A wildly popular sitcom from the nineties starring actor Tim Allen has finally found its way to the Disney+ streaming library, and with the show’s resurgence comes new insight into one of the show’s most enjoyable “mysteries.”
Long before the world was ever introduced to Woody and Buzz and the rest of the Toy Story gang (heck, before PIXAR Studios was even very well known), comedian and actor Tim Allen played an entirely different role from that of Space Ranger Buzz Lightyear as the star of the ABC sitcom Home Improvement, which aired from September 1991 to May 1999.
The show, which was based on the comedy of Tim Allen, followed the Taylor family living in suburban Detroit, Michigan–Tim and Jill and their three boys, Randy, Brad, and Mark. In the show, Tim Taylor (played by Tim Allen) is the host of a home improvement show called Tool Time, which he stars in with his assistant Al. Each of the 204 episodes of the show–broadcast over eight seasons–tells another tale of the Taylor family, the day-to-day challenges they face, the humor with which they deal with life, and the ties that bind a family.
Starring alongside Tim Allen, who also served in the role of executive consultant for the sitcom, were Patricia Richardson (Jill Taylor), Zachary Ty Bryan (Randy), Jonathan Taylor Thomas (Brad), Taran Noah Smith (Mark), and Richard Karn (Al). And though Tim Allen was the star of the show–and the one who delivered the majority of the comedy and laughter-inducing quips, it was one of the show’s so-called lesser characters that delivered the heart and the message of the show, and he did so under the cloak of mystery and anonymity.
In each episode of the show, the Taylors face challenges of varying severity. Sometimes it’s a misunderstanding between Tim and Jill. In other episodes, it’s the challenge of making a confession about who broke the tools. In other episodes, there are challenges between someone in the Taylor family and a co-worker, friend, or classmate. But regardless of the challenge, each episode included a scene in which one of the Taylors–usually Tim–is in his backyard pondering when he hears Wilson, his next-door neighbor, piddling in his yard, and calls out to him.
Wilson’s response is always the same: “Hi-di-ho, neighbor,” followed by an exchange between the two about the family’s current challenge and Wilson’s sage response that usually involves a proverb that can be applied to the situation.
Wilson was a fan-favorite character because of his gentle wisdom that often served as a turning point in each episode, but it’s the anonymity of the character for which he’s best remembered. After all, fans never really knew what Wilson looked like.
During his exchanges with Tim Allen in the show, Wilson, played by the late Earl Hindman, was always positioned behind the fence that divided his backyard from the Taylors’ backyard, and throughout all eight seasons of the show, only Wilson’s hat and eyes are ever seen by the audience–never his whole face.
Throughout the duration of the show’s run on ABC, Wilson’s full face was never shown, except during a special “reveal” after the final episode aired. He almost always stood behind a fence when speaking with a member of the Taylor family, but even if he ventured out of his backyard on camera, Wilson’s face was hidden behind another prop on set. During a Thanksgiving episode of Home Improvement, Wilson joins the Taylors for Thanksgiving dinner, but even so, his face remains hidden in every scene.
Nearly as elusive as the look of Wilson’s face was the reason for his face being covered during scenes of the award-winning sitcom. But now, more than 24 years after Home Improvement ended on ABC, the mystery about why the show was written to keep Wilson’s face out of each frame has finally been solved.
While Tim Allen credits the writers and an “extremely competent” director for making “Home Improvement” the success it was, if you were to ask him, he would confirm the idea for the character of Wilson was all his, and it came from his general concept of what a neighbor was. He said the idea came while he was being pitched for other sitcoms by then-Disney head honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg.
But Katzenberg was stuck on the idea of Allen starring in a Dead Poet’s Society-type sitcom for television–something Allen vehemently refused. Katzenberg didn’t listen, though, and Allen eventually walked away from the pitch session with Katzenberg and returned home to Michigan. So Katzenberg called him at home, and after a long conversation, as Allen was attempting to mow his lawn, Home Improvement and the “Wilson” character were born.
Allen recounted the exchange on Marc Maron’s podcast, saying:
“[Katzenberg] goes, ‘Let me rephrase this: you know what I was offering you?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I appreciate the offer; I just don’t want to do that.’ He goes, ‘What would you want to do?’ I said, ‘What I would want to do is make a parody of This Old House with Norm and Bob Vila and have a neighbor that I can’t see. And I pitched it. I want three boys; I never really see my neighbor, I just wave at this figure, and I want to do that. And then have a show within a show where I break stuff all the time.”
The rest, as they say, is history.
In 1991, actor Earl Hindman was cast as Wilson, who discloses later in the series that his name is Wilson W. Wilson, Jr. Hindman appeared in every season of Home Improvement until the show ended in 1999. Just four years later, he died of lung cancer in Stamford, Connecticut, at the age of 61. But Wilson’s legacy wasn’t just something written into the show. It was something felt by his fellow cast members and fans alike.
Tim Allen paid tribute to Hindman and his characterization of Wilson from Home Improvement during the Last Man Standing episode, titled “Dual Time,” by hiding his face, just like Wilson used to do.
Fans can relive all the laughs and legacy of the sitcom by streaming Home Improvement anytime on Disney+.