Playing Tim "Tool Time" Taylor in the 1990s hit TV sitcom Home Improvement, taking his holiday lumps on the big screen in The Santa Clause, or providing the voice for Buzz Lightyear, the cartoon space ranger from Toy Story, Tim Allen makes people laugh.
"I've always been funny," says Allen, 58. "But I hide behind it at times."
Tim Allen Dick, the third oldest of six children born to Gerald and Martha Dick, didn't grow up in Denver, Colo., thinking about a future comedy career. He was too busy having typical "boys will be boys" adventures with firecrackers and BB guns.
He was 11 when his father was killed by a drunken driver.
"All of the sudden, he was gone," he says. "And it hurt like hell."
Allen's mother married her high school sweetheart, and Tim moved with his mom, sister and four brothers to Birmingham, Mich., near Detroit, to live with his new stepfather and his two sons and daughter.
A boys' world
Boys comprised the bulk of the new blended family, which helped shape Allen's worldview and eventually, his comedy.
"It was all about sports and cars," he says. "We were constantly one-upping each other and arguing. You don't even realize you're living like that until you get around all girls who don't do it that way."
Allen, whose main high school interests were automobiles, shop class and cutting up, earned a bachelor's degree in TV and radio production from Western Michigan University. But he made some admittedly bad decisions after college and was convicted of cocaine trafficking. One fateful evening just prior to his sentencing, he went with a friend to the Comedy Castle, a Detroit club. On a dare, he went onstage to do a few jokes and knew he had found his calling.
"I realized I'd been playing this tough guy and avoiding life by working—for lack of a better word—as a criminal," he says. "I saw that I had potential to divert that into something else. I was happy, but sad at the same time-because I knew I was going to jail."
Allen served 28 months at a low-security federal prison in Sandstone, Minn., using humor, sometimes literally, to avoid conflict. He once thwarted a would-be aggressor by mimicking Elmer Fudd.
After his release in 1981, Allen returned to the comedy clubs, dropping his last name and determined to use his gift of humor to turn his life around.
"From the start, he was so industrious," says actor and fellow former Comedy Castle comedian Mike Binder. "He's a sharp, big thinker."
Allen's act-in which he riffed on power tools, muscle cars and even his prison time-spawned a hit cable-TV special, leading to Home Improvement, which debuted in 1991 and rose to the top of the ratings during its eight-year run. Ever the hardworking Midwesterner, Allen reached an unprecedented milestone in 1994 when he simultaneously had the country's No. 1 television show, the top movie (The Santa Clause) and the best-selling book (Don't Stand Too Close to a Naked Man).
With success, though, came pressure, and the stress took its toll on his marriage of 15 years. He regrets that the demanding schedule of work, and then his divorce, caused him to miss many moments in the life of his daughter Kady, now 21.
Remarried since 2006, Allen is rediscovering the joys of home and family with wife Jane Hajduk and their 2-year-old daughter, Elizabeth.
"I'm blessed to have a little girl in the house again," he says. "For the first baby, who has grown into a poised and mature young woman, I was on the road so much. Now I'm there, and it's startling how little I know and how much I know in the same breath. But I just love coming home now."
Return to television
With a string of hit movie comedies under his belt, Allen returned to the stand-up circuit where he got his start. For several years, he has been performing sold-out comedy shows across the United States and Canada, including a recurring gig at the Venetian resort in Las Vegas. He maintains his Detroit roots as an investor in the new Michigan-inspired Coney Dog restaurant in Los Angeles.
And he's back on TV, starring in the new ABC sitcom Last Man Standing. He plays a successful sporting-goods sales executive who has to switch gears at home to adjust to a house full of females.
"The new character is different than Tim Taylor [on Home Improvement]," says John Pasquin, the show's director. "He's older, crankier and surrounded by women. That's Tim Allen's real life at home and at work."
Once again, Allen is making people laugh. And that makes him smile.
"On the show, I wanted to see what it would be like to be around women who are intelligent, strong, fun and loving," he says. "I have a family like that, and I like it."