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Midwest Today, April/May 1996


TV's Most Popular Male Star Has a Masculinist View


Tim Allen, undoubtedly the Number One male star currently on television, refers to his brand of comedy as "masculinist." He means to celebrate guyhood without resorting to uncouth gibes at women. And he largely succeeds.

With his white-bread commonality and a face as wide open as the Great Plains, Allen seems just like your average Joe.

Time magazine said Tim Allen "is hardly the most brilliant comedy star of his generation, though some might call him its most brilliant example of multimedia Hollywood marketing."

On ABC's popular "Home Improvement," Allen plays Tim Taylor, the married-with-three-boys host of the cable show "Tool Time." Taylor is fix-it maven Bob Vila in a tie and sharp slacks, conning his way through repair and remodel tips while his earnest assistant, Al, does the real work.

While Taylor pretends to be an expert about ratchet wrenches and mitre saws on his TV show, at home it s his ever-patient wife Jill (portrayed by Pat Richardson) who's the authority. But with a hammer drill in hand and the best of intentions at heart, Tim nevertheless attempts to solve any crisis that comes his way.

Tim's solution to improving the performance of anemic dishwashers, vacuum cleaners, lawn mowers, ice makers, assorted power tools and just about any mechanical device is embodied in two words (all together now, audience): "More power!"

So when Taylor reworks the family KitchenAid -- super-powering its water jets with a blast from a Binford heavy-duty air compressor -- the machine not only makes plates come clean, it flat blows them across the kitchen.

"Every time you fix something," his wife tells him, "the fire department shows up."

As a father, Tim Taylor endeavors to teach his sons Brad, Randy, and Mark about the joys and requirements of manhood. At the same time, he tries to understand the elusive pysche of women.

Tim is helped in his quest to be the perfect modern husband by his philosophizing over-the-fence neighbor, Wilson, who's always ready with a funny anecdote to help out his friend.

"Home Improvement" is watched by over 40 million viewers each week. It consistently stays in the Top Ten, though it has fallen from its Number One ranking after ABC unwisely moved its time slot to a different night.

The series has turned out to be the second-highest-grossing prime-time network show in syndication, and generated over $400 million for the rerun rights of just the first 125 episodes. Including advances from syndication proceeds, Allen is said to earn $200,000 an episode or about $5 million a season.

Born in Denver, Tim Allen was 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 soberly.

His mother remarried about two years later, and the family moved to the Detroit suburb of Birmingham during the riots, Allen recalls. "We thought it was neat: 'Man, they have tanks!'"

A classroom cut-up, Tim's favorite high-school subject was shop, and his first true love was cars. He traded a whole summer's work at a local speed shop for a custom-built, tricked-out dune buggy -- not very practical for the icy streets of Michigan in winter, but try telling that to a teenage boy.

Allen struggled through high school and barely made it to college. He graduated in 1975 from Western Michigan University with a degree in television production, but not long after, got caught up in drugs.

"I was just a college dealer," he says. "Neither my partner nor I originally had any idea where we could get any more than the small amount of drugs we were getting." But Allen soon climbed the drug-dealing ladder, and two years later was arrested in a large cocaine bust at the Kalamazoo airport. He cooperated with the police, pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to seven years in prison -- of which he served 28 months.

"I wanted out of dealing so badly, but it never seemed to end," Allen says pensively. "You'd think my family would 've asked why I was dressed so well. I'd also lost a lot of weight because I was under a lot of stress. I suppose it was one of those cries for help. But I'm glad I paid for it and got straightened out."

Tim was sent to Sandstone Federal Correctional Institution in northeastern Minnesota. "It sounds like a vacation spot, doesn't it?" Allen cracks. It wasn't.

Locked up with murderers and other hard-core criminals, Allen relied on his wits to stay out of trouble. "Humor is the only way to disarm people who are angry," he says. "There was this guy who always wanted to hurt me, but if I did Elmer Fudd, I'd get him laughing."

After his release, Allen went to work as a creative director for a small advertising firm in Detroit. Soon he moved in front of the camera as a performer and commercial spokesman.

