Taran Noah Smith starred as Mark Taylor on ABC’s Home Improvement for its entire, massively successful eight-season run. When the TV comedy series ended in 1999, however, Smith decided that he had no desire to continue acting – and walked away from showbiz altogether. Yet despite this move his turbulent private life would still be splashed across tabloid headlines for many years after he’d left our screens.
Home Improvement was, of course, the show that made comedian Tim Allen a household name. It was one of the most-watched sitcoms of the 1990s, in fact, and even launched the career of future Baywatch sex symbol Pamela Anderson. The three young actors who played Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor’s sons Brad, Randy and Mark – Zachery Ty Bryan, Jonathan Taylor Thomas and Taran Noah Smith, respectively – were also catapulted to stardom.
The three boys in the show had very distinct personalities. Brad, for instance, was a popular jock who wasn’t very bright and always wound up in trouble. Middle brother Randy was the intelligent one – but he was also a quick-witted know-all. And as played by Smith, Mark was more sensitive than his older brothers and was regularly teased by them.
Over the course of the eight seasons, though, Mark grew from a wide-eyed six-year-old into a teenager who – in the show’s seventh series – adopted a gothic look due to feeling like an outcast. The character also shared his closest familial bond with his mother, Jill (portrayed by Patricia Richardson). In the last season, however, he did manage to bond with oldest brother Brad, when Randy left the family home for Costa Rica.
Understandably, then, the part of Mark Taylor was Smith’s first substantial screen role. But Smith had actually been modeling from his infancy. In a 2016 interview with website Headlines & Global News, his mother, Candy Bennici, revealed, “At six months old, he was in a crib with a matching outfit and sheets – and that was his first job.”
Smith had actually got started because his older sister, then seven years old, had also been working in the modeling industry. And when Smith had been brought along by his mother to a talent agency meeting, the agent had told Bennici that there was work available for her baby too. These baby modeling gigs eventually led to him acting in some television commercials.
Bennici said that both of her children would only be booked for a small number of jobs – usually no more than four – per year. But when Smith acted in an Enterprise car rental commercial, things really took off. Based on this job, in fact, Bennici got him a Screen Actors Guild card. This made him part of the labor union for working film and television actors.
When Smith and his family first went out to Los Angeles looking for acting work, then, they were reportedly very naïve about the business. Happily, however, the family inadvertently arrived at the best time possible for an actor: “pilot season.” This is the four-month period between January and April in which television networks produce 70-100 “pilot episodes” of prospective new shows.
In the same interview with Headlines & Global News, Smith said his family hadn’t even been aware of the existence of pilot season before this. Smith also remarked on how lucky they’d got – considering that Home Improvement had only been his third audition. Thankfully, too, the second audition that Smith had was for a show that had wound up being cancelled after one season. He therefore felt lucky not to have been chosen for that role.
Still, it sounds like the ultimate dream for many actors. Smith, after all, landed a main role in a series that became a television institution – and he did it on only his third audition. However, as Bennici later told the Marin Independent Journal, “You go in so naïve.” So she signed her young son to a seven-year contract. Yet she later admitted, “I had no idea what that contract meant.”
Smith has, however, always talked about his time on the show in very positive terms. Regarding his experience of spending his childhood years on the Disney Studios lot in Burbank, California, he said, “I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I had a wonderful time.” So it seems that the problems truly manifested themselves only once the show had ended.
In fact, Bennici said that Smith “had the hardest time” when the show was no longer part of his life. He was, after all, suddenly torn away from his high-profile job and all the relationships that he’d forged. Crucially, Bennici believed, Smith struggled because the show had been all he’d ever known – as both an actor and a person.
“The adults and the other kids had a life before the show,” Bennici lamented to the Marin Independent Journal. “But his whole life as he knew it was suddenly gone overnight. They take your ID card, and you can’t go on the lot any more.” So Smith went from being one of the stars of a beloved TV show to a 16-year-old who was unsure where his future lay.
