvement assuming that he was still close friends with Zach and Taran, ready to resume life on the set as it had been before.
That was not to be. The first signs of Jonathan "pulling away from the pack" was the amount of fan mail he started getting. It was piling up fast, at a rate of more than double of his TV brothers.
Not only was Jonathan feeling the spotlight as the top kid on the show but there was more stress and strain. Going into its fourth season as TV's number one family comedy was a mixed blessing. Of course, it was a thrill to be recognized as America's top show, but it also put the pressure on to maintain those stellar ratings and the quality of the show. Young as Jonathan was, that pressure didn't escape him. He was ever the team player, trying to put Home Improvement first.
"It's harder in a sense now that we are in the number one position in the ratings, there's some pressure and you're going. Oh, man, I want to make the show good,"' explained JTT. "We need to maintain that number one spot, and we need to be the best we can be. We have a responsibility to the viewers to keep up the quality so people will want to continue to watch. We take that responsibility very seriously."
It also didn't help that the network added extra pressure by changing Home Improvement's time slot back to Tuesday at 9:00 P.M. from the comfortable Wednesday berth viewers had grown used to. There was also the fact that they were now "thrown" up against NBC's top-ranked rookie show, Frasier.
A spin-off from one of TV's all-time top shows, Cheers, Frasier followed the move of psychiatrist Dr. Frasier Crane from Boston to Seattle as he tried to reestablish his life after his breakup with his wife, Lilith. It was a classy - and hysterically funny - show. Viewers were now forced to choose between the two hilariously funny and top-rated shows. The competition was dubbed by some as "Tool Time" vs. "Shrink Time." It was obvious that there was going to be some ratings shrinkage for one of the shows, and the Home Improvement folks were determined it wasn't going to be theirs.
With this challenge in mind, Home Improvement's fourth season was powered with intriguing new situations for the Taylor family and friends. A shakeup at Tool Time forced Tim to deal with a new boss; Jill lost her job on the magazine and considered going back to school for an advanced degree; Tim had to face the frightening mid-life crisis of turning forty years old; Brad took on a job delivering newspapers and soon found out he couldn't balance the job and schoolwork; Randy's interest in girls grew by leaps and bounds; and little Mark found out his difficulties at school were because he needed glasses.
In interviews about Home Improvement, Jonathan was enthusiastic and cheerily talked about more favorite episodes. "The one with the bully in the bowling alley where he gets handcuffed to a video machine" rated highly with him. Candidly, Jonathan also admitted to favorite episodes hitting especially close to home. "One episode dealt with the height issue - which I've dealt with in real life. And Randy's first boy-girl dance party, which was funny and interesting dealing with the girl things, but dealing with parents, too."
Clearly, Jonathan still loved being part of the Home Improvement family and looked forward to the new season. "Randy isn't a little kid anymore," he told TV Guide. "He's growing up and he's the middle child, so he gets attention being a smart aleck. I like making people laugh."
But Jonathan also admitted to some trepidation. "It's a lot of work and a lot of long hours, but I have a good time," he said when asked what it was like to be on the toprated TV show. "Seeing people watch and respond - that's why we make the show. For people to enjoy it, to sit down on Tuesday nights at 9:00 P.M. and laugh for twenty-two minutes. It's rewarding."
Before the season got underway, Jonathan was quoted as saying, "I wish they would get my character more into girls, but they've promised they are going to - the producers talked to me about it." And when Jonathan joined the rest of the Disney TV kids for a pre-season press conference, he happily announced, "Randy gets a girlfriend. That's pretty cool!"
The high hopes for the fourth season seemed to be coming true. Not only was Randy's character getting into girls, but Jonathan observed, "They are developing all the characters more."
Once again, the press was ever interested in the behind-the-scenes atmosphere on Home Improvement, and a reporter from the L.A. Times spent a day on the set. When the attention was turned on Jonathan, the reporter listed his nonstop activity - JTT sang several verses of the Albanian national anthem, grabbed a cable and cracked it like a whip, circled the set at high speed, and then stopped on a dime and hit his marks and delivered his lines perfectly. Clearly Tim's influence - the ability to be a complete cutup one minute and a complete professional the next - was stronger than ever.
