“Home Improvement” was a sweet, enormously popular 1990s sitcom that enjoyed 8 stellar seasons on ABC before its final episode aired on May 25, 1999. The network had hoped for a ninth, but salary disputes and cast burnout derailed the plan. The ratings bonanza, which lives on in world-wide syndication, was funny, wholesome, family entertainment. There was, of course, plenty of action, drama and intrigue away from the set, too. Maybe we should start at the beginning…
Home Improvement, based on Tim Allen’s stand-up comedy routines, premiered on April 17, 1991 and was an instant ratings gem. The series maintained its massive following for most of its eight seasons and 204 episodes. Many of Home Improvement’s biggest stars went on to have interesting and varied careers. As did some of the show’s supporting cast.
Home Improvement originally cast Frances Fisher, then a girlfriend of Hollywood giant Clint Eastwood, as Allen’s wife. In fact Fisher even filmed a pilot for the series. Unfortunately, she didn’t resonate with ABC’s test audiences, earning a hurried dismissal. The pilot was re-shot, with Patricia Richardson now in the role of Allen’s wife. Shuffling cast members this late in the game is not uncommon for networks seeking the ultimate winning formula.
Alas, there is no such company as Binford Tools, sponsors of Tim Taylor’s do-it-yourself show, Tool Time. Binford happened to be the name of a friend of one of the show’s producers. Each product featured on the show began with the number 6100, with two exceptions: the Binford 250 Paint Boy and the Binford 3000 propane torch. No doubt the show missed a great opportunity for a crossover promotion given that many viewers searched high and low for a real Binford Tools store. Why anyone would want to buy a Binford product was even stranger, since a common storyline was Tim wrecking the tools or the tools breaking down or overheating.
The Binford Tools name lived on as an Easter Egg in the Toy Story film franchise, which featured Allen as the voice of Buzz Lightyear. In one scene, as Woody is trying to help Buzz get away from Andy’s horrible neighbor, Sid, Woody grabs a red Binford toolbox off the counter. Allen voiced Buzz’s character a few more times to equal acclaim. In 2007, readers of the magazine Empire rated Buzz the best Pixar character of all time and voted him the 94th best character in movie history. Buzz figurines even made it to outer space, aboard the space shuttle Discovery.
Tim Allen’s Home Improvement character joined those of Bill Cosby and Bob Saget (Full House) on TV Guide’s list of Greatest TV Dads of All Time. Taylor is supposed to be the typical suburban dad, in this case, a Republican who loves his power tools, sports and cars. Jill Taylor, his wife, is the stereotypical American mom, wrangling the boys and cooking dinner while her husband has most of the fun. Taylor’s juvenile hijinks can get pretty annoying for Jill, but they are a happy couple who sometimes bicker but rarely fight.
Tim Allen was a Drug Dealer
Tim Allen, whose father was killed in a car accident when Tim was 11, was arrested for trying to pass 650 grams of cocaine to an undercover cop during a sting operation at a Michigan airport in Oct., 1978. Allen, facing possible life imprisonment, pleaded guilty, then gave evidence against a number of his drug-dealing associates in exchange for a reduced sentence. He served 28 months in jail, his sentencing judge showing some leniency based on Allen’s potential as a comedian.
“There is a remarkable talent, don’t waste it,” Judge Patrick McCauley wrote in a pre-sentence report. “Be a man. Do your time. Then come out and do what you do best. I expect you to be a very successful comedian.”
Allen, whose birth name was Timothy Allen Dick, was arrested again in 1997, this time for driving. He got one-year’s probation.
Wilson, the friendly backyard neighbor, is based on a real childhood neighbor of Tim Allen. But, just like in the show, Tim was too short to see over the tall fence between the two yards – hence the show’s decision to only show Wilson from the nose or eyes up, standing, as always, behind a fence. The two men often exchanged harmonicas and jokes, which always drew plenty of audience laughs. Shovels and rakes were also used to conceal Wilson from the camera. Of course, Wilson’s real role on the show was to offer advice and philosophy to his confused neighbor. Fans adored Wilson, trick-or-treaters paying homage by dressing up as Wilson for Halloween.
