TV's Mr. Fixit retools his talents to fill up the big screen as jolly St. Nick in 'The Santa Clause'

By EW Staff
November 18, 1994 at 05:00 AM EST

Tim Allen, the lovable lug nut who totes the tool belt on ABC’s mock-macho sitcom Home Improvement, isn’t faking his famous passion for hardware. When the show, which debuted in 1991, made Allen TV’s top talent faster than Lava soap cutting through axle grease, he promptly bought a compost shredder, a John Deere tractor, and a throbbing Mustang with 575 ripsnorting horses under the hood. ”Hammers, hardware — I love that stuff,” Allen confesses on the Improvement set. Yet he still craves the same thing his TV alter ego wants — ” More power!

And he may be about to get it. Not satisfied that the No. 1 show has bested Seinfeld and Frasier, Allen decided to pencil in to his schedule a movie career. His debut last week in The Santa Clause represents a risky departure from his tried-and-smasheroo TV persona. His Santa Clause character, Scott Calvin, an emotionally AWOL divorced father, falls short of the superdad he plays on TV. Before Calvin transmogrifies into St. Nick, ”He’s more of a prick,” says John Pasquin, director of The Santa Clause and, at one time, Home Improvement. In fact, in the original script, by Allen’s fellow former stand-ups Steve Rudnick and Leo Benvenuti, Calvin guns down the real Santa when he catches him breaking into his house.

”I thought it was funny,” Allen says of the earlier version. ”If it was up to me, I would’ve left it that way.” But nightclub nihilism didn’t spell holiday blockbuster to Disney, and Pasquin convinced Allen to subordinate Clause‘s edgy humor to the heartstring glissandi of its dad-and-lad- reconciliation plot.

Disney, which had done well by turning a dark script called 3000 into a sweet one called Pretty Woman, warmed to the revision but doled out the dollars with characteristic caution. Clause was shot in a sort of gigantic toolshed in Toronto, the relatively pinchpenny budget accommodating an epic North Pole toy factory but not a soundstage. ”It was awful!” says Rudnick. ”You’d get tugboats and planes going by [delaying shooting because of noise]. The set was hot, kids (who played Santa’s 125 elves) were passing out!” Allen’s fat suit gave him a heat rash. ”That Tim comes across as a jolly guy, knowing how miserable he was — that’s acting!”

But when Disney execs made a last-minute seven-figure addition to the budget, Tim thought, God bless us, every one! ”Disney put in a bunch more stuff, music and special effects,” says Allen. ”Now nobody has to explain to their kids why [the effects] look so cheesy.” Originally slated for Disney’s Hollywood Pictures division (whose Egyptoid logo and wobbly record once inspired the cruel industry witticism ”If it’s the Sphinx, it stinks”), the film now bears the prestigious Walt Disney Pictures imprimatur. As Home Improvement‘s Tim Taylor might triumphantly observe, ”Arrgh! Arrgh! Arrgh!

Nobody has a better philosophical handle on his calculated success than Allen, 41, who did simultaneous college theses in TV production and the philosophy of Bishop Berkeley, who wrote that to be is to be perceived. ”Home Improvement is somewhat perceived,” chuckles Allen. ”So far, we’ve surpassed everybody’s wildest expectations.” The latest industry estimates are that the show will earn approximately half a billion dollars in syndication — more than any in history except The Cosby Show. ”No one’s come near Cosby save us,” says Allen. ”We have enough kid appeal to go on at dinnertime, but we skirt the line enough to keep it kinda interesting for a more mature audience after nine.”

Listen closely to Allen’s regular-guy talk and you can hear the steady hum of high-tension ambition. Allen did not rest between takes on The Santa Clause; he wrote his No. 1 best-selling autobiography, Don’t Stand Too Close to a Naked Man — certainly the most ambitiously revelatory of the TV comics’ tomes now inundating bookstores — and corresponded by PowerBook fax back home to Hollywood with his daughter, Kady, 4, who refers to him as ”Daddy Clause.” Mourns Allen, ”In showbiz, you end up s–ting on your family, the people you love most.” When the director evoked real pain for a take by reminding Allen of the large chunks of Kady’s life he was missing, ”He sorta yelled at me after the scene,” recalls Pasquin, who says Allen then recognized he’d gained a new tool in the basement workshop of his actor’s psyche. ”He’s under tremendous pressure. Disney is trying to get as much out of him as possible.”