While Home Improvement was still on the air, though, Smith did a guest spot on 7th Heaven and appeared in a TV movie entitled Ebbie. He then lent his voice to an episode of Batman Beyond in 1999 – but quit acting soon after. He told Headlines & Global News, “By the time I was 16 or 17, I just wanted to do other things.”
He continued, “I really enjoy working with my hands and working with tools and having something physical to look at and say that I built at the end of the day.” It seemed that acting simply wasn’t what made Smith happy any more, and he wanted to find out what would put a smile on his face. Sadly, though, hard times lay just around the corner for Smith and his family.
Smith initially believed that perhaps he could be happy working in a different area of the film/television business. He therefore attended the film school at the University Of Southern California to study directing. And there he met vegan chef Heidi Van Pelt – who hosted dinner parties for Hollywood clients in her home – and the two became an item.
However, Smith was reluctant to tell his parents about his relationship with Van Pelt – and with good reason. “She was 15 years older than me,” he said in 2015, while taking part in the Marin Independent Journal interview promoting his mother’s film industry guidebook for parents, Stardom Happens: Nurturing Your Child In The Entertainment Business.
Smith admitted, “I knew my parents would not be excited by that, so I told them she was nine years older, the same distance as my parents in age.” But even though he tried hard to keep the true age difference a secret, his parents eventually found out. “That’s when they tried to push her out of my life,” he said.
At this point, however, Smith was a teenager who had fallen head over heels in love. So he was never going to listen to his parents’ objections – and even wound up leaving his university course. The star then ran away to be with Van Pelt and would only have contact with his family again when he sued them, at age 17, for access to his $1.5 million trust fund.
He and Van Pelt hired a lawyer too. The lawyer then drafted a written statement that said the couple were married. The pair evidently thought this would help their case as they tried to persuade a judge to declare Smith an emancipated minor – or someone free from his parent’s control. That way, they seemingly thought, Smith could access his trust fund a year early, instead of waiting until he turned 18.
Smith even accused his parents of mismanaging his money by living off it – instead of leaving it untouched in the trust fund. In the 2015 interview with mother and son, Bennici revealed that she took great offense at this accusation. “Of course, we didn’t touch his money,” she said.
She continued, “It was in a trust fund. We couldn’t have touched it if we wanted to.” Bennici also maintained that her son and his much older partner were simply trying to get at his money too early. She said, “We were trying to protect it. Luckily, the Marin courts were very good about it and didn’t give it to them.”
The Marin Independent Journal also contacted Van Pelt, who now owns vegan restaurant Fud in her hometown of Kansas City, to get her side of the story. She was adamant that she had never received any of the trust fund money. “There was no usurping of anyone’s money. I’ve always had my own thing and my own strengths. I don’t rely on others.”
She did reveal, however, that it had been her idea to fabricate their marriage in the legal affidavit. She said, you see, that Smith had been worried that his parents would try to get him arrested for running away while he was still a minor. She revealed, “He didn’t have a job and was running out of money. The only way he could get money was to try to access his trust fund.”
Smith did eventually gain access to his trust fund when he turned 18. He later told Headlines & Global News, “Shortly after that, we started to talk and be more of a family.” He now believes that what he went through with his family had been common “teenage-angst-driven strife” that had been exacerbated by his fame and the media cycle.
Yet in 2001 – while still 17 – Smith controversially married Van Pelt in a secret ceremony. Then, in 2005, the couple founded a vegan dairy products company named PlayFood. They ran the business from their home in Sherman Oaks in the suburbs of Los Angeles. This, however, was against regulations, and the authorities shut the company down.
And as if this weren’t bad enough, Smith said, he then started to have doubts about the relationship. “I was with Heidi for five or six years,” he told the Marin Independent Journal. “At the end of that, I realized I had made a mistake.” Ironically, he said, this period was actually when his parents were finally ready to accept Van Pelt as part of their family.