The Real Wilson
Wilson was played by Earl Hindman, recognized for his roles as a villain in 1970s movies like The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, The Parallax View, Who Killed Mary What’s ‘Er Name? and The Brink’s Job. He also played Detective Lt. Bob Reid on the long-running ABC soap, Ryan’s Hope. While Home Improvement viewers longed to catch a glimpse of Wilson’s entire face, it never happened until the series finale, and only then during the curtain call. Hindman was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2003 and died that same year.
Taran Noah Smith
As the youngest child of the Taylor family, Taran Noah Smith got lots of screen time in his role as Mark. Smith was only seven when he began acting. Besides Home Improvement, Smith guest-starred on several other shows, including 7th Heaven. He also voiced Ratboy on the animated series Batman Beyond. Smith retired from acting after Home Improvement‘s final episode. “I started Home Improvement when I was seven, and the show ended when I was 16,” he explained. “I never had the chance to decide what I wanted to do with my life. When I was 16, I knew that I didn’t want to act anymore.”
Taran Noah Smith and his mother Candy Bennici wrote a book together in 2001, called Stardom Happens: Nurturing Your Child in the Entertainment Business. As the title suggests, it was as much about Bennici’s life as a stage mom as it was about her son. The advice that Bennici was giving was not exactly what she was telling Smith behind the scenes, as the dramatic tale of Smith’s young adulthood will prove.
At age 16, Taran Noah Smith sued his parents for control of his $1.5 million trust fund, claiming they mishandled millions of dollars he’d earned as a child actor. In 2001, Smith married Heidi van Pelt, who at 33 was 16 years older than her new hubbie. Smith divorced Heidi in 2007, then sued her for allegedly stealing funds from their vegan and organic food business, Playfood, Inc., and diverting them into her own business. Smith’s life only went downhill from there, as he struggled with drugs and alcohol. He later reconciled with his parents, we’re told.
Zachery Ty Bryan
In comparison to Smith, Zachery Ty Bryan, who played oldest sibling Brad, has led a charmed life. The Home Improvement heartthrob is an active volunteer for numerous charities, many involving children. His fame was never as crazy as the middle child – Justin Taylor Thomas – but it did earn him a slew of guest appearances on TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Veronica Mars and Smallville.
Bryan remained in Hollywood and continued to act when Home Improvement ended. In 2006, he appeared in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. In 2009, he portrayed the lead character in the made-for-TV movie, THOR: Hammer of the Gods. Bryan married his middle school sweetheart, Carly Matros, in 2007. They have three daughters.
Season 2 marked a change in format on Home Improvement, with editors skipping the traditional theme song/credits intro in favor of the ‘tease’ or ‘cold open.’The technique, already perfected by Saturday Night Live, meant jumping into the action before viewers had a chance to change channels. In season 4, Home Improvement added an anthropomorphic logo following the cold open. The animated logo continued to be part of the show until its final May, 1999 episode.
One of everyone’s favorite episodes is “The Haunting of Taylor House,” a Halloween special which aired on Oct. 28, 1992. Brad hosts a party where he and his girlfriend, Jennifer, plan to dress up as Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy. But when Jennifer shows up with Brad’s sworn enemy, Danny, and wearing a different costume, things take a scary turn.
Jonathan Taylor Thomas
Jonathan Taylor Thomas became a huge star and was featured on countless fan magazine covers, including Tiger Beat. He also landed starring roles in ’90s movies like Tom and Huck, Wild America, and Man of the House. Everywhere he went, girls followed. But fame began to wear him down. He resented his ‘JTT’ nickname, too, and quit Home Improvement following its seventh season. He went on to voice a number of animated TV and movie characters, including Simba in the smash hit, The Lion King. He has also appeared in Smallville, The Wild Thornberrys, and The Oz Kids, not to mention Tim Allen’s latest series, Last Man Standing.
Why JTT Backed Out
It had been hoped Thomas would agree to appear in the final episode of the long-running series, but he backed out. TV mom Patricia Richardson commented, “I was just really confused … I never understood what happened.” Allen blamed Thomas’s “people” who he felt had more or less brainwashed the young actor.
JTT Was a Heartthrob
Taylor became the first person to win the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards back in 1999. He also fared well at the Kids’ Choice Awards, winning Favorite TV Actor in 1998. He earned a nomination for a Saturn Award for Best Performance by a Younger Actor for his voice work as Simba. In 1996, Taylor won the ShoWest Award for Young Star of the Year.