When he launched his career, he was prevailed upon to change his name. Allen says "It offended me greatly. How would I explain this to my dear deceased father?" But he relented and shortened his name to just "Tim Allen."

In 1979, Tim started his stand-up comedy career at the Comedy Castle in Detroit (on a dare from a friend), and hasn't looked back since. He has played at every major comedy club in the country, and sells out concert engagements all over the U.S.. He has also been featured in several major cable specials including "Tim Allen: Men Are Pigs" (available on video from Paramount), the "Just For Laughs" comedy festival, "Comedy Club All-Stars II," "Tim Allen Rewires America" and "Comedy Club All-Stars VII."

One of the few TV performers who has successfully moved to the big screen, Tim starred in 1994's "Santa Clause," which surprised critics and was a runaway smash.

In "Toy Story" (Pixar/Disney), Tim provides the voice of Buzz Lightyear, the latest greatest spaceman action figure, who is one of a collection of toys who become involved in a series of comic misadventures when their owner Andy isn't around. "Toy Story" is the first film to ever be entirely animated on computers.

Tim also ventured into writing with his first book, "Don't Stand Too Close To A Naked Man" (Hyperion), which made it to The New York Times best-seller list.

To date, Tim has written, produced and/or acted in several radio and television commercials, including spots for Ford, Chevrolet, and K-Mart. He also has appeared as Mr. Goodwrench.

Humble Persona

Tim now lives with his wife and four-year-old daughter in their two homes, one in the Los Angeles area, the other in an unpretentious neighborhood in suburban Birmingham, in northern Michigan, (right next door to his in-laws). He goes there for holidays and other family gatherings.

"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?"

He's still the same guy he was the first season," says Allen's TV son, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, "only with a lot more money."

"I'm pretty much in denial about the success," Tim says. "If I thought about it too much, then I might become big-headed -- and I don't want to do that."

His formula for curbing an over-inflated ego?

"Puncture wounds," he jokes. "Small puncture wounds. Self-inflicted, of course."

Tim celebrated the success of his show by using his first big paycheck to buy -- what else? -- a $1,200 16-horsepower compost shredder.

His Growing Up Years

His upbringing gave him a woman's perspective, Allen says, "which was basically yelling and screaming at that point, because it's hard to raise boys."

Tim says facetiously his mother "thinks the only things en are good for is lawn care and vehicle maintenance."

Allen used to be leaned on -- hard -- by his siblings years ago. "I had two older brothers, Dave and Steve. One of my brothers used to sit on my chest and play 'typewriter' -- you know, typing words onto my chest -- with his fists. Another brother used to sit on my back and pull my neck back. It was painful."

Tim says "my stepfather came in when I was at that obstinate stage. We had problems getting on the right track." Left without a male role model, he looked to uncles or friends' fathers. "Maybe that's where all this [emphasis on masculinity] comes from."

His Comedy

While he had moved up quickly into the ranks of the comedy world, Allen concedes, "I was nothing special."

Ask him where the inspiration for his manifesto on male improvement came from, and he'll tell you, "I was in Akron, Ohio, and the Good Year Tire and Rubber Company was having a man's night at a comedy club. And they wouldn't listen to me because they were eating. So I said, 'Let's get in the garage, guys.' I started talking about my garage and tools and that whole thing. Being the 'cheez weenie' that I am -- (his words and his spelling) -- "I saw the value of what looked like a very good bit, and I used it.

"These guys loved it," Allen recalls. "They started hooting and hollering. The more I talked about it, the more these guys responded."

Unwittingly, Allen had stumbled upon a virtually untapped comedy mother lode. He ran with it, adding his "men are pigs" tag line and his trademark grunting Neanderthal persona.

"It was new," he says, "and it was so obvious. It was sitting right there."

When he does his comedy routine on the road, he still presents his celebration of men's stuff: gunk, gaskets, Lava soap, aluminum boats, bass fishing, V-8s and "blowing your nose with your thumb over a nostril." It is, he allows, "a big, hairy-chested, pectoral view of men."

