Facing My Fear Of Intimacy

from Parade Magazine, Oct 27, 2002

by Dotson Rader

“I was an outsider,” said Tim Allen. “I always felt different from everybody else. I never really felt connected.”

Allen is one of the few actors who can claim to have had both a top-rated TV sitcom—ABC’s Home Improvement—and movie stardom. He is also the only person to have had the nation’s best-selling book, its most-watched TV show and its top film all in the same two months. His family movies—The Santa Clause, Toy Story and Toy Story 2—and adult comedies such as Joe Somebody and Big Trouble have grossed more than $1 billion, placing him among the world’s most popular stars. His latest movie, The Santa Clause 2, opens next month.

“You pay for success,” he said. “I’ve had some very bad things happen to me, and at times I’ve struggled against some pretty considerable odds. None of this was given to me.”

I visited Allen, 49, in Los Angeles to learn about those struggles, how he overcame misfortune, and what sustained him in good times and bad. I began by asking about his father, the most important influence in his life.

“I loved my father more than anything,” he replied. “He was a tall, strong, funny, really engaging guy. I so enjoyed his company, his smell, sensibility, discipline, sense of humor—all the fun stuff we did together. I couldn't wait for him to come home.”

Tim Allen is one of six children, five of them boys, born to Gerald and Martha Dick. (He dropped his last name professionally as an adult.) Tim spent his early childhood in suburban Denver, where his father worked as a real-estate agent and took him to football games, auto races and hardware stores, teaching him about sports, cars, tools and life.

“When you’re 6 or 7, your father becomes this wonderful presence in your life,” Allen declared. “I really responded to my father. And then, the very moment I realized that I loved him unconditionally, that life was going to be great just because he was in it, he was gone.”

On Nov. 23, 1964, Allen’s father was killed in a car accident as he returned with his family from a college football game. Tim, 11, had stayed home alone. He was never the same.

“That day I was unsettled from mid-afternoon on,” he remembered, “before I even knew my father’s life was leaving him as the sun was going down. The State Police called. All of a sudden… Bam! It hit me hard. I didn’t see it coming, didn’t understand it, and it hurt like hell. Why would God take my father away? Then came guilt and anger.”

“I kept looking around for someone to help me deal with these feelings. I needed taking care of, but nobody was going to do it. Nobody in my family spoke much about it. There was nobody in school or the neighborhood like me.”

“From then on, I cut myself adrift. It was like I was going down the same river as everyone else, only now I was no longer in the same vessel. I was alone.”

“When no one dealt with it at all, the ‘butchy-boy’ inside me, the survivor-boy, says: ‘You don’t want this to happen again, so don’t love too deeply anymore.' That’s the simple lesson I learned.”

Two years after his father’s death, Tim’s mother married a business executive, a widower with three children of his own. In 1967 the combined family moved to Birmingham, a suburb of Detroit, where Tim attended high school. He was a mediocre student, a class cut-up with a fast mouth who most enjoyed shop and tinkering with cars. He drifted aimlessly toward graduation from Western Michigan University in 1975, earning a B.A. in TV production. After college, with little money and at a loss for direction, Allen fell in with a bad crowd and began petty drug-dealing. He himself preferred drinking.

“I didn’t have any idea what I wanted to do,” Allen said. “What happened? Certainly there was self-destructiveness, but I didn’t set out consciously to screw up. I was going to make money and buy property. But as soon as I started [dealing drugs], I wanted out. I walked into this, then I got hit really hard.”

He was hit with an arrest for selling drugs at the Kalamazoo, Mich., airport in 1979. “At first I was in denial,” Allen recalled. “I thought, ‘They’re not going to put an Episcopalian kid with a nice background in prison. They’re going to see that I’ve straightened up.'”