Writing the book during his movie travails, Allen admits, ”seemed absolutely the dumbest thing I’d ever done, but I got very introspective with the book. What Disney [its book division, Hyperion, is Allen’s publisher] wanted was pretty much a yukfest, but I was not prepared to do that — and I came back with a renewed sense of where I’m coming from. It helped me blow out my motors and defoul my spark plugs.”

Where Allen is coming from is a past both hilarious (check out the book’s account of his goosing by a horde of crazed matrons while serving as emcee for male stripper Sexy Flexy) and excruciating (Allen’s dad was killed by a drunk driver when he was 11; his mother’s remarriage, to her high school sweetheart, gave Tim a dad and saved the family). He claims he doesn’t really know what the title Don’t Stand Too Close to a Naked Man means, but the book indicates that it refers to an event resulting from the actual dumbest thing Allen ever did: sell cocaine to a narc in 1977 and earn an eight-year prison term commuted to 28 months. When one is walking into jail for the first time while fellow cons whistle and holler, ”Hey, chicken, you’re in my cell,” the title’s injunction can be taken as sound advice. Allen forged his comic persona under pressure: One timely laugh-riot impression saved him from potential murder by his predecessor as the Sandstone prison Toastmasters Club president — the guy cracked up in mid-assault. The male-identity comedy that made Allen famous is deeper than the myriad Iron John parodies that cropped up on prime-time TV shows in the wake of the 1991 best-seller. ”After being in prison,” Allen writes, ”I know that we can’t [separate the sexes] forever because it turns men … into very violent creatures … very violent and very sad.” What surely saved Tim Allen was the unstinting loyalty of Laura Deibel, his girlfriend before prison and wife thereafter. ”Tim’s comedy about men is very pro-woman,” says his old stagemate Leo Benvenuti, who watched Allen’s act evolve from an early 1980s What-if-men-had-tits? routine.

Many of his first comic bits reflected a jailbird’s sensibility, and audiences didn’t always like it. ”I’ve been in clubs that were more threatening than when I was in prison,” he says. But his five-minute tool-love/men-are-pigs routine did so well he steadily expanded it.

”He took it more seriously than a lot of comics,” says Rudnick, another pal from the Midwest circuit. ”He knows what he wants.” Watching friends like Kevin Meaney and Lenny Clarke turn promising stand-up careers into short-lived TV shows (Uncle Buck and Lenny), Allen spurned Jeffrey Katzenberg and Michael Eisner’s bid to cast him in TV versions of Turner & Hooch and Dead Poets Society, holding out for an extension of what worked in his stage show. He took acting lessons to prepare for his big-screen future and studied others’ careers as thoughtfully as he had pored over biographies in the prison library. ”Roseanne is really a mild, nice woman, very sweet,” he muses. ”For movies it was a tougher road because she had no real acting background. The best I ever saw was Steve Martin in Roxanne. I thought that was a perfect balance of a serious guy and the best of his comedy. The Santa Clause is a — I don’t want to say ‘feeble’ — this is a grand attempt to show that side of me.”

There are more sides of Tim Allen to come. ”I have a funny motivational series I’d like to do for kids like me that are a little wayward,” he says. Another project, under wraps for now, reflects the other enthusiasm he indulged on the set of The Santa Clause: a passionate reading regimen in out-of-this-world physics, a logical extension of his handyman’s obsession with how the world works. ”Hyperspace: A Scientific Odyssey Through Parallel Universes, Time Warps and the Tenth Dimension is a great book!” he says. ”I spent a lot of time thinkin’ about hyperspace and its relevance to me. These superstrings — they’re 10 billion times smaller than a proton! We’re trying to stare at the face of God!”

What this means to Tim Allen is a dynamite movie idea: ”It’s a great sci-fi movie, which is why I’ve been reading these books for two years — there’s a point to all this madness. And I’ve gotten to the bottom of it: 99 percent of the universe, we have no idea what it is — they call it ‘dark matter.’ I don’t know how the hell they weigh a galaxy, but they only know what 1 percent is. What we see is not enough to keep the universe from expanding forever! Whatever’s holding us together weighs more than what’s pulling us apart.”

But the real wonder is the dark matter behind Tim Allen’s lighthearted shtick — that and the possibility his universe might keep expanding forever.