The Stunning Transformation Of Jonathan Taylor Thomas

During the 1990s, there were few Hollywood child stars who were more ubiquitously known than Jonathan Taylor Thomas. Thomas was already an experienced actor when he was cast in the hit ABC sitcom "Home Improvement" in 1991 at the age of 10. The show's success, combined with Thomas' innate talent and palpable onscreen charisma, opened the door to opportunities that catapulted him to stardom. Those included providing the voice of young Simba in Disney's box-office smash "The Lion King," as well as starring in several live-action movies — such as "Tom and Huck," and "Man of the House," both released in 1995 — and voicing the titular puppet-turned-boy in the 1996 animated feature "The Adventures of Pinocchio."

Meanwhile, TV viewers watched the young actor grow from cute kid to teen idol to young man over the course of eight seasons of "Home Improvement." By the time the show concluded in 1999, Thomas was a full-fledged adult and began taking on film roles that reflected that maturity. In 1998, he starred in the holiday-themed rom-com "I'll Be Home for Christmas" and then headlined the 1999 comedic drama "Walking Across Egypt." In the mid-2000s, he guest-starred in several TV series, ranging from "Ally McBeal" to "Smallville," to "8 Simple Rules," and others. 

And then he abruptly walked away from Hollywood, effectively closing the door on the acting career he'd been pursuing since childhood. To find out why, keep on reading to experience the stunning transformation of Jonathan Taylor Thomas.

He became a child actor at age 8

Before he became Hollywood phenom Jonathan Taylor Thomas, he was Jonathan Taylor Weiss, born in 1981 in Pennsylvania. After his parents divorced, he wound up with his mom and brother in LA. Living in the epicenter of show business presented the youngster with some Hollywood-style opportunities, and he made the most of them. "When I was seven I saw an ad for modeling and print work, and it just looked like fun to me. It looked like something I might want to try," Thomas recalled in an interview with Scripps Howard News Service. "I was playing soccer at the same time and it was sort of the same thing — just fun, just enjoying it."

He was just 8 years old when he began working professionally, initially in TV commercials (including one for Burger King), and eventually took his brother's middle name for his last name. "I ended up having a great time doing it and it escalated from there," said of his early acting gigs. "It started changing and I was doing more things ..."

In 1987, Thomas landed the role of Greg Brady's son in "The Bradys," a short-lived spinoff of beloved TV sitcom "The Brady Bunch," and was on his way. Around that time, he was also seen playing Macaulay Culkin in a sketch spoofing "Home Alone" for "In Living Color," in which young Kevin McCallister isn't terrorized by inept burglars, but by pop star Michael Jackson

Being cast in Home Improvement was a game-changer

After the quick cancellation of "The Bradys," Jonathan Taylor Thomas continued to audition for film and television roles while also working with an acting coach. "I just thought the whole idea of being on TV, being recognized and having a good time was interesting," Thomas explained in a 1994 interview with People. That led him to be cast as Randy Taylor, the middle sibling of three brothers in the family-centered sitcom "Home Improvement." The show — a vehicle for stand-up comic Tim Allen — was an out-of-the-box ratings hit, finishing its freshman season in the top 10. The following season, "Home Improvement" ranked as television's second most-watched show (after only sitcom phenom "Roseanne") and remained a viewer favorite until ending its run in 1999. 

By 1994, Thomas was receiving fan mail by the hundreds each week, one of the many perks of being a breakout child star on a hit TV show. At the time, Thomas was still trying to take it all in. "I didn't expect, ever in a million years, to be doing television and movies," he told People. 

Just two years later, however, Thomas admitted that being part of a hit show also came with a lot of pressure. "I try not to worry about that. I just try and have fun," he told the Scripps Howard News Service. "Yes, the pressure does get to you, but the ultimate goal is to have fun and just enjoy it." 

He became the voice of Simba in The Lion King

While he was still starring in "Home Improvement," 12-year-old Jonathan Taylor Thomas became part of Disney history when he was cast as the voice of young Simba in the animated feature "The Lion King." Because the roles overlapped, Thomas wound up doing both jobs at the same time, running back and forth between the "Home Improvement" set and the recording studio in which he recorded his "Lion King" dialogue (conveniently, both were located at Disney's studio lot in Burbank). 

Ping-ponging between the two gigs was certainly challenging for the pre-teen actor. "I had to kind of go, 'Oops! Time to be Randy' ... 'Oops! Time to be Simba,'" he told People. "You have to prepare yourself to become this totally different person. I mean, we're not lions, right?"

