Jonathan Taylor Thomas's Tragic True Life Story - Looper (2024)


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ByRussell Murray/

If you were a child in the 1990s, there's a strong chance you have at least a sliver of nostalgia reserved for Jonathan Taylor Thomas. The former Hollywood "It" boy and teen magazine heartthrob became a regular fixture in homes across America through his role on Tim Allen's sitcom "Home Improvement," in which "JTT" played Allen's character's middle son Randy Taylor. At the same time, he also landed the role of Young Simba in the groundbreaking Walt Disney Studios animated feature "The Lion King." (When he wasn't making trouble in the Taylor household, Thomas was busy voicing a staggering amount of characters from your childhood.)

However, despite experiencing such high levels of success when he was still only a high school student, Thomas' life was far from easy. He was forced to navigate a foreign and impenetrable social environment, balance his love for art and his desire to study, and sit through absurd interrogations about his sexuality. Speculation about what Thomas' life has been like since leaving "Home Improvement" has followed him for years, leading to all manner of unfounded conclusions. This article is designed to give you a more informed perspective on why Hollywood stopped casting Jonathan Taylor Thomas, as well as a better understanding of the sacrifices he made for the entertainment industry.

Thomas never felt comfortable just being an actor

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Acting can seem like a dream job, especially from the outside. After all, getting paid tens of thousands or even millions of dollars to work on projects enjoyed by audiences across the world is undeniably a privilege on many levels. But, while it can be a very enviable job, it's ultimately just that — a job. Even huge A-list actors like Bradley Cooper have almost quit Hollywood for good. This might sound a bit reductive, but looking at the entertainment industry from this angle might help readers understand why someone like Jonathan Taylor Thomas — who in many ways had the world at his feet — would still be dissatisfied with his career.

When Thomas was just 13 years old, he was already beginning to articulate that he just didn't feel at home in the world of acting, primarily because he struggled to connect with his peers. "The [entertainment] industry is neurotic and weird, and so when I go home and I play basketball with my friends, I'm not Jonathan Taylor Thomas," he explained to Premiere magazine in 1996. "I'm just Jonathan. I don't like hanging out with other actors and actresses."

At the time, Thomas was being likened to fellow child star Macaulay Culkin, with Premiere speculating that he could easily slip into the large shoes the "Home Alone" actor left behind after going into early retirement in 1994. Instead of becoming the next Richie Rich, however, Thomas dreamed of joining the Directors Guild of America. Acting, for him, was merely the best hands-on directing training next to being "the son of Stephen Spielberg," he said.

Working on Home Improvement took a physical toll

With his feet on set but his mind behind the camera, potential cracks were already beginning to spread in Jonathan Taylor Thomas' still blossoming acting career. All that was needed for these cracks to not only make themselves known to others but also cause material concerns in his personal life was some pressure, and there is perhaps no greater pressure than trying to balance being a teenager with being a series regular on one of the biggest sitcoms of all time.

While shooting "Home Improvement" for ABC, Thomas had to juggle three major things: his academics, his social life, and his work as an actor (when he gave an interview to People in 1994, those concerns were on his mind in that precise order). Being pulled in three different directions apparently took a real toll on his physical wellbeing. "You have school, friends, learning your lines and making sure your performance is up to speed," he told People. "I can't tell you how many shows I've done with full-blown migraine headaches."

Thomas made the difficult decision to leave "Home Improvement" during its final season in 1998. In an interview that took place shortly thereafter, the actor confirmed that he left to pursue academic endeavors, but he also said that trying to continue balancing his multiple lives as he had been doing would have been too much to handle. "Had I stayed at the show and tried to do academically what I'm doing now, I would have put myself in an early grave," he said. It's a chilling remark that makes it hard not to wonder about how much he sacrificed his health for his work.

Dealing with superfans was sometimes overwhelming

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Balancing his friends, his school work, and a major television project was hard enough for Jonathan Taylor Thomas, but the young actor also found that all three were made more difficult by the hordes of fans he had amassed. Judging by his 1996 interview with Premiere magazine, it definitely seems as though Thomas preferred to keep at least his social life and his life as an actor as separate as possible. As he continued to gain higher levels of fame, however, it's hard to imagine this remained a reality.

