Question: Is it true that Tim Allen was a drug dealer? My boyfriend says he was, but I can't believe they'd let him star on Home Improvement. What's the story? — Allison L., Ruston, La.
Televisionary: Well, the story is that for the Tool Time man, timing was everything, Allison. Allen, who starred on the hit ABC sitcom from September 1991 to May 1999, was indeed arrested as a young man in Michigan for trying to sell $43,000 worth of cocaine in the late '70s and ended up doing a two-year prison stint. But that wasn't common knowledge when he subsequently parlayed a stand-up comedy career into his own network show, so it wasn't a factor in getting the series on the air. And when Allen and his publicists learned the story was about to come out during Home Improvement's first season — two advertising firms had already pulled national spots after hearing the rumors — the star did the smart thing: he came clean and addressed it head on, telling executive producer Matt Williams, his ABC and Disney bosses, and the public about his past.
"I was hesitant to tell [Matt]," he told TV Guide in 1991. "I'd paid my time in prison." But Williams surprised him by advising him to go wide with the tale and defuse any scandal-heavy stories. "When I told him that we ought to release the story, in a straightforward and truthful manner, his knee-jerk reaction was, yes, we should tell the truth; but he didn't want his family dragged through the mud and hurt," Williams said. "I told him that, if he wanted to protect his family and minimize [adverse publicity], his best course was to be straight. Candor, honesty — those things are appreciated by everybody."
That they were, so when Allen went public, fans didn't think any less of him. "The audience reacted predictably," Disney exec Richard Frank said in 1992. "They said, 'OK, we buy the fact that someone can make a mistake, and that his life can change for the better.'"
The comic's clean-up act made its way into other parts of his life as he gained popularity and found that much of America expected the star of a family show to be consistently family-friendly when entertaining in other venues. His decidedly raunchy stand-up act in particular was sanitized, or at least it was during the hours when sensitive ears might be present. "After the second year of the show, I did a concert tour, and I'd say I offended less than 1 percent of the audience," Allen said in 1995. "One grandmother wrote me that she'd taken her 12-year-old grandson because they were both fans of the show and they were shocked. I wrote her back saying I agreed, that wasn't fair. So in early shows, I just took away the overt sexual references. It can still be raunchy because kids love talking about burping and all those other bodily functions. In the later show, I could go full guns."
Allen was forced to clean his life up further in 1997, when he was arrested in a Detroit suburb on a DUI charge and subsequently checked himself into rehab. "[I]t was a wake-up call to how many times I dodged that bullet," he said afterward. "There are a lot of us who drive when we shouldn't drive. I thought, 'God, I could have hurt somebody!' It put me into this whole spin about assessing what I do and why I do it. I said: 'My drinking has not been fun for a while.'"
Not that scrapes with the law were all bad for stars of the show. Matter of fact, Richard Karn, who played Tim Taylor's long-suffering TV toolmaster, Al Borland, on the show, landed his part because of a problem with the police. After being pulled over for running a stop sign in L.A., the actor, who'd been making ends meet by catering bar mitzvahs and weddings, went to Improv Traffic School. (Yes, they have such a thing here.) There he met an agent who mentioned a new comedy that was casting a neighbor and a handyman. When Karn showed up, he was told the role of Al was already filled. But after that actor bowed out to make a movie, Karn got the part and turned what was supposed to be a handful-of-episodes gig into steady employment and a pathway to fame. (At the show's peak Karn's "Q rating," a measure of celebrity popularity, was second only to Allen's among prime-time men.)
Of course, that kind of fame can be a drag after a while, as Allen admitted in 1995. ("I can't just go to the theater on a Saturday night, and I can't take my daughter anyplace because I'm afraid we'll be photographed. And I think, 'What fun is this?'" he said.) But when Home Improvement finally left the air while still turning in strong ratings, the star wanted to do another season as TV host Tim Taylor. It was co-star Patricia Richardson who'd had enough, turning down a reported $25 million to return as wife Jill and thus helping to deny Allen a package worth twice that.
It seems Richardson wanted the show to take a more realistic turn with a storyline that focused more on conflict between Tim and Jill, a notion Allen, an executive producer on the show, rejected. "When it came down to it, I could not do it," she said. "I would have had to be medicated to come back and do this show again for another year."
So it was, and so Home Improvement left the ABC schedule with a nod toward the real cause behind the show's end. In the final episode, the Taylors (and their entire house, which was jacked up and toted off) headed for their new home in Bloomington, where Jill had accepted a job.