During this season there were more and more kids on the set behind the scenes, too. No, Jill didn't have the baby she had hoped for, but Patricia's real-life three-year-old twin son and daughter were always there, as was Tim's daughter, six-year-old Kady. To the outside observer the Home Improvement set was "all in the family."
Another change all three boys looked forward to was their time out during the work day affectionately dubbed "Rec Time."
"One of the greatest difficulties for children who are holding down the job of an actor is normal child development," explained Gayle S. Maffeo, a Disney vice president, to the Los Angeles Times when asked about how the Home Improvement kids release their energy. "Kids need to play, and we like to deal with kids who behave like kids."
In order to accomplish that and direct their energy in a positive direction, Disney hired Vikki Van Hoosen and her husband, Angel Aguilera, as personal trainers to Jonathan, Zach, and Taran. The husband-and-wife team started their own company, Personal Edge, in 1992 specifically to provide fitness training for Hollywood showbiz kids. The Home Improvement kids were among their first clients - today they also work out with the young actors from Boy Meets World, Baywatch, and Fresh Prince of Bel Air.
The Home Improvement "Rec Time" found a new home during the show's fourth season, quite possibly as a result of the boys "walkout" the previous year.
Instead of playing basketball at the truck loading zone, Disney built a special fenced-in area that was large enough to play football, soccer, and basketball and provided a game-filled trailer for rainy days. The trailer housed a mini pool table, a Ping-Pong table, a foozball set, and video games. Most often Zach and Taran played video games, while JTT was more interested in challenging Angel to Ping-Pong. And they all played foozball. Over the Rec area gate was a sign: "Child Actors Break Area. No one over 16 allowed (NO EXCEPTIONS!)" Well, Vikki and Angel are exceptions, but they've been described as "a couple of big kids," so they fit in anyway.
If the boys were in regular school, they would be getting recess and physical education. "We try and combine both in one hour," Vikki said when asked about their fitness training program, which also counts for school credit. From aerobics to sports, the trainers helped each kid individually and together. "We try to include as many different activities as possible so the kids see they don't have to do pushups and sit-ups to get a workout," Vikki explained. "Some kids have athletic skills already, others we have to teach. Taran's learned a lot. He really took to tennis. Zach and Jonathan had good skills already in all sports. They were good athletes. Jonathan's excellent at basketball, but it's not his favorite. Soccer is. What's nice about soccer is you can practice by yourself. You don't need a bunch of other people around."
After Vikki and Angel started "playing" with Jonathan, Zach, and Taran, everyone on the set noticed a big difference, especially Disney exec Gayle Maffeo, who set up the program. "The kids would have so much energy, they'd tend to start taking it out on everybody else," she recalled. "Their attentiveness and performance on the set improved a lot after Vikki and Angel joined us."
Zach claimed that Vikki and Angel's training "brought up my coordination tremendously." Taran explained that he most improved in his basketball skills because of their efforts. "I remember I couldn't even make it when the hoop was the lowest - my shots were still two feet short of the net," he said. "Now I can keep up with everyone." As for Jonathan, well, he loves Vikki and Angel, and enthused, "They're great people. They're very nice - professionals and excellent at what they do. They teach us how to stay fit, things that you can do if you don't have much time. It's tough to stay fit on our schedule - working, school. They teach things that are simple ways to stay fit - not difficult - so any normal kid can do it. It's very important to stay physically fit because it's the basis for everything else. You have to be physically fit even to act. It may not seem like they tie together, but it really does because you have to be healthy and well to handle this kind of vigorous schedule. They've helped us maintain that balance. We have a blast! We play basketball, soccer, hide and-go-seek, run laps around the stages - we do everything, condition ourselves, and get all our excess energy out."
And to show off their athletic ability, the Home Improvement kids invited the TV show Extra to join them for "Rec Time." Typically Jonathan mugged for the cameras, and in his best Arnold Schwarzenegger/Saturday Night Live accent, he promised the audience. "Hi Extra! I'm going to pump you up!" Then he, Zach, and Taran took the Extra crew through their paces with Vikki and Angel.
Of course, it wasn't all playtime on the set. With the new season of Home Improvement came a new school year for JTT. As he prepared to enter seventh grade, he assumed he'd be able to resume his "balancing act" - three weeks working with the set tutor and the fourth week of the month back to his regular classroom.
