Tim Allen says he tries not to get caught up in focusing too much on ratings and competition for his ABC “Last Man Standing” sitcom because, he says, “I’m kind of a worrywart.” Still, he is obviously well aware of what’s going on. Though TV pundits expect the show to get a fourth season renewal, things could be better — and should be better, as far as he is concerned. He points out, “We’re winning our timeslot Friday, which is a very difficult night. So that’s what it is. ABC — I think we’re one of their best products. I think we’re very undersold. Believe me, if four million more people saw the show, it would be amazing. We’d be in the top rung. I think it’s a top-rung show. It’s so well produced, so well written.”
Indeed, as viewers know, there is a lot to enjoy about Allen’s second series. From his interplay with onscreen wife Nancy Travis and boss Hector Elizondo, to his ever-more-capable younger castmates (daughters played by Amanda Fuller, Molly Ephraim and Kaitlyn Dever, plus guys including employee Christoph Sanders).
“I adore the show!” he enthuses. “I never, in my wildest imagination, would have figured I’d have done ‘Home Improvement’ for eight years, and I loved every second of that. And the crew, and the excitement in my life. I’ve gone through some personal troubles in between there, but aside from that, my work was wonderful,” he says. “Then to have this family I love deeply — different because they’re girls — it’s just been amazing! I’m so protective of the integrity of this.
“If I think about being competitive, well, I don’t get much help by their moving us, you know? First they put us against ‘NCIS,’ which is a fabulous show. It’s a very different vibe, but it’s kind of the same audience as ours. But we still did great numbers, and then right as we’re climbing, they move us to Friday to anchor their Friday night” — the worst night of the week for television, historically speaking.
“I’m a veteran, so we do what we need to do,” he says. Besides, “It’s a different landscape from the past. People watch what they want to watch; people TiVo it and make their own night out of it.”
Allen comes off as relaxed and open in an afternoon’s talk that ranges from his push to garner more attention for “Last Man Standing” to the future of Buzz Lightyear and Santa Claus, to the joys of being a later-in-life dad.
He is not only in a second-time-around situation at work, but at home as well. Married since 2006 to actress Jane Hajduk, he’s doing daddy duty once again. Does he bring any comedy fodder from home?
“No. I often say I wish I lived in a sitcom world, where things are resolved. Things aren’t resolved like that in real life. My five-year-old — it’s more intimidating because it’s real,” he says of his little Elizabeth. “She’s a bright one. My older one is calm and quiet,” he continues, referring to 24-year-old daughter Katherine, from his former marriage.
“But this one is very opinionated for a five-year-old. Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s not. I adore being around her.”
How does she feel about daddy being Buzz Lightyear?
“She doesn’t quite get it,” he replies. “Right now she’s a ‘Frozen’ freak. She loves it. But it’s funny — we have a couple down the block who were over Friday for dinner. They think it’s fun to watch ‘Last Man Standing’ with me in the room. The baby’s right there. In a very funny way, in about five minutes she goes, ‘Can we watch something else?'” He laughs.
Speaking of Buzz, what’s the outlook for another “Toy Story” film or television special?
“As far as specials, I’m sure they’ll have another one because they’re so successful. But it’s very hard on these guys to come up with the stuff. It’s very difficult for them,” he stresses. “I believe there’ll be more specials, but I’m not the one to ask. They’re very private about what things are going on. And I respect it. They’re very cautious about making promises they can’t keep. But they love doing this.”
And so does Allen. “I just so like that I’m part of America’s history with this stuff. It’s such a part of the zeitgeist,” he notes. “I very rarely get to be around my buddy Hanks, so I like working with him, but we don’t do it that much.”
When Allen finished making “Santa Clause 3” in 2006, he said he’d had it with the grueling demands of long days filming in prosthetics and swore he was hanging up the red suit for good. But ho ho ho. “Enough time has gone by, I’d do another ‘Santa Clause’ now,” he tells us. The bad memories have worn off enough.
His memories of the beloved “Home Improvement” live on, however — and he has former castmates Richard Karn and Jonathan Taylor Thomas in recurring “Last Man Standing” roles. Thomas has directed a couple of “Last Man Standing” episodes, in addition to popping up on the show as John Baker, daughter Kristin’s (Fuller) hot boss at the swanky restaurant where she works.
Baker was introduced at the end of last season. Allen says he loves working with his former series son. “It’s always nice to have him around. It’s been seamless again. It took awhile for the girls to settle down though — they’re big fans of his,” he says.
Last year’s season-ender was a noteworthy episode in terms of opening up new story arenas in addition to introducing Thomas. This year’s, coming up April 25, will be every bit as memorable, to hear Allen tell it.
“This cliffhanger is kind of fun. I don’t know that I’m supposed to give it away. In the atmosphere of the show, it’s pretty odd. It’s pretty uncommon, what’s going to happen. Somebody’s getting married,” he reveals.
“During rehearsal, my reaction as Mike Baxter was kind of a shock to me, because I felt like a parent. It’s a peculiar thing, being a TV parent, first with those boys all those years. It is, of course, structurally different from being a real parent, but you spend so much time with the damn kids, you take on some parental point of view. So I was like, ‘This couple, they’ve got to work some s#@! out. It’s not my decision.’ It’s kind of funny. I went ‘What?!’ And the look on my face — it’s a pretty funny line that they’ve given me.”
