My digital tape recorder is switching on and off. I fiddle with the battery compartment, and Tim Allen reaches for the machine. "Let me play with this."
"No, please don’t!" I say. He’s an actor, he’s probably never used a recorder like this, and if I can just make the lid stay down…
"I have a thing for tools," he says.
I hand it over. I’d momentarily forgotten whom I was talking with – the original "tool guy", the star of Home Improvement, the comic who loves machines of all kinds, a man who owns 30 cars. He fixes the recorder in seconds.
Tim Allen, I learn, is fascinated not only by tools but also by how the cosmos works and where we mere humans fit in the larger scheme. He grew up in a family of nine children. When he was 11, his father was killed in a car accident. The tragedy started him asking, "Is there a God, and why does a father get killed like that?" As he grew older, he tried to salve the pain by being funny. But humour wasn’t enough; he struggled with a drinking problem, and at age 25 served two years in prison for selling cocaine.
Then his life took a turn. Allen began working as a stand-up comic, developing the character he would play in Home Improvement. In 1994, he hit the American pop-culture trifecta: He had the No. 1 TV show; No. 1 book on the bestseller list, Don’t Stand Too Close to a Naked Man; and No. 1 film, The Santa Clause.
Now 53, the deeply thoughtful Allen is reinventing himself again. He talked with me about his new love, his new movie, The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause, and what it all means to him.
RD: What was it like growing up in a family with so many children?
Allen: Fabulous, although my mom would probably disagree. I have an only child. She’s so independent and good with adults. We didn’t care about adults. They were in that other living area. It was like Charlie Brown – you just saw their feet walking around.
RD: I’ve read that your father was killed by a drunk driver. How did you deal with that?
Allen: One day, a part of your emotional connective tissue is there, the next it’s not – and you have this black, gaping hole. If you don’t rake it over and plant something else, it eventually fills up with a kind of mud. Nobody – a priest, my mom – had anything to say.
RD: Nobody talked to you?
Allen: Nobody said anything.
RD: Do you think your drinking and self-destructive behaviour grew out of that?
Allen: Definitely. I didn’t have any idea what to do with the fact that the world is a very cruel place.
RD: When did you start drinking?
Allen: About age 11. We’d sneak out of the house and get pony cans [about 240ml] of Coors. No-one knew.
RD: Adolescence is a tricky time. Your daughter is now 16. What’s your relationship with her like?
Allen: We’re very close, but 16 is hard because it’s petulant. The moods! I end up acting like a munchkin or a fool most of the time to get her out of her deal. Her problems are so alien to me. I grew up with boys. Having a child is a lot of work, and who hasn’t said this? I have to get a licence to drive a motorcycle to protect myself and the people around me. I am adamant there should be some sort of licensing required to have children.
RD: Was it difficult to be a parent after losing your father?
Allen: I have never really recovered. The world’s a mean place. It’s unfair, then it’s fair. It’s hateful, then it’s loving. It’s a very peculiar place on philosophical and metaphysical and religious levels. I love human beings because we’re very courageous in the peculiar place that we live: reality.
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