There would be no need for this acceptance, though, as Smith told his parents that he and Van Pelt had broken up. They filed for divorce in February 2007. Smith later said that he apologized to his parents for his “teenage phase” and that “they were very forgiving and apologized too.”
The Sherman Oaks house, out of which Smith and Van Pelt had run PlayFood, was listed on the market in 2007 as well. But it soon became infamous due to a TMZ exposé that detailed the apparently dilapidated condition in which Smith and Van Pelt had left it. The house was put up for sale with no photographs, in fact, and the listing even admitted that it was “the worst house in a prime location.”
TMZ posted a video that detailed the levels of damage that had apparently been inflicted upon the interior of the house. In the clip, graffiti and other bizarre pieces of hand drawn “art” were shown to be covering the walls, several of which had large holes in them. Cupboard doors hung off their hinges; it was a sorry sight to behold.
On one wall, which was practically falling apart, someone had scrawled the words, “Please view this lesson in finality. Thank you.” Smith’s lawyer spoke to TMZ at the time and tried to deflect blame from him by saying, “You can thank his gold-digging ex-wife for the debacle he’s in.” So there can be no mistaking that the lawyer was implying that Van Pelt was responsible for the damage.
In a 2007 interview with the National Enquirer, however, Smith felt others were to blame for the destruction. He said, “Squatters have been living there. I have a lot of artist friends, and they spray-painted the walls.” In any case, Smith would spend the next several years in court – battling with his ex-wife for control of PlayFood.
And Smith’s name would again be plastered across the headlines in 2012 when he was arrested for driving under the influence as well as drug possession. He was stopped around 1:00 a.m. on January 30 in Los Angeles County, and police believed he had been taking marijuana. He also allegedly had hashish in his car.
Thankfully, despite this arrest, it does seem like Smith has gotten his life back on track in recent years. He told Headlines & Global News in 2016, for instance, that he had been working as an installation artist at museums and art festivals. Prior to that he had apparently spent much of 2014 providing disaster relief in the Philippines while working for charity Communitere.
Smith said he had helped build a resource center that houses tools to enable the locals to rebuild their lives. The star said the organization provided “everything from sledgehammers to a 3-D printer and a laser cutter.” He added, “My official title was Maker Space Maker because my job was to set up the shop and create the system that made everything go.”
He also started his own on-the-water art display space, The FairWeather Gallery. He saw this as his way of uniting the passions of his parents in a project that he could call his own. He said in the 2016 interview, “My dad is a boat builder, and my mom studied art history and is much more of an artist, so I’m combining the two in my life.”
And Smith seemed to be indulging his father’s side of his heritage when his name hit the headlines again in July 2019. At that time, you see, a submarine docked at Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey Bay, California, and locals had no idea where it had come from, what its purpose was or who owned it. In the end, though, TV channel Action News 8 discovered that Smith was the owner of the sub.
“No, we are not smuggling drugs, we are not attacking the U.S., we are just all Californians having a good time,” Smith told the SFGate website. Smith elaborated by saying the vessel had been manufactured for the Swedish Navy, and he had purchased it in Florida. He was now supposedly teaching trainees how to pilot the sub.
Smith said he was working with the company Community Submersibles to instruct students on how to dive down to 600 feet beneath the waves. The star said that learning to pilot a submarine seemed perfectly natural to him. After all, he had been born on a boat and raised with the ocean as a major part of his life.
Acting, then, is still not on the horizon for Smith. When Smith reunited with the cast of Home Improvement for an Entertainment Weekly magazine photoshoot in 2011, in fact, he said had no plans to return to performing. “I’ve moved on to do other things with my life,” he told the Marin Independent Journal. He said he also fully supported his mother’s efforts to help other showbiz parents and their children to navigate the business “in a safer manner.”