On Manhood

Allen says he makes "fun of us as men because there is a lot to make fun of, but there is a lot, in a funny way, to be proud of." Besides, he asserts, women can't take criticism like guys can.

"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.

"I do have distinct ideas about men. I believe in the stuff I say. I parody it, but I believe it."

He told Playboy magazine that "Men need to learn to make better decisions, especially concerning their own creativity. A guy in Florida designed a bullet -- took time out of his day -- that would pierce a bulletproof vest. Now, what was the thought process there? He could have been making something that made canned goods last longer or, heaven forbid, made certain durable goods less expensive for people who can't afford them. Instead, he spends his time making a shell that will pierce police armor. The guy's obviously creative, talented, but very misdirected. I wish there were more guys like Edison and Buckminster Fuller. More heroes."

Help From the Neighbor

Male bonding with the back fence between them, "Home" hero Tim Taylor and Wilson (Earl Hindman) discuss manly topics. ranging from car repairs to burning leaves to the rituals of ancient tribal hunters.

"In order for the species to survive, Stone Age man had to seek out many different women," counsels Wilson, as usual barely visible behind his sunglasses and fence during a not-exactly-face-to-face encounter with Tim.

"There's something very deep in your collective "

Tim lapses into a little wild-man "grrr", then concludes hopefully that it must be okay for him to look at other women when he's out with his wife.

"It's okay," says Wilson, "if you're on the Serengeti chasing a wildebeest with a club. Otherwise," he adds, "I'd call it downright rude."

On Acting

Tim Allen is 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," he admits sheepishly.

"I'm not as bright as Jay Leno or Jerry Seinfeld, but I think my performance abilities are as competitive.

"That's really what I geared on: voice inflections, eyeballs, faces and that kind of stuff."

Actually, Tim is too modest. For he is equally adept at dialogue and slapstick which is fortunate, because as Tim Taylor he has to spend a lot of time protecting his manhood from runaway power tools.

Allen does acknowledge that he sometimes has felt that the press has been obsessed with "Seinfeld," which has offbeat and controversial story lines.

"It seemed as if we were being ignored simply because we were popular," Allen says. "We work as hard as anybody else, and for it always to be inferred that we're not clever because we're a family show seemed unfair. I felt bad for the people who didn't deserve it. They've fought a damn uphill battle, and have struggled all the way through.

"The original idea was to show a functional family with a sense of humor and really make people laugh," Allen recalls. "We're celebrating or at least acknowledging that a lot of people are married and enjoy the company of their families."

He also laments that co-star Pat Richardson, who plays his wife, has never been nominated for an Emmy. "I'll never understand it. She constantly amazes me. She can just turn on the emotions [as an actress]. I'm so proud of her."

On His Movie Success

TV comedians have usually had a hard time on the big screen, with Robin Williams being one exception. Comedian Bill Cosby experienced an embarrassing flop with "Ghost Dad" at the height of "The Cosby Show," and Roseanne co-starred with Meryl Streep in the ill-fated "She-Devil" at the peak of her show's popularity several years ago.

But Allen has been hugely successful. He started in a fun children 's movie called "Santa Clause" that was quite an ordeal.

Asked if people treated him differently on the set of "Santa Clause" once he got into the Santa suit, Tim responded, "Yes, as a matter of fact, because I was hot and very angry... but I looked just like Santa Claus so... No matter how angry I was, everyone was going, 'Oh... Wow... Santa?' 94 degrees in a 65-pound fat suit and eight layers of foam. No breathing room, but a human wasn't meant to be in there. I'm not human, I'm a comedian."

Disney would like Allen to do a sequel to "Santa Clause," but he's not interested.

"Well, it absolutely didn't whet my appetite for doing a sequel," he said.
"I don't want to get in that fat suit ever again. And I don't want to work with kids ever again. And I don't want to work with animals ever again or do any special effects ever again. So, it would pretty much have to be a prison picture."