As Thomas explained, the animation for the film was done after he'd recorded his dialogue, and he'd only seen preliminary sketches of what his character would look like. He also revealed that he was filmed while recording lines, with that video sent to the film's animators so that his facial expressions would inspire those of the cartoon lion cub as they brought Simba to life. "I noticed a lot of my expressions were in the character, and that was kind of neat," he said of the finished film during a 1994 interview with "Entertainment Tonight."

He became a bona fide teen idol

As adolescence took hold of Jonathan Taylor Thomas during his years on "Home Improvement," the show's viewers watched him transform from cutey-pie kid to handsome teenager. That certainly did not go unnoticed by the large contingent of young females who watched the show, or the teen magazines that catered to that demographic. Before long, JTT — as he came to be dubbed — was a frequent fixture on the covers of Tiger Beat, 16, Bop, and their ilk. As his teen idol status solidified, the hundreds of letters he'd been receiving from fans multiplied substantially; according to a 1996 profile in Premiere, he regularly received 50,000 fan letters each month. 

Being a teen idol was never something that he'd set out to be, nor something he particularly wanted. It was, however, something that he was forced to deal with on a daily basis when he was approached by fans pretty much any time he was out in public. ”You are a part of their life, and there is a lot that is owed them,” he explained in a 1997 interview with The New York Times of his rabid fandom in 1997. ”It's sometimes distracting to look over and see a whole group of girls staring and giggling."

While appearing on "Late Night with Conan O'Brien," Thomas was asked if he was still going by the JTT nickname. "I'm over that," he declared. "I've always been over that."

Jonathan respectfully shut down rumors about his sexuality

During the same period of time that Jonathan Taylor Thomas found himself at the center of a teen idol frenzy, speculation began to emerge about his sexuality. Eventually, rumors that he was gay had become so prevalent that he confronted them during a conversation with Jay Leno on "The Tonight Show" in 1998. "Pretty much, in Hollywood, you're not anyone until it's rumored that you're gay," Thomas quipped. "So I wasn't that upset about it ... not that there's anything wrong with that, but, I mean, they're rumors ..."

Thomas reflected on the erroneous report in a 2000 interview with gay magazine The Advocate, in which he traced its origin. "The whole thing started on this website called Cyber Sleaze, which should tell you something," he said, revealing he'd been made aware of it by his agent and some friends. "It was just a blatant lie put on the internet, and then it was just like a feeding frenzy," he said, recalling the rumor's rapid spread.

As Thomas explained, he wasn't bothered if people believed he was gay. What did bug him, he said, was when his 95-year-old grandmother heard the topic of her grandson's sexuality discussed on the radio. "She was a little upset," Thomas revealed, admitting he was surprised that a complete fabrication from a dodgy website could gain so much traction that people believed the lie to be true. "What startled me was how willingly people accepted it," he mused.

The reason he snubbed the Home Improvement series finale

For most actors, being cast on a hit television show that runs for numerous years is the Hollywood version of winning the lottery. That was why Jonathan Taylor Thomas' decision to exit hit sitcom "Home Improvement" near the beginning of its final season was so surprising. "I'd been going nonstop since I was 8 years old," he divulged in a 2013 interview with People. "I wanted to go to school, to travel and have a bit of a break."

When the time to shoot the series finale arrived, Thomas declined an invitation to reprise Randy one more time. That placed him at odds with his TV parents, Tim Allen and Patricia Richardson, with the latter admitting she didn't quite understand his reasoning. "It's a pretty sore point around here," she told TV Guide, via the New York Post. "I think there were a lot of bad feelings all along. I don't think it's a good idea that he didn't show up, but I don't always think he gets the best advice." Added Allen, "I was a little confused at why he didn't want to do this whole year."

Thomas, however, insisted that the reason he didn't return for the finale was because he was on the east coast, touring colleges while determining where he'd go to school. "Unfortunately, the whole timing thing didn't work out — they already shot it, though," he said while appearing at the Kids' Choice Awards.

He was labeled as a Hollywood 'Smart Throb'

Interviewed by People in 2000, Jonathan Taylor Thomas explained why he'd decided to press the pause button on his thriving acting career in order to attend college. "As we've seen in the past, entertainment is a fickle business," he said. That People feature nicknamed him "smart throb," which proved to be an apt description when Thomas went on to attend Harvard, spending two years there before studying at St. Andrews in Scotland — the same university where Prince William met future his wife, Kate Middleton. Interestingly, Thomas attended St. Andrews at the same time as the future Prince and Princess of Wales, which led The Scotsman to joke that the prince's "status as the teenagers' undisputed heartthrob at St. Andrews University is now under threat" by the actor's arrival. 

Thomas has never regretted choosing school over "Home Improvement." "I made such a good decision because had I stayed at the show and tried to do academically what I'm doing now, I would've, you know, put myself in an early grave," he said while taking questions at the Kids' Choice Awards.