In a 1997 profile by The New York Times, it was documented that around 50 young fans had somehow managed to track down the shooting location for his then-current project and were trying to get as close to him as possible. Thomas described this attention as "sometimes distracting," but indicated an even deeper and more complex anxiety it stoked within him. "You are a part of their life, and there is a lot that is owed them,” he said of the superfans. ”It's difficult because you want to make everyone happy, but if you try to do that, you're setting yourself up for failure.”

Though he was humble enough to acknowledge that those distracting fans were a large if not integral aspect of his success in Hollywood, he also understood that he could never give them everything that they expected of him without stretching himself too thin. This is a tremendous amount of pressure for a teenager who is still trying to understand who they are in their own mind, never mind who they are to the entire world.

Jay Leno grilled him about his sexuality on TV

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Jay Leno has always had a reputation in the industry for being a so-so interviewer, and this was perhaps never more apparent than when he spoke with Jonathan Taylor Thomas in 1998. Noteven the likes of David Letterman really seemed to know what questions to ask the quietly smart actor. So, how did Leno rise to the challenge of engaging a smart, talented 17-year-old who's excited about a daring new chapter in his life? Unfortunately, by trying to out him as gay in front of a national audience.

Leno first broached the subject by claiming that friends of his had been telling him for years that Thomas was secretly gay — which, whether Leno realized it at the time or not, seems to imply that his friends were for some bizarre reason interested in discussing the sexuality of a high school boy with a man 30 years his senior. The line of questioning was embarrassing for everyone involved, but, to Thomas' credit, he deflected it with a laugh and a dismissive joke about how those rumors mean he's finally made it in Hollywood.

Thomas went on to politely assert that this was all just gossip and reminded Leno that people should be mindful about what they say."Not that there's anything wrong with it, but they're rumors and you should always be kind of careful with that internet stuff," he said.Leno then asked Thomas outright if he was gay and invited him to come out on the show.The whole exchange is painfully cringey. It painted coming out as gay as a cheap punchline and arguably encouraged further speculation about the sex life of a teenager.

Leaving Home Improvement damaged his relationship with Tim Allen

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Tim Allen's reaction to Jonathan Taylor Thomas' early departure from "Home Improvement" was less supportive than you might expect. In fact, itleft Allen and Thomas' longtime friendship in shambles. According to Allen himself, he at first failed to understand why Thomas wouldn't just finish out the series before moving onto college, then felt "confused" when Thomas began appearing in other projects afterward. "He said it was about going to school, but then he did some films," said Allen in a 1999 issue of TV Guide (via the New York Post). "Did he want to do films? Did he want to go to school?"

That year, Thomas had prominent roles in two separate feature films: The coming-of-age movie "Walking Across Egypt," in which he plays an orphaned young offender who is serving timefor a car theft, and the crime drama "Speedway Junky," which features the likes ofJesse Bradford, Jordan Brower, and Daryl Hannah.However, it is unknown if these films required the same commitment as a full season of "Home Improvement," or if they were prior obligations he had to honor. Regardless, Allen commented negatively on Thomas' "Home Improvement" exit in public, which — according to Allen — upset the young actor. "He was a little miffed at me," Allen said."I don't think he liked that."

He may have received some bad career advice

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When Jonathan Taylor Thomas refused to come back for the "Home Improvement" series finale, it created a further rift not only between him and Tim Allen, but with the rest of the cast, too. Speaking to TV Guide, Patricia Richardson (who played Allen's wife and Thomas' mother in the hit sitcom) said that Thomas' absence was a "pretty sore point" on the set. "I think there were a lot of bad feelings," she said (via the New York Post). "I don't think it's a good idea that he didn't show up [for the finale], but I don't always think he gets the best advice."

While Richardson didn't mention Thomas' mother, Claudine Gonsalves, it's fair to assume that this was a sly dig at her, given that she reportedly exercised a certain level of control over her son's career. Roger Allers, who co-directed Thomas in "The Lion King," told Premiere magazine that "his mother was always there," and Jack Tamkin, whose company took care of Tim Allen's fan mail at the time, told the Los Angeles Times that Thomas' "mother and her sisters answer his mail."