“Home Improvement” lasted eight years. Allen would like “Last Man Standing” to go that long as well. Or longer.
“I’d love to see these girls get married,” he says. “I’d love to see them have children, I’d love to see them go through that. Yes, I’d love that.”
Ah, the juicy viewing treats of sweeps time. Tomorrow night’s “The Neighbors” is a crossover episode with its behemoth lead-out program, “Shark Tank,” in case you haven’t heard. Fans of the “Shark” entrepreneurs will be glad to know that they make a good showing in their acting roles.
“Sometimes when you ask these kinds of people to do scripted dialogue rather than just speaking it off their minds, it can get a little stilted,” notes Dan Fogelman, who created and executive produces the far-out comedy centered on some space aliens who’ve adopted Earthly sports star names and are living in a gated New Jersey community. Fogelman says that the “Sharks” all “come off really natural in the episode. They landed gigantic, scripted jokes. They were really funny. Barbara Corcoran) in particular had a ton of dialogue to carry and she was wonderful in it.”
It was the “The Neighbors” team that came up with the idea of merging the shows for an episode. “We precede ‘Shark Tank,’ so there is a natural pairing there, but honestly, a bunch of our writers on our show are gigantic fans of ‘Shark Tank’ and one of our writers in particular, the writer who wrote the episode, Scott King, is obsessed with the show. He’s obsessed with Barbara the shark.”
According to him, the “Shark Tank” forces were amenable “and worked with us” from the beginning. Naturally, ABC was thrilled and targeted this special pairing for sweeps.
Fogelman is quick to point out that unlike crossover segments that really only have the shows’ casts united for a few minutes, “We really sent Jami Gertz into the Shark Tank to sell a product. We kind of went through a whole pitch with her.”
Billionaire Mark Cuban also got to show off his comedy chops in the scene in which Gertz is trying to pitch the sharks on “a purse with a special lining you can use to sneak beverages into the movies, even an adult beverage if you’re sitting through a kids’ movie you’ve seen 900 times. And Mark Cuban is like, ‘You recognize that I own a chain of movie theaters and that concessions are a big part of that business. And you realize you’re actually pitching me a product to steal from my own business.’ He delivers it really straight.”
Fogelman and his team are, of course, hoping that some of “Shark Tank’s” multitudinous schools of viewers get turned on by the crossover and become regular “Neighbors” watchers as well. He’s proud of the show’s gains. Blasted by critics when it premiered, it has become a widely admired offering.
“We have a very talented group here. I was lucky getting very smart people and a network who believed in the show. In a fairly short amount of time, we managed to turn it around and now we have a lot of nice things being written about our show.”
The multi-talented Fogelman, whose credits include the big-screen “Cars,” “Tangled” and “Crazy Stupid Love,” just wrapped his feature directorial debut, “Imagine,” starring Al Pacino as an aging musician who discovers a letter John Lennon wrote to him when he was younger. Annette Bening, Bobby Cannavale, Jennifer Garner and Christopher Plummer also star. “It’s a big one,” he acknowledges.
He and musical whiz Alan Menken, whose past collaborations include “Tangled,” also have a TV series in the works together. “It’s a musical, a ‘Princess Bride’-esque fairytale comedy. We’re developing that.”
How does he do it all? “I don’t sleep much,” says Fogelman.
Ahead, “The Neighbors” has a big Thanksgiving episode in which Reginald VelJohnson and Meredith Baxter guest as the parents from another planet of Toks Olagundoye’s character. For now, though, they’re focusing on the sharks.
“I’ve become obsessed with ‘Shark Tank’ now,” insists Fogelman. “I never miss it.”
He allows that it was a bit weird to have his actors working on the “Shark Tank” set, before the “Shark Tank” cameras. “It was a very strange experience for those who were there, like watching your divorced parents dating someone else for the first time.”
Toks Olagundoye couldn’t be more thrilled that Meredith Baxter is playing her mother on the Thanksgiving episode of ABC’s “The Neighbors.” As a child growing up in Nigeria, recalls the ravishing actress (whose first name rhymes with Cokes), she wasn’t allowed to watch much TV, but “Family Ties” was one of the four shows she loved so much, her New York-based uncle would tape it for her and send her recordings. Little did she know, mama Elyse Keaton would someday become her on-camera parent.
“It’s all I can do not to cry with joy just thinking about it,” laughs Toks, whose Nigerian English is delivered with a crisp, clear accent.
“I have to say, what I’ve really enjoyed personally this season has been the people I’ve worked with. You know, Wendy Williams – it was just a riot to work with her. She was so much fun I can’t even tell you. And Lucy Davis of the British ‘The Office’ – she’s a genius. It was one of the best weeks of my life, working with her.”
“The Neighbors” has gained admirers and momentum – in addition to cool guest stars — since getting off to a rocky start in 2012. The high concept show, about a group of space aliens living in a gated community in New Jersey, has called upon its cast to do a range of physical comedy, which is just fine with Toks, who plays Jackie Joyner-Kersee. (All the aliens have taken on names of famous athletes, in case you didn’t know.)
