As "real man" moments go, it's hard to beat standing with NASA engineers inside the Jet Propulsion Laboratory as they land a spacecraft on Mars. So, naturally, when the Curiosity rover made its picture-perfect descent on the red planet this past summer, Tim Allen, a VIP guest, reacted the way any red-blooded 59-year-old space nut raised on Gemini and Apollo missions would.
"I burst into tears," he admits.
For an actor who built his reputation and fortune playing a stereotypical American male, grunts and all, Allen comes across these days as thoughtful, self-aware and refreshingly …
"Oh, please, don't say sensitive. It will kill my image," he says, trying to keep a straight face. Dressed in jeans and a faded polo shirt in a Hollywood studio, Allen looks nearly as boyish and trim as when Tim "The Tool Man" Taylor was making more than 30 million people laugh every week on Home Improvement. At the sitcom's peak of popularity, in 1994, Allen simultaneously had the No. 1 TV show, movie and book in America. "I was following in the great steps of Bill Cosby and Roseanne," he says. "Now I'm just, you know, old."
He jokes, but Allen is clearly evolving with age. He has a successful new sitcom, Last Man Standing; a new stand-up act; and a fresh outlook on marriage and fatherhood. Allen married actress Jane Hajduk, 45, in 2006, and their daughter, Elizabeth, is now 3. (He has another daughter, Katherine, 23, from his previous marriage.) "It's so different this time around," he says of his home life. "I used to live an isolated existence, even in relationships, but now my family knows me for who I really am. Mostly, that's a good thing." It certainly offers Allen some peace of mind. "Yesterday I was swimming with my 3-year-old, and I looked up and thought, 'How wonderful this world is,' " he says. "We're always searching for something, but it's going to be all right. Stop fretting so much."
Allen credits his sobriety (he's going on 14 years) with helping him move closer to people and feel more grounded. He now freely follows his passions, and he has a ton of them. Allen golfs, collects and tinkers with vintage cars, engineers high-tech gadgets and once wrote a book that discussed quantum physics (the best-selling I'm Not Really Here). He's also a deeply spiritual person who reads widely across religious disciplines and goes to church most Sundays. "Tim's almost a throwback as far as being a man of infinite passions and pursuits," observes radio personality Rick Dees, Allen's friend and golf partner of 20 years. "There's none of that Hollywood tinsel with him. He's a person who genuinely cares about the world and the people around him."
The actor just sees it as being engaged in life. "Most human beings are disengaged all day, every day," Allen says, stretching out on a couch. "You're doing one thing, but you're thinking about your dry cleaning or 'I've got this on Friday.' I suggest it to everybody, to engage as much as you can in life. It takes energy. God knows I'm not the Dalai Lama, but if you're not careful and don't find your center point, you end up sorta drifting through life sideways."
Timothy Alan Dick, the third of six children (five of them boys) born to Martha and Gerald Dick, grew up in Denver at a time when kids played with cap guns and pocket knives and nobody called the police. Those days are long gone, as Allen has been telling sold-out crowds in Las Vegas, where he's headlining at The Venetian through the beginning of November. "Everything disagreeable is now against the law," he gripes. "Real firecrackers, toys with sharp edges .… You can't ride a bike without a bike helmet. Every generation is weaker than the last. Kids think they have it tough? My granny had it tough. She didn't have oxygen when she was young!"
That's all part of Allen's shtick, but it's not far from what he really believes. "Tim's very smart and very thoughtful but also very opinionated and doesn't hold his opinions back," says John Pasquin, a friend and director on Home Improvement and Last Man Standing. "Comedy is often drawn from anger, and I think that's true in Tim's case. He's able to joke about what really ticks him off."
And what ticks him off a lot is that men can no longer be men. On Last Man Standing, Allen plays Mike Baxter, a man's man lost in a world of soccer moms, citrus bodywash and Glee. Allen acknowledges the similarities to Home Improvement. Instead of hosting Tool Time on TV for a hardware store, Mike has a sporting-goods video blog. And it's three daughters instead of three sons. But the premise remains. What does it mean to be a man today?
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Allen has asked that question since losing his dad at age 11. His father died while driving the family home from a college football game in 1964; a drunk driver's car flipped onto theirs. Allen's mother and siblings survived. Tim was the only family member who stayed home that day, though he was hardly spared. "It changed everything forever," he says. "Part of me still doesn't trust that things are going to work out all right. I knew my father was dead, but I was never satisfied with why he was dead. I wanted answers that minute from God. 'Do you think this is funny? Do you think this is necessary?' And I've had a tumultuous relationship with my creator ever since."
To quiet his angst, Allen acted out. His mother remarried a man with three children of his own, and the brood moved to Michigan, where Tim was more class clown than star student. Although he made it through college, he turned to dealing drugs when his money ran low, and, at 25, he got busted at a Michigan airport carrying nearly a pound and a half of cocaine. Allen served 28 months at the Federal Correctional Institute in Sandstone, Minn. "It finally dawned on me in prison that I worked harder being a crook than I ever worked legitimately," he says. "I was doing 12-hour days running from the police and screwing up lives. Once I got that I could make money doing something legal, I turned it around." Ironically, doing time is what led the funnyman into the business of laughter. "The judge had suggested I get my act together," Allen once said of finding his calling for comedy in prison, "and I took him seriously."
