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Life Goes On for the Empty-Nesters

But no one said it'd be easy: Tim Allen hates change, Patricia Richardson faces bias against 'TV actresses' and producer Matt Williams mourns an era's end.

May 09, 1999|PAUL BROWNFIELD | Paul Brownfield is a Times staff writer who covers the television industry

"We're really a family here" is one of those quaint cliches that sitcom stars like to haul out when their long-running series are about to shut down and the public is expecting some end-of-an-era pathos. Interviewed in his office on the Disney lot five days before he would tape the last episode of "Home Improvement," his longtime ABC sitcom, Tim Allen hit his mark--the gang at "Home" was indeed like a family, he said.

But then Allen kept going.

"This gets to a lot stuff that is none of your business, but as I've grown in this thing, and made some major changes in my life, I have not connected well with people. I'm a comedian because I can connect on a broad scale but not one-on-one. I'm not very comfortable with people. This is the only support I've ever really had, this family here. They seem to love me unconditionally--I was just writing in my diary about this. And once again it's leaving me. Things with unconditional love in my life somehow disappear."

On May 25, "Home Improvement," that terminally unhip but hugely popular show, ends its eight-year run with a 90-minute finale, but closure was a bit harder to come by for the show's star, who had to choke back tears before the grand finale began rolling.

For some, including co-star Patricia Richardson, who plays Tim's better half Jill Taylor, the end of "Home Improvement" was arriving with sadness but also a belief that the show had run its course creatively.

For Allen, though, the end foreshadowed something else, something he hates: change. Change in both his personal and professional life. The end of the road for Tim Taylor, and the beginning of the road for . . . well, whom?

To make the transition from sitcom star to funnyman-at-large as smooth as possible, Allen, 45, began his post-"Home Improvement" life not on vacation but on the set of a movie, "Galaxy Quest," a science-fiction comedy-drama in which he co-stars with Sigourney Weaver and Alan Rickman.

Funnyman-at-large was Allen's status nearly a decade ago, when television producer Matt Williams took Allen's chest-beating stand-up comedy voice, toned down the nightclub rhetoric, left in the relationship to power tools and turned out a family comedy that became enormously appealing to the masses. The sitcom presented a Midwestern idyll that reflected Allen's signature comedy and Williams' Indiana background, a heartland America of mother and father and 2.3 kids (the Taylors had three), and neighborly neighbors embodied by Wilson (Earl Hindman), who acted as Tim's confidant and sage, his face obscured by the fence dividing their properties.

In the process, Allen, who in a former life had served time for selling cocaine, became a latter-day father figure--flawed and a bit sexist but good-natured about it all, safe enough even to be Santa Claus, as the comedian proved in his 1994 movie "The Santa Clause."

Behind the scenes, Allen worked at adjusting to this new image, which made quitting it cold turkey eight years later that much more unnerving.

"Now I get a letter, I've gotta vacate by Wednesday," Allen lamented, munching on a strict, pre-"Galaxy Quest" diet of chicken in his Disney office. "Outta here! After eight years. I've lived here, I've slept here, I've got a shower here. I've been very important to Disney. I've made them a lot of money. And they're not being rude. But the reality is the parking space will go, the sign comes down, the set will be gone."

The office would now be at home, the career would be, not in limbo (in addition to "Galaxy Quest," he recently finished voicing his role in "Toy Story 2"), but decidedly less regulated than life on a sitcom. Given Allen's self-described change phobia, then, it's hardly surprising he wrestled with his instincts over ending "Home Improvement."

"I don't like second encores. I don't like people who stay onstage too long," he said. "Clearly, I wanted to end it, and even more clearly I have difficulty making people upset. And this decision upset a lot of people--notwithstanding Disney and ABC."

Disney, the studio that owns "Home Improvement," and ABC, the Disney-owned network for whom "Home Improvement" has been a mainstay throughout the 1990s, grappled with competing interests too. For while ABC still needed the show as a prime-time anchor, Disney had to consider the sitcom's high-end cost. Based on the raises the stars wanted, it would have run as much as $3 million an episode just to secure Allen and Richardson, according to widely held estimates.

With a hit show, a studio will usually pass along such growing production costs to the network by increasing the licensing fee. But that formula didn't work as neatly here, since Disney owns ABC and would have essentially been passing along the cost to itself.

Allen, meanwhile, was among a core group who for months was mulling ways to keep the show alive into next year, all the while getting miffed as the season dragged on without word from the network. But there was always, it seems, some wiggle room.

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