TIM AT THE TOP
With a No. 1 movie, a No. 1 TV show and a No. 1 book, Tim Allen is having an unbeatable year
BY RICHARD ZOGLIN
Tim Allen is still learning the protocols of stardom. On a promotion tour for his new book earlier this fall, he went on a talk show and laughed about the private plane that his publisher, which is owned by Disney, was flying him around in. Known for its thriftiness, Disney hates being made to look like a typical, money-burning Hollywood studio, and a few days after Allen made his remarks, he received a curt memo from headquarters. Never brag about Disney's use of corporate jets, the company's biggest star next to Simba the Lion was told; don't even mention corporate jets and Disney in the same sentence. Now, some stars might have thrown a fit - or got their agent to do it for them. But Allen reacted like a chastened fifth-grader; he told Disney it was just a joke.
Good thing Allen didn't mention the new four-wheel-drive Porsche the studio just bought him. But then, the Disney comptroller can hardly complain. Allen has made a pirate's galleon of loot for the company during a year in which he has pulled off an unheard-of triple play. Home Improvement, his ABC sitcom now in its fourth season, is TV's No. 1-rated show, earning Disney $400 million thus far in the sale of reruns. His jokey autobiographical book, Don't Stand Too Close to a Naked Man, reached No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list in October and is still riding high in second place (trailing only the Pope); it is the most successful book yet published by Disney's 3 1/2-year-old book division, Hyperion. Now The Santa Clause, Allen's first movie, is the surprise hit of the Christmas season, earning $71 million in its first 17 days and jumping to No. 1 at the box office over the Thanksgiving weekend - surpassing Tom Cruise's fangs, Schwarzenegger's pregnancy and both generations of Star Trek.
It's a success story as heartwarming as one of those sentimental father-son talks on Home Improvement. Allen, 41, is hardly the most brilliant comedy star of his generation, though some might call him its most brilliant example of multimedia Hollywood marketing. But few superstars seem less inflated by their success. Allen still keeps a home in an unpretentious neighborhood in suburban Birmingham, Michigan, where he retreats for holidays and other family gatherings. He has been married for 10 years to his college sweetheart, who waited for him while he served more than two years in a federal penitentiary on drug charges. And when he throws temper tantrums on the set of his TV show - "My set! My camera! My props!", he's been heard to shout - everybody knows it really is a joke. In contrast to stories about some other sitcom stars, like Roseanne and Grace Under Fire's Brett Butler, those about Tim Allen's rampaging ego are all but nonexistent. "He just never lost perspective," says Bruce Economou, an old friend from Michigan. "When he first went to the Home Improvement stage, where they were building the sets, and the people from Disney were walking him through, they told him, 'This is all for you.' Tim looked at it and said, 'Well, if this show doesn't work, can I have the wood?"'
Now Allen can have almost anything he wants. After the success of The Santa Clause, Hollywood insiders predict he will command upwards of $8 million for his next movie (on top of the $5 million he reportedly made this year from the TV series). But talking in his TV dressing room last week, in between bites of a tuna-salad sandwich, Allen said he'd be happy with a small token of his achievement. "It's so cheesy," he says, "but I just want a little plaque that says, no. 1 tv show, no. 1 book, no. 1 movie. Just something for me, because I worked so hard I almost died: 18-hour days getting in and out of a fat suit, typing ((my book)) on my laptop. I looked forward to this day, right before Christmas, when it would all be over."
Or maybe just starting. With The Santa Clause, Allen has joined the tiny fraternity of stars (John Travolta, Robin Williams, Jim Carrey) who have successfully made the leap from TV to movies. Many more - including the two most dominant prime-time stars of recent years, Bill Cosby and Roseanne - have conspicuously failed to transfer their popularity to the big screen. Perhaps they are too closely identified with TV roles in which they essentially play themselves. Perhaps their very living-room familiarity makes it impossible for them to be fully convincing on the larger-than-life movie screen. For whatever reason, the stars with whom viewers get cozy around the TV hearth are rarely the same ones they surrender to when the lights go down at the multiplex.