A consistent A student, Jonathan almost always put in more than three hours a day on his schoolwork. "In my family, education comes before everything else," JTT explained when he visited the Regis and Kathy Lee show. But sometimes it's easier said than done, and the young actor had admitted that the back and forth between reel life and real life isn't always smooth. "Sometimes the transition has been hard," he said, "but we tell the teachers in advance about my schedule. There's a lot of communication. We have Fed Ex come every Tuesday and Friday to transfer work back and forth between the tutor and the school."
Of course, school is not only studies but also students, and it was not always easy for Jonathan to maintain steady relationships with his public school buddies. His back-and-forth schedule put pressure on friendships, even though he worked hard at being just one of the guys. It worked out well during his elementary school years, but when Jonathan entered middle school - in Los Angeles that's sixth, seventh, and eighth grades - things changed a bit. It got tougher because there were older kids who surrounded him sometimes, not to bother him but to give him more attention than he felt he wanted in school. Jonathan was never hassled, exactly, he was just not comfortable. As always, he wanted to be treated like a normal kid at school.
Of that transition to middle school, Jonathan told a reporter, "We're in a good school district, and the teachers here in middle school are helpful. In the past, when they didn't cooperate, they didn't give me the work. That can hurt. That can mess you up, because, you know, your grades - that can be your downfall."
Make no mistake, Jonathan likes getting A's.
Jonathan has always been a top student, partly because of his innate intelligence, but just as much because of his interest and eagerness to learn about new things and "old" things - his favorite subject is history. "I've always been fascinated with what went around way back then," he's revealed in many interviews. He's also confessed to not liking "the dreaded math," although he is still good at it - "I just don't like it."
It was during middle school that he transferred from public school to a performing arts school that could deal with his work schedule better. Things started falling into a well-oiled routine once again - at least academically; but that wasn't the case with Jonathan's relationships behind the scenes.
When once Jonathan and Zach had spent all their time together, it was obvious as the fourth season got underway that things had decidedly changed.
Where the boys - in particular Jonathan and Zach - were once inseparable, they were now gradually growing apart. Part of it was brought about by the media attention on Jonathan. When reporters and photographers visited the set, they were ostensibly there for all the boys, but more and more they were directing their questions and cameras at Jonathan. Sometimes it was so obvious that a sensitive adult intermediary had to step in and gently nudge the press to please include the others. The whole situation made everyone uncomfortable. Zach and Taran are far too professional to say anything publicly negative about JTT, but they wouldn't be human if they didn't feel bad occasionally - and that made Jonathan feel bad, too.
But besides the spotlight being shone on Jonathan, there were other reasons he was pulling away from the "crowd." Normal, growing-up reasons. Jonathan was developing different interests from his TV siblings. "Taran and Zach pretty much hang out together the most," Jonathan admitted during a Disney press conference, "because they have more in common. They're spending more time together."
Though Jonathan credited a busy schedule as part of the reason he and Zach stopped hanging out so much and having sleep-overs at each others' houses, he also maturely understood a fact of life. "People change," he said. "I've never been one to play with video games, but, yeah, toys I did like. But I kind of outgrew that. People are going to change, and they're gonna have their differences, and those differences are gonna be there for a long, long time."
Other differences appeared here and there. "Taran - he's a Star Trek-a-holic," said Jonathan, who doesn't share the fascination. And then there was the food difference. Jonathan is a vegetarian and watches what he eats very carefully. Sometimes it would drive him crazy when the others playfully teased him about it. He told a magazine once, "Zach and Taran love meat. They love steak, veal, hamburger. And what they do is, they get it and they'll walk up to me and go Hey, cool, rare, just the way I like it. Look at all that red meat. Mmmm - cow muscle - would you care for some?"
In spite of those growing differences, JTT realized that when you work with someone, you've got to put those differences aside. "It's very tough to have to work with someone, especially in the situation we're in - like nine and a half hours a day. You can't dislike them, otherwise you're gonna go crazy. Besides, we do get along - and that shows on the show. I think we have very good chemistry on the set, and it's reflected in the outcome of the show."
Still with the pressure and the personal and professional changes swirling all around him, Jonathan attempted to keep things as normal as possible. However, Jonathan admitted in a recent newspaper interview, "I've had to give up certain things."
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