It's clear that Gonsalves took an active role in her son's career, but that's not exactly unusual given his age when he broke through. There's nothing to suggest that Thomas' mother played a part in his decision to leave "Home Improvement" to concentrate on his studies. Even if she did, it's clear that she had his best interests at heart: Premiere magazine noted that Thomas was "watched over by a mother seemingly more intent on the development of his brain and heart than his bank account."

Social media rumors painted a grim picture

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As the '90s ended and the 2000s marched on, Jonathan Taylor Thomas' retreat from public life took on a more lasting shape. He was no longer JTT, the teen heartthrob one could reliably expect to see on the cover of check-out counter magazines. Hopefully, he was somewhere privately living whatever life he had hoped to live after stepping away from the spotlight. Unfortunately, as so often happens when a Hollywood star steps out of the spotlight, fan speculation about his life seemed to grow, exacerbated by the rise of social media.

In the 2010s, various online accounts began reporting "sightings" of Thomas all over North America, as though he were some mythical creature to be tracked. Of course, these sightings came with the requisite and entirely inappropriate amateur psychoanalysis that is commonplace among online fandoms these days. One Redditor claimed that Thomas regularly visited a particular dive bar looking "sad and distant," while another said he left a karaoke bar in anger after someone began singing a song from "The Lion King."

In reality, the 2010s were a time of healing for Thomas, both in terms of his relationship with the entertainment industry and his ex colleagues. In 2011, he met with his former "Home Improvement" castmates for an Entertainment Weekly reunion, which seemingly helped smooth some of the rough edges left by his departure from the show."Thomas' participation in the get-together was all the more special because most of the cast hadn't seen him since the show ended," Entertainment Weekly's Lynette Rice wrote, adding that his appearance was "the icing on the reunion cake!"

Anxiety almost stopped him from realizing his dream of directing

Jonathan Taylor Thomas had been absent from Hollywood for several years when he met with his former "Home Improvement" co-stars for a reunion in 2011. Seeing his old colleagues again and sharing stories from their time on the beloved sitcom apparently reawakened his desire to fulfill his dream of directing. In 2013, Thomas made a cameo appearance in Tim Allen's follow-up sitcom "Last Man Standing," and, that same year, he directed an episode of the show, taking the reins for Season 3's "Haunted House."

According to Allen, Thomas took some convincing — he was anxious about coming back to the industry after so long away. "He really was dedicated to his studies, and then kind of got away from TV. But he graduated and he came back, and loves directing, loves working with actors," Allen told Yahoo! (via Us Weekly). "He's so shy. It's funny to see him so shy, so nervous. He worried whether he still had it, and he didn't want to do this because he's had other stuff in mind. But they asked him, and he agreed to it. I was shocked because as I said, he's just shy."

Thomas went on to feature in "Last Man Standing" three more times. When he popped up in 2013, it was as a character called John Baker. He reprised this role in a couple more episodes, and then he appeared as a character called Randy, a clear nod to his "Home Improvement" role. He even got the chance to direct a further two episodes, helming 2014's "Hard-Ass Teacher" and 2016's "Eve's Band." He may have fallen out with Allen over "Home Improvement," but it was Thomas' former TV dad that helped him realize his dream.

The tabloids go into overdrive whenever he's photographed in public

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After his short stint acting and directing on "Last Man Standing," Jonathan Taylor Thomas returned to his private life, which shouldn't have really come as a surprise given everything he's said about Hollywood not being for him. He's only been spotted on a couple of occasions over the past few years, and each sighting has sparked numerous over-the-top tabloid stories.

In 2021, Thomas was seen walking a couple of dogs in Los Angeles. The paparazzi snapped a few shots of the former actor and his little furry friends, and the tabloids ate them up. "This marks the first time Thomas has been photographed in public in nearly eight years," People noted, while Page Six said that he had "resurfaced after years of staying out of the spotlight," making it seem as though Thomas had been in hiding.

In reality, Thomas had simply been going about his life like a normal person, but that doesn't really fit the narrative when it comes to former child stars. The same thing happened again in 2023 when Thomas was photographed leaving his California apartment, with the Mirror stating that he was "unrecognizable." In other words, agrown man no longer looks like he did when he was a teenager. As one reader said in the comments section: "How is this news?"

Jonathan Taylor Thomas's Tragic True Life Story - Looper (2024)
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