Yet with his white-bread affability and a face as wide open as the Great Plains, Allen seems at home everywhere. On Home Improvement he plays Tim Taylor, a father of three and host of a TV fix-it show. Tim is a guy's guy who gets excited about playing with power drills and rewiring the dishwasher; yet he's something of a klutz around the house. It's an old sitcom formula - Dad as doofus - but brightened by the sarcastic, surprisingly adult interplay between Tim and his wife (Patricia Richardson) on the subject of maleness and its drawbacks.
In The Santa Clause, Allen is another all-American befuddled Dad. He plays Scott Calvin, a divorced father who is having trouble communicating with his young son - until, on Christmas Eve, Santa falls off his roof, and Scott is pressed into finishing the gift-delivery chores. It turns out he is expected to give up his former identity and become Santa for good; over the next few months, he grows fat and acquires white whiskers and white hair. (Is this a Christmas fantasy or a horror film?) Scott eventually reconciles to the idea of spending his declining years at the North Pole, winning his son's love in the process. "Pretty cool, eh?" he tells his ex-wife before catching the last sleigh north. "Your parents thought I'd never amount to anything."
Allen has amounted to quite a bit, considering the misfortunes that befell his typical middle-class suburban upbringing. He was born in Denver, one of six children (five boys and a girl) of Gerald and Martha Dick. His last name was the occasion for a thousand playground taunts, which taught him early on how to steel himself with humor. At age 11, however, Allen faced a far more serious trauma: on the way home from a college football game, his father was killed in a car accident. "My world changed overnight," Allen recalls in his book.
His mother remarried about two years later, and the family moved to the Detroit suburbs, where Allen struggled through high school and barely made it to college. He graduated from Western Michigan University with a degree in TV production, but not long after, got caught up in drugs. He fell in with a fast, hard-partying crowd, started selling cocaine, and in 1979 was arrested and later sentenced to eight years in a minimum-security federal penitentiary in Minnesota.
Allen served just over two years there, and it was a transforming experience. He occupied himself by reading books and writing letters, and slowly faced the realization that he had screwed up his life. "It was frightening, that whole time, how much anger I had," he says. "Then the anger was directed toward me, so I had to take the blame for this whole situation I put myself into." A supportive family helped him through the ordeal. "Tim accepted it," says his mother. "He knew he deserved it, and he didn't fight it. Everyone in the family came out and rallied behind him."
Allen found humor useful in prison. He made the meanest guards laugh by putting pictures of Richard Nixon in the peephole of his cell when they made their rounds. Later he staged comedy shows for the other inmates. Once, while riding a bus to another prison, he managed to slip out of his handcuffs. The only thing he could think to do was bum a cigarette off the old bank robber sitting in front of him. "I reached into his shirt pocket with the handcuff on one hand, and then tapped him on his other shoulder to get a match. He said, 'What's going on?' and I told him I got my handcuffs off and was getting ready to break out. Of course, I still had shackles on my legs and everywhere else. But just that one moment, when I asked the guy for a match, was what I lived for - the expression on his face."
Returning to Detroit after his parole, Allen went to work in advertising while trying to develop a stand-up comedy act at night. Mark Ridley, owner of the Comedy Castle, remembers how Allen, dressed in coat and tie, stood out from the usual crowd of overage class clowns even in his first appearance. "He was a bundle of nerves," says Ridley, "shaking his hands and pacing himself into a frenzy. But boom, once he was up there, he was in control." His early material, Allen recalls, was full of sexual and scatological references: "It was like turning your guitar up real loud." Eventually he hit on the macho-tool-guy persona that became his trademark. "What really interested me was garages and tools and all that I call 'men's stuff.' The more I started talking about it, the more I would get men to stand up and listen to my comedy. And then women would go, 'He's like that,' and it started getting couples to enjoy the show."
Allen began shuttling to Los Angeles, picking up a commercial agent and eventually breaking into the big-time comedy clubs. After a few TV appearances and cable specials, he was discovered by a group of Disney executives who were having a meeting to discuss new TV projects. "We were sitting in the room practically snoring," recalls Jeffrey Katzenberg, the former Disney movie chief. Then someone put one of Allen's Showtime specials on the vcr: "He set the room on fire," says Katzenberg. "It was like everyone had touched a raw electric wire." Some of the group, including Disney chairman Michael Eisner, later went to the Improv comedy club to see him in person. "It was one of those nights that was magic," Allen remembers. "They came backstage and said they'd like to have a meeting with me at Disney."