The Bob Vila Encounter

Since Tim plays a handyman ala Bob Vila, it was fun for him to meet the real guy. In fact, Vila taped a segment of his show at Tim's house. "He came to my home in Michigan, where we did a project together for his show," Allen explained. "I'm putting in a new garage and a family room. He just went around the house and asked, 'What are you doing here?' And I bulls---ed as though I knew what I was doing. I did it just as he would."

While Vila tried to throw Allen off with big words and technical terms. "Everything he said, I upped it," Allen recalls with a chuckle.

At one point, Vila asked, "How are you heating the place?" Allen replied, "We're using a coat of low-level uranium six inches underneath the floor. The natural breakdown of the reactive materials causes heat."

Villa said, with a straight face, "Is that a danger to your family?"

Allen responded, "It's an unseen danger. You don't see it, therefore it doesn't exist. Maybe generations from now we'll look like frogs, but now we heat our house for almost five thousand years penny-free."

Later, Vila asked, "There's no basement here?"

Tim deadpanned, "Actually, we built the basement off-site. We will finish the basement, then lift the entire house and set the basement underneath. That's cheaper."

This went on for an hour.

As they were talking, Tim's crew finished doing the floor, and then Bob and he walked right through the wet concrete. "Think about it: Construction guys, who were amazed to be on the job site with Tim Taylor, the fake, and Bob Vila, the real guy, who've switched roles are yelling 'Hey, hey, hey' at Bob as he sloshes through the concrete."

His role as the host of a fictional cable home improvement show called "Tool Time" is one that he wistfully hopes to play out in real life someday.

"Actually, that's what I want to do, is host 'Tool Time' for real. I love that show," says Tim.

Tim has even developed his own line of designer tools, the profits from which are donated to charity. The first tool in the line is an ergonomically designed hammer; plans to add a power drill and screwdrivers are in the works.

Loves Cars, Engines

Not including his cars, Allen says he has "seven combustion motors in my tool shed: a mulcher, a blower, two weed wackers and three lawn mowers. Oh, and a Rototiller."

Tim owns a Cadillac STS with the Northstar V-8 engine, GMC Typhoon, Mercedes-Benz 500e and Ferrari 365GTB. But ponycars, specifically Ford Mustangs, have been high on his wish list since he was a teen. Although he once owned a Mustang SVO ("It got stolen after my wife took it to the Detroit Zoo-oo," moans Allen), like his TV counterpart, the comic always yearned for something with more power -- like a Saleen Mustang R-R-R, a rolling FoMoCo showcase with 576 supercharged horses under its carbon-fiber hood. Tim has a $50,000 hyper-customized Mustang which does 0 to 60 mph in 4.9 seconds, reaches the quarter mile in 12.4 sec. and can achieve a top speed of 184 mph.

I don't care who pulls up next to me, in front of me, behind me, in a Ferrari, Lamborghini, or spec'd-out Porsche, there's just not much out there that can come close to the thing. It's basically a street version of a Trans-Am car," Allen says pridefully.

"As a kid, I used to go to auto shows and look at prototype cars and wonder what it would be like to build them," he says. "Now, some of my dreams are coming true."

At Home

In 1984, Tim married his college sweetheart, Laura, who stood by him while he was in jail. He remembers their wedding day -- April 7, 1984 -- well: "The day Jack Morris pitched a no-hitter in Detroit."

His home in the San Fernando Valley near the Disney studios, is a four-bedroom, 5,500-square foot house with a large backyard and pool.

"There's a rotisserie, a fireplace, two grills, a sink and a meat locker. A meat locker. So you don't have to walk four steps into the kitchen. I loved that."

When not working, he likes to read. One recent book was "Sexual Personae," by Camille Paglia. "I read 20 pages and was out of breath," he laughs. "I've never highlighted a book more in my life -- yellow marker, by the way. But it leaks through the cheesy newsprint-type paper. It's not the high quality stuff like 'Spanky and the Maid.'"

About his life, "Every day is an adventure," Tim concludes. "You never know who you're going to meet. I love going to the set, I love watching the show every [week] with my little girl. I love the opportunities to meet people I've always wanted to meet, like sports figures and car guys. I'm having a great time."

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