The sad, crazy life of Tim Allen, original voice of Buzz Lightyear
When you’ve got a joke-friendly name, you need to figure out a way to deal with it quickly.
For comedian Tim Allen — original name Timothy Dick — it was by developing a sense of humour, although even then school was clearly tough for the star.
“I’d have to run through a whole routine just to defuse the situation,” he wrote in his 1994 memoir-cum-manual, Don’t Stand Too Close To A Naked Man.
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“For a while I hated everyone and the teasing caused me unnecessary grief. But in retrospect, it made me a better person. Now I have to thank my name for making me special.”
There wasn’t much that was special growing up in Denver in the late Fifties. Allen, now 69, had five siblings and nice, middle-class life as the son of a community worker and estate agent. And then aged 11, on 23 November 1964, tragedy struck, changing the comedian’s life forever. While driving home from a college football game that Allen himself had chosen not to attend, his mum, dad and four brothers were hit by a drunk driver. His father Gerald was killed.
“This loss stretched every boundary I knew,” wrote Allen. “I wasn’t king of my universe anymore. In fact, I felt helpless, useless, pathetic. I had no control and my scramble to regain some made me grow up very quickly…all of a sudden, my world changed overnight.”
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Even though his mother married an old flame and moved the family to Michigan, Allen started to struggle. He went to college, but began to deal drugs on the side. That dangerous path came to a head on 2 October, 1978.
Allen took 650 grams of cocaine in a bag to Kalamazoo/Battle Creek International Airport and put it in a locker. He expected to hand the key over to his contact and be paid £35,000. Unfortunately, that recipient was an undercover policeman and the actor recalls a gun in his face and immediate arrest.
Reality kicked in when he was in the holding cell and needed to go the toilet. “There were ten guys in the cell,” he remembered. “The toilet’s in the middle of the room. I remember looking at the can, then at the ceiling, then at the can, then at all the guys in there with me. I wanted to walk out.”
Faced with life in prison thanks to a recently-passed state law, Allen agreed to name names of his collaborators and other drug dealers in exchange for a more lenient sentence at Federal Correctional Institution in Sandstone, Minnesota.
Prison life was still tough, with the threat of violence hanging over his head at all times. Humour once again helped him get through it. He spent time as president of the prison Toastmasters Club, an educational group designed to help inmates’ speak publicly, whose outgoing president knitted his wife a blanket.
He also stopped someone beating him up by talking like cartoon character Elmer Fudd and having tried stand-up for the first time while awaiting sentencing, he spent the hundreds of hours stuck in his cell working on his future comedy material.
Watch: Tim Allen reflects on prison life
Having served almost two-and-a-half years, he was paroled and immediately began honing his comedy craft on-stage, while working an office job during the day. As he featured in local adverts, creative people began to take notice and he scored a 1989 cable comedy special which launched him properly into showbusiness.
But massive success in sitcom Home Improvement and as the voice of Buzz Lightyear in four Toy Story movies wasn’t the end of Allen’s troubles.
His first wife Laura Diebel had stood by his side through all his legal difficulties and helped to support them when he was building his comedy career. He has recalled how they were told their daughter Katherine (known as Kady) had a potential genetic defect before she was born.
“It’s a horror that a lot of people go through,” he said. “Our doctor was very concerned. A specialist said, ‘it’s within normal values for this certain enzyme, but it’s on the edge.’ Everything worked out okay.”
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However, he was away from them so much that the marriage eventually got into trouble and Laura filed for divorce. And this was after an incident in May 1997 in which Allen was pulled over in Bloomfield Township, Michigan for driving erratically. The star pleaded guilty to driving while impaired and was given a year’s probation, as well as being told to go to rehab.
“My inexcusable lapse in judgment is a mistake that is embarrassing to myself, my family and my associates,” he said.
Since then, the real-life Republican actor has continued to feature in big-name projects, from The Santa Clause series and Galaxy Quest to sitcom Last Man Standing, which ran for 194 episodes from 2011 until last year. He’s also railed against the prejudice he believes he faces being a conservative in Hollywood.
Still, he’s now a wealthy, well-loved star and is happily married for the second time with another daughter, 13.
And clearly he’s come to terms with a lot of what’s gone before.
“The world's a mean place,” he has said. “It's unfair, then it's fair. It's hateful, then it's loving. It's a very peculiar place on philosophical and metaphysical and religious levels.”
Lightyear is in cinemas now. Watch a trailer below.