The studio's first offer wasn't quite magic: a TV sitcom based on the movie Turner & Hootch, in which Allen would co-star with a dog. Allen turned that down, along with two other proposals. Then he came up with his own idea: a series about the host of a TV handyman show. Disney teamed him with producer Matt Williams (the former producer of Roseanne), who added three kids to the mix and helped turn Home Improvement into TV's biggest family-show hit of the '90s. Allen's first movie went through a similar Disneyfication. The original script, by Steve Rudnick and Leo Benvenuti, was a dark fantasy about a man who accidentally shoots Santa Claus. Eight drafts later, with a more benign death scene and the addition of the father-son relationship, it became a cuddly holiday family film.
"I think what people see in Tim Allen," says Williams, "is a man-child. He's attractive, sensitive and strong, and he's a little impish 12-year-old boy. You feel like he could be you." People might feel the same way about Allen's offstage life. He lives in the San Fernando Valley with his wife Laura and five-year-old daughter Kady. But they travel frequently back to Michigan and just bought a lake house in the northern part of the state, right next door to his in-laws. Allen remains friendly with a clubhouse gang of old neighborhood pals. Ken Calvert, a Detroit disc jockey, still tries to match him in things like power lawn mowers. Calvert cross-cut his yard with twin 21-in.-blade Lawn-Boys; Allen bested him with a John Deere riding mower - with Baby Moon hubcaps.
Allen's leisure-time pleasures include a collection of automobiles - among them a '66 Ferrari and a pair of Mustangs. His latest passion is reading books on physics. Allen remains close with his family, though they're seeing less of him. Allen missed his stepfather's ordination as an Episcopalian deacon last June but managed to make it to the Detroit Grand Prix the next day. "You can imagine, we were very disappointed," says his pink-cheeked, white-haired, mother, known as Marty. She is also a little bothered by the chapter in Allen's book in which he makes fun of his original family name. "It's not something I would recommend reading," she says. "I don't like the connotations."
On the set of his TV show, Allen jokes easily and incessantly with cast and crew, who are effusive in their praise of him. "There are stars who have an imperial rule," says Carmen Finestra, one of the show's co-creators. "Tim has made this a great place to work." He can be fussy about scripts, but there are no shouting fits. Says co-star Richardson: "When Tim gets tired or bummed, he gets quiet and stops entertaining the crew. That's the way he keeps himself under control."
Beneath that control is an anxiously competitive man. Allen paces furiously backstage before performances to work off his nervous energy. He scrutinizes each week's ratings and sometimes broods over them. Right now he is unhappy that Frasier - which NBC moved opposite his show this season - has been cutting into Home Improvement's audience. "Frasier is killing us," Allen confides. "He's taking away our heat." (Home Improvement still beats Frasier handily, but it has slipped from the No. 1 spot in a few recent weeks.)
Another thing that bothers Allen is that Home Improvement, despite its high ratings, rarely gets much attention from the critics - or statuettes at the Emmy Awards. "It hurts because I have so many people ((on the show)) I feel for," he says. "I get rewarded for this, but for the crew and the people who really grunt to get things done on this show - well, I take it as an affront to all of them. Everybody wants to have what we have and be No. 1. But after you get here, then what do you want? Roseanne said something to me: 'You've already been No. 1. Don't make it your life's goal to stay No. 1, because that will not happen. Move on, strengthen your team, and go forward again."'
Allen has more places to go forward than almost anybody. He seems almost embarrassed at his power. "Now I go to meetings, and if I just start to say something, everybody shuts up. And any idea I say, people go, 'Oh, yeah!"' Among other things, he's writing a movie script about a mad scientist. "It's about how quickly you could change the world and how everybody could do it," Allen explains. "The more I read about physics and science, the more I know that a guy like me of rather average intelligence but a lot of interest could make things happen." As if he already hasn't.
Reported by Patrick E. Cole and Jeffrey Ressner/Los Angeles and William McWhirter/Detroit
From TIME Domestic - December 12, 1994 Volume 144, No. 24