But what of Smith’s Home Improvement co-star? Well, Tim Allen’s career has been long, successful and – to some – also rather polarizing. And that’s not just because of his acting or his sometimes poor movie choices. You see, over the years, the actor’s political beliefs have caused quite a lot of controversy. Allen has, however, kept on trucking with the ABC sitcom Last Man Standing. Plus, he’s built up a lot of goodwill over the years with roles in popular children’s movies such as The Santa Claus. So, things were going okay for him – until, that is, he received some news in 2017 that left him disappointed, angry and upset.
Prior to him becoming an actor, Tim Allen had a pretty inauspicious start to adult life. Still, to his credit, he’s usually fairly open about it. Here’s the thing: the man who played Toy Story’s beloved Buzz Lightyear was once a drug trafficker – and one who spent more than two years behind bars for his crimes. In October 1978 Allen was apprehended by officers at the Kalamazoo-Battle Creek International Airport while in possession of well over 20 ounces of cocaine. However, he provided police with the names of his accomplices in exchange for a reduced sentence.
In 2011 Allen spoke to Esquire about his earlier life. “When I went to jail, reality hit so hard that it took my breath away, took my stance away, took my strength away,” he said. “The law was passed to teach people a lesson. Selling more than 650 grams of cocaine got you life in prison. They thought it would be a deterrent. It wasn’t… I just told myself, ‘I can’t do this for seven and a half years. I want to kill myself.’”
Thankfully, of course, Allen didn’t proceed with such a drastic course of action. What’s more, his sense of humor helped him survive. “The comic in me showed up, the purest form, and saved my life,” he told Esquire. Once he got out of prison, though, Allen knew that it would be difficult to find employment as an ex-con. So, he opted to try and make it as a stand-up comedian. And gradually, word of Allen’s talent got around, and he began performing his skits on television. Then came his big break: in 1991 he was cast as the lead character in the sitcom Home Improvement.
Home Improvement was a massive success, and it catapulted Allen to fame. So it was that throughout the ’90s his profile increased even further, with roles in the Toy Story movies, the Santa Clause films and stand-alone hits such as Galaxy Quest. In fact, by the end of the decade, Allen had firmly established himself as a favorite among children – which is all the more of an achievement when considering his past.
There was, however, one minor setback during the ’90s. In 1997 Allen was caught driving under the influence. And the offense takes on a different complexion given the fact that a drunk driver had taken the life of Allen’s own father when the future star was just 11. In any case, the actor went to rehab, signing into a facility in April 1998. “My inexcusable lapse in judgment is a mistake that is embarrassing to myself, my family and my associates,” he said in a statement at the time.
Still, before too long, the actor bounced back. Indeed, cut to 1999 and the final series of Home Improvement, and Allen was raking in a colossal $1.25 million per episode. All told, in fact, 1999 proved to be a pretty good year for Allen in terms of his career. He reprised his role as Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story 2 – a film that met with almost universal critical acclaim – and he also earned a “Disney Legend” award in recognition of his achievements with the franchise.
Unfortunately, however, once both the ’90s and Home Improvement were over, Allen’s career seemed to flounder. He apparently fell prey to the curse that has affected so many megastars and reduced their status: an inability to pick the right script. His first big films of the new millennium, Joe Somebody and Big Trouble, were flops both critically and financially. And it only got worse from there.
In 2004 came the holiday film Christmas with the Kranks – a box office success that nonetheless met with utter derision from critics. And 2006 subsequently brought even worse fortune. Allen starred in three films that year – The Shaggy Dog, Zoom, and The Santa Clause 3 – and all proved to be critical disasters. Indeed, that year the actor ended up being nominated for a Razzie that accounted for all three flops – although at least he didn’t actually win the unenviable award.
