HOME for the HOLIDAYS
Magazine: Ladies' Home Journal
Date: December 1993
Cover: At "Home" with Tim Allen & Pat Richardson (Photo of Tim, Pat, Zach, JTT, and Taran)
Author: Russel Miller
On TV, he plays a fumbling fix-it man who treats his family and his tools with a funny mix of love and bumbling enthusiasm. In real life, Tim Allen is a little better at both.
Tim Allen still can't quite get used to life in Los Angeles. The man who plays hapless handyman Tim Taylor on Home Improvement is, in real life, pretty good with a hammer and nails. But while he's been renovating his off-season house in Beverly Hills, Michigan, for the last eleven years (it's now "just about perfect," he says with a grin), in L.A. he lives in a neighborhood where the very notion of tackling any kind of household repair is ridiculous. Recently, for example, he ventured outside to change the bulb in a lamp along his driveway and immediately attracted the admiring attention of a curious neighbor. "You don't generally see many people round here putting their own bulbs in," said the onlooker. "Wow," the incredulous Tool Man responded. "Do you mean to tell me there is, like, a light bulb service that does that for you?" In fact, there probably is, but Allen, forty, is too much like his TV alter-ego, host of the fictional cable-TV show Tool Time, to take advantage of such silly Hollywood perks. Nevertheless, he's perfectly happy to take advantage of other, more manly, badges of fame and fortune, the kind of trademarks that come with being the hottest male star on TV. Hence, the recent trip to Italy, during which Allen agreed to traipse around the museums and galleries of Florence only if his wife, Laura, would accompany him to the dreary industrial town of Modena for a tour of the local Ferrari factory.
Needless to say, the Allens now own a Ferrari -- along with a couple of Cadillacs, two Jeeps and a monstrous GMC Typhoon truck (the sort of vehicle best saved for hauling steel beams and cords of two-by-fours). It's fortunate that Allen feels so comfortable with his TV counterpart, because he's the first to admit that his range as an actor is strictly limited. "I can only play a part if I can draw on personal experience, and that well can go dry pretty quickly."
Viewers, certainly, would disagree, but none of his thirty-million-member audience can claim to be a bigger fan than the actor's three-year-old daughter, Kady. Once she finally stopped worrying about how her dad got into the television -- she kept looking behind the set for the answer -- Kady eagerly adopted the role of her pop's proud personal publicist. "Do you know who my dad is?" she will demand of total strangers in restaurants, supermarkets and airports. "He's Tim-the-Tool-Man-Taylor!" It's an occupation Allen never expected to have. Growing up in a large family in Birmingham, Michigan, he was crazy about cars, and his first ambition was to work in the auto industry or drive trucks.
Nevertheless, he enrolled in Western Michigan University, and it was there that he discovered a quicker -- if illegal -- way to make money: dealing drugs. Allen expanded his small-time business after graduating in 1976, but two years later, he was arrested in a large cocaine bust at the Kalamazoo airport. Recognizing that his high-flying life was over, he cooperated with the police, pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to seven years in prison -- of which he served twenty-eight months. When he left prison, at the age of twenty-six, he was determined never to return. "I was going way off on the wrong track," he says. "Being in a penitentiary realigned everything. Sometimes you have to hit bottom to know where to go."
For Tim, the place to go was the comedy-club circuit. He had always been a funny kid, and right before going to prison, he took a friend up on a dare and ventured onstage during amateur night at a local comedy club. He was hooked, when he got out of jail, he hit the road. (Laura, his college sweetheart, had stood by him through his ordeal, and the couple married in 1984.) Then one night, at a club in Akron, Ohio, he found himself onstage in front of a bunch of guys from the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. Suddenly he started cracking jokes about what he calls "men's stuff" -- garages and tools and hubcaps and tractors. The audience loved it and howled for more. A few years later, Disney CEO Michael Eisner caught the by-then trademark act and asked Allen to create a sitcom based on his grunting gig. Home Improvement was born. "It's got what every good sitcom has to have," Allen explains, "and that is a great relationship between the husband and wife. I knew the pilot was funny, I knew the character I played was funny, but the magic that Pat has brought to it has exceeded all expectations." "She has such great instincts. The script might call for the children to be hanging around the house playing, but if she feels it's not right, she'll suddenly tell them to start setting the table. One time at the end of a scene, I went to kiss her because I thought it would be the right thing to do, but she wasn't ready for it, so I just missed.' Your instincts are good,' she said to me. 'You'll just have to aim better next time.'"
That pretty much sums up the character of Tim Taylor, through which Allen manages to both celebrate and send up masculinity. He calls it "masculinism," epitomized by a grunting man with power tool in hand, defending the last male strongholds -- the garage, the yard and the hardware store. "Men have been backed into a corner," he says, suddenly quite serious. "We seem like we're in control of everything, but it's an illusion."
Allen doesn't take his own male obsession lightly either. That's why, for example, he insists that everything on the show be authentic. So that the hot rod that Tim-the-Tool-Man had been building in his garage is correct right down to the last nut and bolt. You could, in fact, take it out for a spin -- assuming you can get past the Disney brass ("They won't let me drive it," says Allen with a sigh. "I think they're saving it for some kind of museum!"). This is, after all, the same man who celebrated the initial success of his new show by rushing out and buying a $1,200, sixteen-horsepower compost shredder. "Didn't you get a little something for your wife?" I wonder. "Oh, sure," he says, deadpan. "I bought her a lawn mower."