There are many Tumblrs about JTT, but the best one is photographs of Thomas holding objects. It is called, “F*** Yeah JTT Holds Things.” It continues to be a popular internet meme, much like Ryan Gosling’s, “HEY GIRL…”
Thomas’s only recent acting credits are on Last Man Standing, which he appears to have done as a favor to Allen. He graduated from Chaminade College Preparatory School in California in 2000, then earned degrees in philosophy and history at Harvard. He also studied at St. Andrews in Scotland for a year. He graduated from Columbia in 2010. JTT, whose real last name is Weiss, has been a vegetarian for many years.
On Home Improvement, Brad is the oldest sibling, his middle brother is 13 months younger. In real life, Thomas, who played Randy, is actually older than Bryan by one month and one day. But Thomas had a baby face that made him a better fit for the middle brother.
Brad, the tallest of the boys, was also the athlete in the family. And rather impulsive. Randy was the smirky one, always getting into mischief. Mark, the youngest, was more of a mother’s boy. As he grows older, Brad decides he wants to work on cars. Mark becomes a goth kid and Randy? He moved to Costa Rica after Thomas, the actor who portrayed him, quit the show.
Patricia Richardson said that when the show started, her character was one-dimensional and just like every other mom character on TV. Richardson eventually convinced Home Improvement producers to make her more relevant. So Jill went from being a housewife to a working mom, who later went off to college. Jill also became a Democrat, a foil to her Republican husband, Tim. Richardson shone in her more challenging role, earning four Emmy Awards nominations and two Golden Globe Awards.
Richardson’s Early Days: Commercials
Richardson’s early work in Hollywood included lots of TV commercials: Chef Saluto Pizza, Lipton, Kraft Foods, Wendy’s and Jell-O, just to name a few. Her biggest role to date remains as Jill on Home Improvement.
Home Improvement took from The Simpsons?
In one memorable episode, Tim and the three boys forget Jill’s birthday. Brad and Randy then steal their little brother’s money by imposing a “little brother tax.” They use the dough to buy Jill perfume. Many viewers thought the episode reminiscent of The Simpsons.
Home Improvement‘s all-time favorite episode, according to a poll of fans, is ‘Love’s Labor’s Lost’ The title, taken from a Shakespeare play, is part comedy, part drama as Jill faces hysterectomy surgery. The Love Labor’s plotline involved back-to-back episodes, rare for the sitcom.
Before Home Improvement, Allen was a stand-up comedian who revelled in the differences between men and women. Home Improvement and Allen’s latest series, Last Man Standing, have similar themes. But on Home Improvement, wife Jill usually gets the last laugh, not Tim.
Stephen Tobolowsky was originally scheduled to play Al Borland in the series but dropped out due to a film commitment. So it was that Richard Karn got the role of Al, who became Tim’s popular sidekick. Karn’s lumberjack bona fides won him lots of fans, even though it was really just a costume consisting of flannel shirts, boots and beards. Meanwhile, Tobolowsky’s acting career flourished, including roles as an amnesiac in Christopher Nolan’s first movie, Memento, and as an annoying insurance agent Ned Ryerson in Groundhog Day.
Richardson had many stage credits before joining Home Improvement, including work as an understudy in Angela Lansbury’s production of Gypsy on Broadway. Since Home Improvement, she has worked on Law & Order: SVU, Strong Medicine, The West Wing and more. She also earned a Spirit Award nomination for her role in Ulee’s Gold.
Allen’s Home Improvement character – Tim Taylor – hosts a popular home improvement show. But Tim is more salesman than tool expert, workshop calamities par for the course. Some of Tim’s most memorable mishaps were: causing the phone to smoke after rewiring the house, shattering the windows with loud music, being electrocuted by Christmas lights, crashing through an attic, and falling off roofs.
Tim Allen’s Career Beginnings
Allen got his big break in 1991 when Disney executives offered the veteran comedian a pair of sitcoms, each based on films of the era. One was Turner & Hooch, the other Dead Poets Society. Allen wasn’t sure he’d be a good fit and backed off. And then Home Improvement happened.