One night, free on bail, Allen went with a friend to the Comedy Castle, a Detroit club. On a dare, he got onstage and told jokes. “I had nothing to lose,” he said. “And it worked. That night I took a ceramic tile out of the bar and wrote on it, ‘I did it,’ and dated it. I’ve got it framed. In my heart, I felt: ‘This is what God wants me to do. Everything is going to be all right.’ Two months later, I was in prison.”

He was sentenced to eight years. “I was totally shocked when I was sentenced,” he confessed. “Comatose! Silent.” He shook his head. “I’m a very hard learner sometimes. All my life, I’ve had friendships and romances that hurt me, but when I got in trouble this time, I said, ‘OK, I don’t want to do this again. No longer do I want to mess with the government or the police.’”

Allen served 28 months in a federal low-security facility at Sandstone, Minn., and was paroled in 1983. He was 29 years old. On his release, he returned to Detroit and was hired as a creative director of a small advertising agency. At night, dressed in a suit, he did stand-up comedy in local clubs, making sharp sexual and scatological jokes about human anatomy and relationships. Over time, his humor softened, becoming more observational and thoughtful, focusing on the differences between men’s and women’s perceptions of each other while defending the traditional male viewpoint. In two years, Allen won a place for himself as a regular on the national comedy circuit.

“Men aren’t allowed to have self-esteem, because we’re already supposed to have all the power, according to feminist college professors,” he asserted. “But most men earn less than they want, barely the minimum wage. They’re drones. They do stuff they don’t want to do to support their families, and they’re not sure why they do it. They don’t know what they’re doing half the time, and any time we stick up for ourselves, we’re pigs because we don’t know how to articulate our frustrations and joys.”

“I had a very easy time loving an audience," he continued. “But when it’s one-on-one with somebody, all I wanted to do was run away, because maybe they’re going to want something from me I can’t give, or they’re going to hurt me. There’s something very fearful about intimacy. I never opened up to anybody after my father died. As soon as I got close, I ditched.” The exception was Laura Deibel, the girl he dated in college, who remained loyal to him after his arrest. They were married in 1984, and it lasted until their separation in 1999, producing one child, Katherine (“Kady”), now 12.

A major turning point in Allen’s career came in 1990. His Showtime TV special Men Are Pigs caught the attention of Michael Eisner, chairman of the Walt Disney Co. After seeing his stand-up act, Eisner offered Allen the choice of three possible TV pilots. Instead, Allen suggested his own idea: a sitcom based on his stand-up persona. Home Improvement, which debuted in September 1991, was about the host of a TV home-repair show who has a wisely indulgent wife and three sons at home. The show was an immediate hit. By the end of its first season, it had reached the Nielsen Top 10. Three years later, it was No. 1, as was The Santa Clause, Allen’s first movie, while his humorous memoir, Don’t Stand Too Close to a Naked Man, led the nonfiction lists.

Home Improvement ran for eight years. Between Allen’s cut of the reportedly close to $1 billion in total syndication profits from the show and the millions more earned by his films, he’s a rich man indeed. Yet wealth and fame also brought stress to his marriage and ultimately separation. And his drinking got out of control. In 1998, he entered a rehabilitation clinic in California to quit alcohol.

“I’d hit an emotional bottom where I was no longer comfortable being Tim Allen,” he said. “There’s a part of me, a self-destructive streak, that wanted the end of it all. But I was able to take control. I no longer drink alcohol. Making major changes in your life takes courage. It’s step by step.”

Today, Tim Allen lives alone, works hard, races cars, paints, regularly dates the same woman and sees his friends. But it is the time he spends with his daughter, Kady, that seems to help him most in overcoming an ever-present pain of feeling like an outsider.

“I adore being in the house with my daughter,” he confided, “being silent, doing my art, just knowing she’s near. It’s the best kind of connection—it’s unconditional. My daughter eases the ache I used alcohol to calm. Because of her, this void at the center of things since my father died started to fill up. My daughter slowly crept up on me, removing the obstacles to connection.”