As a full-time actress and a full-time mom, Patricia Richardson talks about her struggle to keep her own home life balanced.
Patricia Richardson sweeps onto the set of Home Improvement with a half-eaten sandwich in one hand and a toddler dangling from the other. She is not in the greatest mood, since the baby just finished smearing mashed banana down her shirt. Mom plunks the child unceremoniously into a chair, disappears, and returns a few seconds later with another tyke, the banana-smearer's twin brother, who gets put in an adjoining seat. "Sit right there, okay?" Richardson pleads. "Mommy won't be long." "Mommy!" the three-year-olds wail in unison as she goes off to join the rest of the cast, all of whom are waiting in the "garage" for a read-through of the next scene. "It's all right," Richardson calls over her shoulder, the exasperation in her voice something all mothers can relate to. "I'm going to be right here. I won't be long."
The twins' baby-sitter, meanwhile, tries to divert their attention by taking them on a tour of the living-room set, where they soon spot a bowl of candy on a tantalizingly low table. They begin making mad dashes for the treats, and each time the sitter jumps up and loudly heads them off.
"Look," Richardson finally asks, "can I just read my part and go?" "Aw, don't give me any of that Mommy crap," says Tim Allen good-naturedly, causing everyone in the studio to crack up. Even the harassed Richardson manages a grin.
Welcome to the frantic set of Home Improvement, a family show in every sense of the word. Indeed, for Richardson's twins, Roxanne and Joseph, Stage 4 at Disney Studios in Burbank, California, is like a second home; they have practically grown up there. "They were only three months old when I was offered the part," says Pat, "but I would never have done the show if it had meant leaving them at home. I could never have been separated from them; they were too important to me. I mean, working is important, but not that important."
As a result, Disney assured Pat that she'd get time set aside each day to spend with her kids. She always has lunch with them and can usually squeeze in a squirrel-feeding session on the lot the rest of the day. Roxie and Joe have their own playroom across the hall from their mother's dressing room, where, inevitably, most of their toys nevertheless end up. "I knew they were going to be my last babies," says Pat, who also has an eight-year-old son, Henry. "I wasn't going to have any more, and I just didn't want to miss that time with them."
In truth, Pat, forty-one, had little expectations that the role of Jill, feisty wife of Tim-the-Tool-Man-Taylor, would take up too much of her time. Three years ago, while under contract to Disney, she had just signed to do a film that had just been canceled when the studio asked her to make the pilot for Home Improvement. They offered to double her salary and give her an early release from her contract if the show failed to take off.
As an experienced actress who'd been in her share of failed sitcoms, Richardson knew how infrequently pilots lead to anything permanent. So, she thought, she would take the money and run, and then she would be able to afford to spend time devoting herself to the kids. After all, at the time, she had never heard of Tim Allen. All she'd been told was that he was a stand-up comic, news that did little to inspire her, since she knew that comedians rarely make good actors. She watched a few videos of Allen onstage, and she thought he was pretty funny, but she still didn't think the show stood a chance.
She was still nursing her colicky twins, still deprived of sleep, still utterly exhausted when she did the first show in front of a live audience. "The reaction was incredible," she recalls. "We seemed to get laughs that went on forever. My first thought was that the audience was packed with friends of the cast; it just didn't make any sense to me."
But it made sense to her husband, actor Ray Baker (Places in the Heart), who rushed backstage after the taping and told her, "Get ready to be in this show for the next seven years."
He knew that Jill and Tim Taylor would become one of America's favorite TV couples.
"The chemistry with Tim was very good from the start," admits Pat now. "I never really saw the show as being about Home Improvement, or all this tool stuff, so much as it was about a family, and a man and a woman." In the Taylor household, Jill is no Donna Reed. Opinionated and independent, she contrives to be both a loving wife and mother and a fearless champion of women's rights in the face of her husband's macho musings. It's a role that has brought her enormous popularity, particularly with women, who instinctively recognize that while Tim may wield the power tools, Jill wields the power in the Taylor home.
Meanwhile, during rehearsals on Stage 4, the actors' amiable chitchat between scenes -- about children, schools, Little League and the P.T.A -- blends seamlessly with the show's scripts. Patricia's real children play with the children in the show (Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Zachary Ty Bryan and Taran Smith). They clamber over the climbing frame on the "patio," throw a football back and forth across the dining room, play basketball outside the stage door. And when they get too rowdy and boisterous, someone -- anyone -- yells, "Come on, guys, cool it."
It's just this kind of reality, says Pat, that makes the show a top-rated success. "Everyone wants the show to be funny," she says, "but that's not really my forte. I know Tim will take care of that. What I fight hardest for on the show is making sure it's believable. If something seems unreal, if the kids aren't acting the way kids would act, or if I'm not behaving the way a real mom would, then I'll ask for changes -- and I can almost always prevail. It sounds pretentious to say so, but what I focused on from the beginning was truth. People sense when something seems real, and that's what they respond to."
Patricia Richardson is nothing if not real. And if Home Improvement's success is anything to go by, people will be responding to her for years to come.