Before starring in Baywatch, Pamela Anderson played Lisa, the sexy Tool Time Girl, during the first two seasons of Home Improvement. She left the show soon after getting her famous ‘boob job’, a fine career move as it turned out. Anderson, in her role as the voluptuous C.J. Parker on the popular beach drama, became a household name and pin-up superstar.
When Pamela Anderson Left
Actress/model Debbe Dunning replaced Anderson as Tim’s beautiful assistant, Heidi Keppert. Dunning, a former American Gladiators Celebrity champion, remained with the show to its conclusion.
Ashley Judd as a Tool Girl?
Ashley Judd was supposed to play the role of Lisa the Tool Girl, not Pamela Anderson. But Judd’s agent convinced her to pursue a career in movies instead. Judd quit Home Improvement a few days before the first pilot was filmed. Judd rocketed to big screen fame with starring roles in Double Jeopardy, Kiss the Girls, Divergent and High Crimes. Judd, however, did do some TV in the ’90s, appearing as Reed Halsey in 32 episodes of Sisters.
While the make-believe Tool Time audience assumes all those accidents on the show were for comedic purposes – a demonstration of what not to do – Tim really is a klutz with tools. Some of Tool Times most infamous screw-ups included a high-powered magnet destroying camera and sound equipment, Tim getting caught in a mousetrap, and Al gluing his head to a table. The segment also spawned the much-loved “More Power!” catchphrase, which actually wasn’t employed until the seventh season. The slogan immediately caught on and, fittingly, were the last words spoken by Tim on the series.
The Home Improvement blooper reel is pretty epic and DVD releases of the show include many of them. Fans have made the clips available on YouTube, too. One of the better clips occurred during season 7. The scene features Tim Allen having a “showdown” with a Buzz Lightyear toy, shouting “I am Buzz Lightyear,” “No, I am Buzz Lightyear.” When the episode aired, Toy Story was relatively new so the studio audience loved this one!
Actress Debbe Dunning became the Tool Time Girl starting in season 3. Dunning was a cheerleader and Homecoming Queen in high school and won the Miss Burbank pageant in 1984. Dunning has had some smaller roles in movies like The Spiral Staircase. She married pro volleyball player Steve Timmons in 1997. The couple have two children.
One recurring gag on Home Improvement involves Taylor kibitzing with an offstage person named “Klaus,” who among other things is in charge of playing the intro and exit music for Tool Time . Klaus’s real name is Klaus Landsberg, who actually worked in the sound department on the show. Landsberg, whose boffo resume includes The Drew Carey Show and American Idol, has been nominated many times over by the Grammy Awards for Outstanding Sound Mixing in the 1990s.
Bill Clinton was president during Home Improvement’s TV run and First Lady Hillary Clinton was once invited to make a cameo appearance on the sitcom. Although a White House press secretary urged her to do the show, Hillary said ‘no.’
Tim Allen was once a victim of a serial stalker. In 2012, the nut-job stole Allen’s custom 1996 Chevy Impala and drove it 1,000 miles from Los Angeles to Denver. When arrested, the 34-year-old stalker told police he was Allen’s adopted son.
Richard Karn lucked into the role as Al, thanks to a traffic ticket he received for running a stop sign while on his way to a rehearsal for Macbeth. Banished to traffic school, Karn met an agent there who told him about Home Improvement. He even got Karn his audition.
Ratings for Home Improvement were so off the chart that its producers considered taking the show to the big screen. The proposed movie plot involved Tim and Jill getting a divorce, then Tim applying for a job as a nanny in order to see the boys more. Allen thought the idea was stupid and declined the project. So the producers turned to Robin Williams, and the rest is history. Mrs. Doubtfire, released in November, 1993, was one of the most successful movies of the decade.
Tim Allen thought the show could have returned for a season 9, but money got in the way. According to Allen, Richardson wanted to be paid as much as him, which would have meant doubling her salary. Allen decided he didn’t want to continue making the show if it was “just about the money.” Meanwhile, Thomas had already quit the sitcom and Taran Noah Smith wasn’t interested in coming back, either.