Speaking with People in 2013, Thomas held fond memories of his time studying in Scotland. "To sit in a big library amongst books and students, that was pretty cool," he said, contrasting his life as a student with his previous experience as a Hollywood star. "It was a novel experience for me," he added.

He stepped away from Hollywood

Jonathan Taylor Thomas remained busy during the mid-2000s but didn't want to be pinned down to a long-term television commitment, as he had with "Home Improvement." Instead, he guest-starred in various TV series and then appeared in the 2006 indie comedy "The Extra." That would be his final screen appearance for more than five years. 

As Thomas told People, he didn't have any regrets about taking that time off and had plenty to keep himself busy. "I watch a lot of movies, I hike, I stay up on shows and theater," he said of how he'd been spending his time. 

While there were certainly those who questioned his decision to walk away from the showbiz career he'd been nurturing since the age of eight, he was adamant that he'd done what was right for him — and that he hadn't been that enamored of the whole Hollywood stardom thing to begin with. "I never took the fame too seriously," he said. "It was a great period in my life, but it doesn't define me. When I think back on the time, I look at it with a wink. I focus on the good moments I had, not that I was on a lot of magazine covers."

He reunited with TV dad Tim Allen, as an actor and director

After several years out of the spotlight, Jonathan Taylor Thomas re-emerged in 2011 to join his "Home Improvement" co-stars in a reunion photoshoot for Entertainment Weekly. "It was great, it obviously had been a number of years and it was really remarkable how easily everyone slipped back into our old banter and behavior with each other," he said. "It was like a family reunion, like old times." While speaking with the magazine, he expressed an urge to shift his energies from acting to the other side of the camera. "That's not to say I would never act again, I'm not quite sure to be honest," he admitted, noting that he envisioned himself taking on a behind-the-scenes role in television.

He returned to TV in 2013 for a guest spot on "Last Man Standing," a sitcom starring his "Home Improvement" dad, Tim Allen. He returned for two episodes the following season and then one more in 2015; in that latter episode, he played the son of his "Home Improvement" co-star Patricia Richardson, who guest-starred as a power tool-loving neighbor of Allen's character. Thomas also directed three episodes of the series, two in 2013 and one in 2016.

Appearing on the "Back to the Best" podcast, Richardson confirmed that Thomas had indeed shifted his focus away from acting. "Jonathan's not really interested in acting," she said, "he wants to direct and write."

Jonathan re-emerged as a SAG-AFTRA candidate

Following his acting and directing on "Last Man Standing," Jonathan Taylor Thomas laid low for the next few years. He returned to the public eye in 2019, when he announced his candidacy for the national board of SAG-AFTRA, the union representing screen actors. He was successful, and won a two-year term on the board, alongside such other famous actors as Martin Sheen, Regina King, and Abigail Spencer. He remained with SAG-AFTRA in the years that followed. According to the organization's website, Thomas was a member of the 2023-2025 national board.

Thomas was active in Membership First, a faction of SAG-AFTRA members devoted to protecting the best interests of the actors within the union. "This is an exciting time to be a union member," Thomas said in a statement appearing on the Membership First site. "We are more united than ever in our fight for strong contracts, improved minimums, better and more accessible healthcare and pensions, and a fair deal for background actors. With your help and engagement we can protect our craft and livelihoods into the future."

Interestingly, his involvement with the union came about from former "Home Improvement" co-star Patricia Richardson, who'd been encouraging more young actors to become involved in the union. "So I called up Jonathan, and said, 'What do you think about running with us?'" she told "Entertainment Tonight." "So he is on the national board ... even the other side is impressed with Jonathan!"

He has attempted to resume his Hollywood career — but under his terms

In 2016, Jonathan Taylor Thomas' "Home Improvement" co-star Patricia Richardson discussed a project that Thomas was working on with his TV sibling Zachery Ty Bryan. "I do stay in touch with Zach and Jonathan who in fact have written a really wonderful pilot that is sort of R-rated and are shopping it around town," she revealed during a Reddit AMA.

Bryan confirmed that he and Thomas were indeed working together on a TV project. "We're in talks, collaborating with Macaulay Culkin and his Bunny Ears brand," he told "Access Hollywood."

In 2022, Devon Sawa — who co-starred with Thomas in the 1997 movie "Wild America" — revealed that he'd been approached by Thomas about that project and revealed it was a mockumentary-style TV series in which former child stars — including him and Culkin — would play fictionalized versions of themselves, a la "Curb Your Enthusiasm." According to Sawa, the project never did come to fruition, but the whole thing confirmed what he'd long suspected about his former co-star's ambitions outside of acting. "I always had a feeling, from doing school with him, that he was going to go off and do things other than acting," Sawa said of Thomas in an interview with "Entertainment Tonight."