“I enjoy doing different things and I like challenges and the physical stuff, I’m fine with that. That being said, there were a couple of times I found a bit daunting,” she admits. “Oddly enough, those were the times they focused on my looks. I mean, clearly I’m an attractive girl, I’m happy with that. I have no problem with the way I look. I’m pleased with it — Nigerian women usually are. But the first episode that kind of threw me into a panic was where Jackie finds out she’s a ten. I felt a lot of pressure, kind of like living up to the whole idea that was being projected onto the character. I didn’t get it. The other one was the episode where I was wearing a cat suit. It was just kind of the idea of being in the cat suit and kind of crawling around on the floor in front of all these crew men sort of got me a little bit.”
One gets the impression that not much throws Toks. Her eclectic background, perhaps, has helped prepare her for anything. The child of an eccentric Norwegian fashion designer mother and a dignified Nigerian banker father, Toks was educated in Switzerland and England as well as Nigeria, before coming to the States to attend Smith College.
“My parents are very strong people. They come from very strong stock. So are my parents’ mothers, one of whom ran very successful cocoa farm and lived to be a hundred and two. My parents are also very laid back people, disciplined and focused. If something goes wrong they don’t freak out, they always just figure out what to do – which is funny because I’m incredibly neurotic and a perfectionist.”
She was expected to do well, she says, and so, when she excelled, “There was not a lot of praise, because that’s what you’re expected to be doing.
“Nigerians are – we’re a pretty determined bunch,” she goes on. “There isn’t much you can tell us we can’t do. We’re stubborn, but not in a bad way. We just kind of keep going.”
Her perseverance served her well at Smith, which she admits was a challenging time in her life. “I have to say that getting used to living in the United States was difficult for me even though I had grown up in so many different places. I found the interaction very different. Girls, you know, especially when they are maybe not so comfortable with themselves, can be cruel. Smith College is a women’s college – all very smart women. I had spent a long time figuring out how to live my life on my own and I had a certain level of discipline and a very strong idea of where I wanted to go in my life when I got there — and I think that was looked upon with a bit of derision. People weren’t very nice to me, is what I’m trying to say.”
Looking back on the mean and cold treatment to which she found herself subjected, Toks observes, “I think it really comes from a lack of confidence, when girls see other girls who seem to know what they’re doing. I didn’t, really. I was 17 just like everybody else was when I got there.
“Instead of understanding, ‘Hey, we are all in the same boat,’ we were in a very competitive place. I think American teenagers in general are very competitive.” In other parts of the world, according to her, competition is not a zero sum game. “It’s just different. It’s not like ‘I am in direct competition with you so I must take you down.’ It’s like, ‘I want to excel, so I’m going to do the best I can.’ You’re taking into consideration what other people are doing so you know what the definition of ‘the best’ is. I think it’s just a different way of looking at it.”
She found herself hanging out at the University of Massachusetts, where she found students with whom she was much more sympatico. After graduating with a BFA in theater, she moved to New York and began landing acting assignments, amassing theater credits including Saint Lucy’s Eyes with the late Ruby Dee, and the big screen “The Salon.”
These days, Toks enjoys living part of the time in L.A. and part of the time in New York, with Georgie, her Chihuahua rescue. Her parents are enjoying her success. “My mom is so funny. She’s this crazy Norwegian woman, and she’s like, ‘Well, I always knew it — I knew you would end up playing an alien.’ That is actually true.
“But my dad, he’s incredibly conservative and the way he expresses how proud he is – it’s very endearing and very subtle. Very sweet. When he talks about the show, there’s a certain tone he has that I’ve never heard in his voice before. When he came to visit me on set, he didn’t tell me but he told Jami (cast mate Jami Gertz) that he was proud of me.
“Then at one point I watched him watch the show,” she says. “My dad has a place in New York, and my sister and I were there for his birthday, with my dad and stepmother. My stepmother, who is sort of beside herself with joy over the whole thing, got everyone to stop what they were doing to watch ‘The Neighbors.’ My sister nudged me at one point and said ‘Look at Daddy.’ And he was sitting there like a little boy, with his elbows on his knees and his chin resting in his hands. It was pretty lovely.”
There’s a picture that translates sweetly no matter what part of the world – or, perhaps, out of this world.
As many fans of “Castle” are aware, the series’ raffish mystery writer, Richard Castle, has managed the unique feat of emerging from TV and coming out with best-selling books in the real world — more than 2.3 million copies in 14 languages, no less. His fifth book, Deadly Heat, is just now hitting booksellers. Deadly Heat is once again centered on the brilliant, beautiful NYPD Homicide Detective Nikki Heat (inspired by Castle’s beloved Kate Beckett) and investigative journo Jameson Rook (a stand-in for Castle himself).
Beck/Smith Hollywood: Nikki and Jameson have to thwart both a terror plot AND a serial killer in your new book, is that right? That’s an awful lot to deal with at once. Did you have it all plotted out in advance, or do some elements of your novels sort of introduce themselves as you go along?