Season 9 Part 2
According to E! Television, Allen was offered $50 million to do a ninth season, whereas Richardson was offered $25 million. That seems like a very high offer for the 1990s, so take it with a grain of salt. Neither actor agreed to do the show in the end. Home Improvement has been in syndication since 1995, with repeats appearing on Nick at Nite, TBS, TV Land, The Hallmark Channel, and the Disney Channel. Home Improvement can be seen in a number of other countries, including Germany where the show is called Listen To Who’s Hammering.
Entertainment Weekly brought the cast together in 2011 for a reunion issue. It was the first time the cast had seen Thomas since 1998. Thomas fans went crazy, as did other fans of the show. Allen told EW the cast was like his sons. Richardson said the boys grew up to be very interesting and smart and they’d always be her children.
Home Improvement on The Simpsons
In a season 5 episode of The Simpsons, Home Improvement is referenced for a big laugh. With NASA searching for every-day Americans to join a new mission, the following conversation takes place: .
NASA Assistant: Well, here are the most popular personalities on television, or “TV”.
[Turns on “Home Improvement”]
Taylor: I did it! I supercharged my riding mower.
[Taylor takes his normal grunting noises and backs mower through a fence]
Taylor: Oh, no! I’ve killed Wilson. Looks like it’s back to jail for me.
Richard Karn’s biggest TV role after Home Improvement ended was hosting Family Feud ( 2002-2006), joining Richard Dawson, Ray Combs, Louie Anderson, John O’Hurley, and Steve Harvey on the Feud alumni board. Karn was the replacement for Louie Anderson.
Home Improvement and Tool Time were performed in front of a studio audience, some of those fans actually appearing in episodes as a result of cameras panning those in attendance. There was a Tool Time episode within every episode of Home Improvement. The show, though set in Michigan, was filmed at Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, California. Tool Time was a spoof of the real PBS show, This Old House, which starred Bob Vila at the time.
There was even a Super Nintendo video game based on the sitcom, called Home Improvement: Tool Pursuit! The instruction manual was a gag where the words were mostly blotted out by the phrase: “REAL MEN DON’T NEED INSTRUCTIONS.” In the game, Tim uses blowtorches, nail guns and chainsaws as weapons as he fights through dinosaurs, robots and mummies. A proposed Sega version of the game never made it to the console.
Reunions Part 2
Tim Allen staged a reunion in 2003 called Tim Allen Presents: A User’s Guide to Home Improvement. It was a clip show with all of Allen’s favorite moments from the series. The special was included as a DVD extra in the season 8 set. Richardson told TMZ in 2013 that the cast would never agree to a real reunion. She explained that without Hindman, who passed away in 2003, she didn’t want to be involved.
This Old House
If you ever watch This Old House, the PBS show that Tool Time is based on, you can see the many similarities. The PBS show was hosted by Bob Vila and his sidekick, Norm Abram. The show won 17 Emmy Awards in 36 seasons. Vila thought Home Improvement was funny, and even did a cameo on an episode.
Despite Richardson not wanting to do a reunion or reboot, Allen and Karn talked about the possibility in 2015. Karn said: “There is always a chance, absolutely. Would I be on board? Yeah, I think so! I would love to see what the story lines could be, it could be very funny!” Netflix was also rumored to be interested in reviving the show, though that, too, is unlikely.
Home Improvement continues to make new fans even today. Millions have purchased the DVD box sets, and many more watch the show in syndication. With Home Improvement now available on streaming platforms, more fans come on board every day.
Home Improvement was must-see television on campus, too, especially in Michigan where the sitcom was set. Allen, who moved to Detroit as a teenager and attended Western Michigan University wore a variety of Michigan college and university sweatshirts and Ts on Home Improvement, many of them mailed to him by the schools, themselves. Allen, a big promoter of the state, continues to provide voiceovers for Pure Michigan tourism commercials.
MC Hammer Almost Named the Show
Home Improvement‘s original working title for its Tool Time segments was ‘Hammer Time’. Producers dropped the title just weeks before the first pilot was shot, worried the phrase was too closely associated with U Can’t Touch This hip-hop phenom M.C. Hammer.
The Santa Clause
Home Improvement was the No. 1 rated show for the 1993-1994 season. During that same period, Allen scored a top hit at the movies with The Santa Clause. He also published a best-selling book, Don’t Stand Too Close to a Naked Man. It was quite a run for the actor, whose Santa Clause movie also spawned two sequels.