That said, things were looking up for Allen as the end of the decade approached. He reprised his role as Buzz Lightyear for 2010’s Toy Story 3, and the movie was another huge hit. The actor definitely wasn’t back in leading-man territory yet, however. No, he needed another hit – be it on the big screen or the small one. Luckily, then, that success arrived in 2011 in the form of Last Man Standing – a sitcom about a Republican “man’s man” trying to navigate the politics of family life.
The show was very popular among Republicans and other conservatives – a group that Allen counts himself among. Indeed, in 2016, during the heated 2016 presidential election, a survey demonstrated that Republicans considered Last Man Standing to be the tenth best show on television. But there were dissenting voices too. In its review for the season-two premiere of the show, for example, The A.V. Club wrote that Last Man Standing was “doing its best to push buttons in the audience that don’t need to be pushed.”
What’s more, Allen, too, seemingly decided that it was time to push some buttons. You see, although the actor has always been politically conservative, during the elections he expressed some views that many people found over the top or downright offensive. “You’ve gotta be real careful around here,” he said during a March 2017 appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live! – in which he also revealed that he had been at Donald Trump’s inauguration. “You get beat up if you don’t believe what everybody believes. This is like ’30s Germany. I don’t know what happened.”
The trouble was that for most people the words “’30s Germany” conjured something a great deal worse than a man feeling uncomfortable about politics. In the 1930s the Nazi Party of course began their takeover of Germany, transforming it into a fascist state and creating a racial hygiene program that would ultimately lead to the Holocaust and the murder of millions. People were, then, furious with Allen, and one of the loudest voices came from the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect. “No one in Hollywood today is subjecting [Allen] or anyone else to what the Nazis imposed on Jews in the 1930s,” the organization wrote on Facebook.
For his part, Allen never responded publicly to any of the criticism leveled against him. Nor did he apologize. It must have been clear, though, that he’d overstepped the mark, and perhaps he should have expected consequences down the line. So, when Last Man Standing was suddenly canceled by ABC in May 2017 – despite the show having pretty steady ratings – many of Allen’s fans presumed that it was in fact his punishment.
“Stunned and blindsided by the network I called home for the last six years,” Allen wrote on Twitter on May 16, 2017. Devotees of Last Man Standing seemed to be less stunned and more furious, however. A petition on the website Change was immediately set up; and as it announced, “Last Man Standing is one of the only shows on broadcast television, and the only sitcom, that is not constantly shoving liberal ideals down the throats of the viewers… If you do plan to boycott ABC, please say so when you sign.”
A Twitter meme also started doing the rounds. “Liberal tolerance,” it read under a picture of Allen. “Last Man Standing was the 2nd highest rated comedy on ABC. It was the 3rd highest rated scripted show on ABC. It was the only show on ABC for a conservative audience. Canceled by ABC after Tim Allen admitted he went to Trump’s inauguration.” The image was even shared by famous Republican politician Sarah Palin. The problem, however, is that it was not exactly true.
You see, there’s no evidence that Allen’s political beliefs led to the cancelation of his show. ABC president Channing Dungey certainly doesn’t seem to have considered it to be a factor. “I canceled Last Man Standing for the same business and scheduling reasons I canceled The Real O’Neals, Dr. Ken, The Catch, American Crime,” she said in a statement.
“It was a challenging [call] because it was a steady performer, but when we made the decision not to continue with comedies on Friday, that’s where it landed,” Dungey concluded. The website Vox has also speculated on the matter – and specifically on how much the cast were paid. “[Last Man Standing] was doing well enough to justify better pay for the cast, especially, but it wasn’t doing well enough for the studio to demand more money from the network,” the site suggested.
Allen, meanwhile, hasn’t tweeted anything else about the cancelation of Last Man Standing. And yet it seems likely that the rumors about it being axed out of spite will persist in some form or other.
Quartz, for its part, has noted that “[Last Man Standing’s] axing shouldn’t be viewed as a deliberate affront to political conservatives any more than Firefly’s cancelation was an affront to space cowboys.” But to some it appears that the show has been a pawn in a bigger political battle.