(A version of this article was shared with Laughing Place on November 10, 2022.)
“To Infinity…and Beyond!”
This expression was immortalized in 1994 by Buzz Lightyear, a simple child’s toy. But these words could equally describe the rocket-charged ascension of comedian and actor Tim Allen in the 1990s. This middle-American everyman went from the metro-Detroit area stand-up circuit to television and film superstardom in just a few short years. During that time, Allen landed three monster roles, for which he’ll always be widely known. And now, this mammoth of 1990s Disney entertainment is making a comeback in the upcoming Disney+ series The Santa Clauses.
Let’s learn more about our favorite fixer-upper, space ranger, and Christmas icon in this edition of Disney Legends Spotlight.
From the Mountains to the Midwest
Tim Allen was born in Denver, Colorado on June 13, 1953 as Timothy Alan Dick. He grew up in a large family – the third oldest of six children – with two parents holding dependable career jobs. The family’s classic American story took a severe turn in November 1964, when Allen’s father was killed in a car accident with a drunk driver. Allen was only eleven years old.
The tragedy started a series of events which led Allen’s mother to reunite with a childhood sweetheart, and move the family from Colorado to Michigan. At that point, both families moved in together to form a nine-child household. It might be safe to say Allen and his siblings lived a life somewhere between The Brady Bunch and Cheaper by the Dozen.
Allen lived out the rest of his childhood in Michigan. He attended theater and music classes while in high school, and fell in love with the piano. Allen split his college time between Central Michigan University and Western Michigan University, where he worked at the student radio station WIDR. He graduated college in 1976 with a BS in communications, specializing in radio and television production.
Allen’s comedy origin story began in 1975 while he was still in college. Accepting a challenge from a friend, Allen took the stage in a comedy club “open mic” night. He proved up to the challenge, and had enough success on stage that he began to get recognition in the Detroit area as a funny guy. Allen’s success on the stage led to appearances in local television commercials and on local cable comedy shows.
Allen struggled with inner demons in his younger days. In a 2021 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, he described his younger self as “an F-up”, explaining that he started drinking in his youth, which was exacerbated after his father was killed in the Colorado car crash.
In October 1978, Allen was arrested in a Michigan airport for possession of over 650 grams (almost a pound and a half) of cocaine. He pled guilty to drug trafficking charges. Faced with a potential life sentence, Allen instead gave authorities the names of other dealers in exchange for a reduced sentence. Allen ended up serving a sentence of two years and four months in a federal prison in Sandstone, Minnesota. He was paroled in June 1981.
Out of the Slammer and Into the Spotlight
Following his release from prison, Allen returned to comedy and moved to Los Angeles, where he became a regular performer at The Comedy Store. Looking to make a reputation for himself out west, he began making stand-up appearances on late-night talk shows, and even produced a couple stand-up comedy specials showcasing his talent.
Allen’s “big break” came in television, where he starred in ABC’s Home Improvement. The sitcom was a monster success for ABC, producing over 200 episodes over eight solid seasons. The show centered around the life of a Detroit-area “everyman” Tim Taylor and his family. Taylor loved sports, cars, and especially tools – to the point where he starred in his own “show-within-a-show” called Tool Time – a loving parody of the popular PBS home improvement program This Old House.
Home Improvement showcased the caricatures Allen represented as a comedian, drawing on his experience as a born-and-raised American man living in a midwestern suburb. In fact, Allen has gone on record stating his acting ability is “strictly limited”, admitting he “can only play a part if I can draw on personal experience, and that well can go dry pretty quickly.”
The massive success of Home Improvement catapulted Allen’s career, quickly leading to numerous high-profile film roles.
The Santa Clause
Tim Allen’s amiable everyman persona made him a perfect fit to play the starring role in his first feature film. In 1994’s The Santa Clause, Allen plays the big red man himself, albeit with a begrudging twist. As divorced toy salesman Scott Calvin, Allen’s character happens upon Santa on Christmas Eve. When Scott witnesses Santa slip and fall off his roof (and die in the process), he dons the Santa suit to finish Santa’s gift-giving duties. Having worn the suit, Scott unknowingly (and permanently) accepted the role of Santa, creating all sorts of humorous yuletide “growing pains” for himself and his family.
Trivia Tidbit: Actors Bill Murray and Chevy Chase were both offered the role of Scott Calvin, but both turned down the offer. Chase declined due to scheduling conflicts, and Murray did not want to star in another holiday-themed movie after doing 1988’s Scrooged.
The Santa Clause was a major hit in theaters, grossing $190 million against a budget of only $20 million, and has since become a staple holiday film. The success of The Santa Clause brought Allen back for two sequels, including 2002’s The Santa Clause 2 and 2006’s The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause.
Starting November 16, 2022, Allen will once again don the red suit for a six-episode miniseries The Santa Clauses on Disney+.
The deep, gravelly voice belonging to Tim Allen may be how most Disney fans know him best. Allen lent his vocal talents to Disney-Pixar’s 1995 animated blockbuster Toy Story, as the voice of Buzz Lightyear. In this beloved classic, Buzz is a toy space ranger, who doesn’t actually realize he is a toy. He takes his mission to defeat Evil Emperor Zurg (another toy) overly seriously, much to the irritation of Woody, a toy cowboy (voiced by fellow Disney Legend Tom Hanks). Over the course of the film, Buzz finds out that he is indeed just a toy. After the initial shock of this revelation wears off, Buzz comes to realize that being one of Andy’s toys is a privilege and an honorable mission unto itself.
The monster success of Toy Story gave birth to an entire new universe of toys for children and adults alike, and spawned a host of sequel films, television specials, and shorts (and even a theme park land). Allen reprised the voice role of Buzz for all Toy Story spin-offs and sequels, with the exception of 2022’s Lightyear. This film offers a different take on Buzz Lightyear, showing audiences the origin of the “real life” Buzz Lightyear, upon whom the toy was based. Given that the character in this film was a person rather than a toy, Disney chose to cast Chris Evans in the title role (who coincidentally shares a birthday with Allen – albeit 28 years later).
Other Disney Roles
Aside from his three mega roles in Disney entertainment, Allen made his mark on several other Disney projects. He starred as father / grandfather Mike Baxter in Last Man Standing – a comedy series on ABC (later moved to Fox) which lasted nine seasons and produced close to 200 episodes. Allen played the title character in Disney’s 2006 remake of the classic film The Shaggy Dog. He also starred in 1997’s Jungle 2 Jungle, 2002’s Big Trouble, 2007’s Wild Hogs. Allen took another turn off camera as a narrator in the 2012 Disneynature documentary film Chimpanzee.
Tim Allen has done plenty of work outside the Disney umbrella. His notable film roles include 1999’s Galaxy Quest (a Star Trek parody), 2004’s holiday film Christmas with the Kranks. On television, Allen has appeared on many series and specials, lending his signature everyman personality to most of those roles.
A Distinguished Career
Tim Allen has enjoyed a commercially successful career in television and film. He’s racked up many nominations for his work on Home Improvement, including a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a television series. Allen has also received recognition from many award organizations for his recurring voice role as Buzz Lightyear. In 1999, he was named a Disney Legend, a mere eight years after his first contribution to Disney content in 1991’s debut season of Home Improvement. In 2004, Allen was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Tim Allen’s happy smile and “Average Joe” persona have endeared him to millions of fans worldwide. Throw in three legendary characters – Tim the Toolman Taylor, Buzz Lightyear, and Santa Claus – and Allen’s career has been nothing short of magical.
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