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He first tried stand-up at a Detroit comedy club and soon made a name for himself by lampooning men as lovable pigs. An early joke: "Mom said the only reason men are alive is for lawn care and vehicle maintenance." The hook took off. "Everything I did got bigger and bigger audiences," Allen remembers. "Someone heard about me, and I was suddenly in California. Then I was on Showtime. Then I started selling out arenas all over the country. Then I rolled into Home Improvement. That was pretty hard to beat."
Except for the fact that Allen wasn't entirely present for much of his success. He drank — heavily — as his career soared. It was a difficult lifestyle to maintain. "I was doing comedy clubs, concerts, movies and TV, and didn't ever realize how fatigued I was or how much I was missing in my life," he explains. He came to regret all the time that he spent away from his daughter Katherine (the two are now very close), and his first marriage fell apart. After a drunk-driving arrest in 1997 led Allen to court-ordered rehab the following year, he finally realized it was time to clean up for good.
"What I wanted more than anything was clarity, and I still do," he says. "That's what I appreciate about spending time with older people. My wife and I have befriended couples in their 70s, 80s and 90s, and they're so clear about who they are. They teach us humility and gentleness. Maybe their bodies don't work the way they once did, but they're right there. That's how I want to be as I get older."
Allen may be closer to clarity than he thinks. Riding all those ups and downs has made him a wiser, saner man. "Seeing the worst parts of my behavior helped me understand the better parts," he says. "So while I'm still more anxious than I want to be most of the time, I'm far less anxious than I used to be." Allen groans a little and turns up the palm of one hand. "I guess that's progress."
Watch television these days and Allen will soon come on-screen, even if you can't see him. As the ad-campaign voice of Chevrolet and Campbell's Soup, he's as American as, well, a burger and fries. "Tim's the everyman that men wish they were, which is why he's so popular," says Julie Bowen, the Modern Family star who has made two movies with Allen. "He's funny, charming and attractive without being too much of any of those things. Tim makes you think, 'I could be that guy.' "
And like many guys, the comedian loves his cars. He owns around 30 of them, including hot rods he built himself and drivable versions of scale models he collected as a boy. ("My wife also has a bunch of very hot cars that I bought her," he says.) Allen will sometimes spend weeks talking shop with a potential seller or haggling over prices. He bought a 1939 Studebaker truck from a 90-year-old veteran in Pennsylvania. "I would have bought the car no matter what," he says, "but I loved that I got to talk to this guy every day and argue about the price. 'Where'd you get it? How did you come up with that?' "
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Allen's love of machines extends to his newest hobby: racing motorcycles. "That's been a game changer," he says. "I always wondered about those high-speed turns where the bike lays down almost on its side. I'm really close to achieving that."
He's also obsessed with Apple products. Allen first met Apple CEO Steve Jobs while working on Pixar's Toy Story, providing the voice of Buzz Lightyear. The actor was intimidated at first, he admits. "I tried to act like hanging out with Steve was not a big deal, but it was a tremendously big deal. Your impulse is to kiss up to him or go, 'Hey, I'm very smart, too.' But soon enough, our real personalities came through, and I started asking him legitimate questions. All the way through our relationship he would say, 'No one's ever asked me that.'"
Their friendship continued until Jobs died, last year. "When Steve got sick, I sent a gift basket." Allen says, laughing. "It was all stuff I knew he would never eat, because he ate only healthy food. I sent him cold cuts and soda pops. I also sent all these magazines about PCs."
Talking about Jobs puts Allen in a philosophical mood (as does just about any topic; Allen minored in philosophy and design). He and Jobs did not always agree on things. "I'd call and ask him to give the laptops a more rugged, military look," he says. But Allen respected Jobs' central quest to "make a dent in the universe," as the Apple chief once put it.
As he closes in on 60, the actor can't help wondering what his own "dent" will be. Despite his enduring popularity, he admits, "I have never been anything but reviled or marginalized by critics." Does that bother him? Sometimes. He concedes it was "hurtful" last year at the Golden Globes when host Ricky Gervais introduced Allen and his copresenter, Tom Hanks. Gervais rattled off a long list of accolades for the presenter with two Oscars, only to quip, "The other is … Tim Allen." But after all these years, Allen knows he's more than the sum of his Hollywood parts. "Right before I die," he says, "I'm going to take the DVDs of everything I've made, grind them up and put it all in a pillbox and say, 'This is what it's really worth.' "
Because what's worth the most to Allen are the people around him, he says. His two daughters, his wife, his siblings, his mom in Michigan, who, in her mid-80s, still calls with motherly advice. An example: "Mom likes to say, 'Always make your bed at other people's homes,' which to me means always leave things a little bit better than you found them."
Add value, in other words. "You don't want the end to come, and say, 'I wished I'd loved more. I wish I'd smelled more roses,' " Allen says. "You have to do that now." That's when the philosopher exits and the comedian returns. "But who really knows?" Allen says, grinning. "As soon as I transition, I'll probably go, 'Damn, I should have had more ice cream.' "
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