COVER STORY : He's Got the Juice : Tim Allen's mantra on 'Home Improvement' is 'more power,' but it's the show's co-creator Matt Williams who suddenly has it. His smart and sunny family humor is just what Hollywood wants to hear these days

Hilary de Vries is a frequent contributor to Calendar

That TV producers are not the stuff of celebrity should be a matter of evidence: In television argot, they occupy the uneasy terrain between the suits and the talent. Fame is not their usual province.

But in the white heat of the Disney executive dining room, amid a sea of black chairs carved with mouse ear silhouettes, such axioms do not hold. Not the day after the People's Choice Awards, where the studio's flagship series, "Home Improvement," took top honors, and the suits have converged in an impromptu homage to the comedy's key creator: Matt Williams, an ex-football player, a Hoosier, a producer. A star.

"The man's a genius, a genius ," says studio boss Jeffrey Katzenberg, leaning across Williams' seafood salad to bark his mantra. "Aren't I having lunch with you tomorrow? See, my life depends, revolves, around him."

If Williams is startled by this display, he shows no sign of it. Bland and regal in his buttery suede jacket and with his honey-blond hair swept back, he is the star quarterback deftly giving all credit to his coaches. Smiling easily, he rises to acknowledge this visitation from the Disney powers that be. "The Katz-Man," he says, casually extending his hand.

Williams has good reason for his insouciance. At 41, the college athelete turned playwright turned TV producer is one of the few legitimate stars to emerge from the Disney stable. Williams--a former head writer on NBC's "The Cosby Show" and creator of ABC's "Roseanne"--developed "Home Improvement" with partners Carmen Finestra and David McFazdean for Disney two years ago. The seemingly innocuous family sitcom, which stars comedian Tim Allen and airs Wednesday nights on ABC, has become the biggest network hit since "Roseanne" premiered in 1988.

With three hit sitcoms on his resume, Williams has quietly moved beyond serving as the unseen Boswell of high-profile talent to being one of the most sought-after producers around.

"I cross paths with a lot of people, but this guy is in a class by himself," Katzenberg says. "Matt is the most successful writer-producer working in Hollywood."

Not that everything Williams touches turns to gold. "Carol & Company," which he created for Carol Burnett at Disney before "Home Improvement," was a short-lived ratings disaster on NBC in 1990. And although Williams created "Roseanne," his imprint on the series lasted for all of 13 episodes before he departed the show after disagreements with star Roseanne Arnold.

But as the architect of ABC's two top-rated series, Williams is credited with helping power the second-place network on its improved ratings this season. "Home Improvement" has consistently ranked among the week's Top 10 shows, as measured by the Nielsen ratings (it ended the season last month in the No. 3 position behind CBS' "60 Minutes" and "Roseanne") and its advertising rates, $200,000 for 30 seconds this season, are expected to climb to become among the industry's highest come September.

ABC has already renewed the series for an additional three years--an unprecedented move that has given Disney a jump on its syndication sales campaign. Based on initial sales figures this week, "Home Improvement" is expected to become the second-most-successful syndicated series, after "The Cosby Show," with grosses between $400 million and $600 million. Meanwhile, ABC also has contracted Williams and his partners to produce two additional comedy series within the next three years. (The first series will air in January as a mid-season replacement.)

Williams' entree into television's upper echelons--whose ranks include producers Tom Werner and Marcy Carsey, Diane English, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, James L. Brooks and Steven Bochco--has also changed the terms of the usual producer-network alliances.

Earlier this spring, he renegotiated his expired $10-million Disney contract with an unusual three-part arrangement involving the studio, ABC and Williams' Wind Dancer Production Group, which is being closely watched as a possible template for the industry at a time when network television continues to struggle with declining viewership, falling ad revenues and budget cutbacks.

Unlike the network's previous arrangements with Bochco and Brooks--which cost ABC millions with the failure of Bochco's "Cop Rock" and Brooks' "Sibs" (both producers have new series premiering next season), the deal with Williams not only includes the three-year guarantee for "Home Improvement" but also sets up a profit-sharing arrangement directly between ABC and Wind Dancer for the two future series. The contract, which also ensures Disney's role as syndicator of all three series, does not involve ABC Productions, the network's in-house development unit. Instead it positions the network to earn hundreds of millions of dollars as the co-owner of a hit series.

"This deal is suggestive of the direction network television is going," says Ted Harbert, president of ABC Entertainment. "And we've made it with guys who could have gone to any network and done just fine."

"We were looking to make a network deal that did not include a production studio as middleman," says Rick Leed, president of Wind Dancer. "And while there are deals out there that are longer term and call for more series, our arrangement guarantees much more support from ABC. A lot of people have called us saying 'I want the Wind Dancer deal.' "

Yet if Williams has arrived at the industry's inner circle via lucrative cutting-edge deal-making--the financial terms of the contract were not disclosed, but ABC and Disney made upfront cash payments to Wind Dancer that insiders have variously termed "high" and "obscenely high"--he has done so with largely conventional programming. In an industry in which flamboyance is often the key to notoriety, Williams is regarded as no pioneer at the typewriter.

Indeed, his low-key personality and unflashy but consistent track record stand in marked contrast to the rest of the industry's mandarins. Considered neither a stylist like Bochco and Brooks, a social satirist like English, nor even a seasoned jokesmith like Glen and Les Charles, the creators of "Cheers," Williams is best known for crafting low-concept, genial, family-based sitcoms that feature stand-up comedians.

"I write characters and stories with characters, but I don't write jokes," he says. "We've never been considered hip or edgy. We just write a good show with characters that everybody seems to like. We do it very well, but it's not hip, and we're not going to change."

The consensus on Williams is that he possesses a better-than-average ear for the way parents and children interact and that his scripts are accurate, if slightly idealized portraits of American families, be they African-American ("Cosby" and "A Different World"), blue-collar ("Roseanne") or Midwestern middle class ("Home Improvement").

"Matt writes real stories about real people," ABC's Harbert says. "He has an ability to identify extremely relatable themes and put them into comedic terms that are not preachy or insipid."

"I read a lot of writers' material, and most of it seems not to be the way people actually talk," says Tom Werner, one of the executive producers of "Cosby" and "Roseanne." "The key to what Matt does is that he is able to write honest dialogue."

Says Harvey Myman, head of comedy development at ABC: "If there is any quality that distinguished Matt's work, it's that he writes with a lot of heart."

Indeed, Williams' approach to comedy writing seems to involve a measure of sanctity. He once said of network television that "a great half-hour should make you feel glad to be part of the human race." His production company, Wind Dancer, was named using American Indian phrases meaning "celebration of the spirit." Collectively, his series can be seen as the antithesis of such openly cynical family fare as "The Simpsons" and "Married . . . With Children."

While "Home Improvement," which also stars Patricia Richardson as the mother of the series' three young boys, is leavened with new age theories purloined largely from Robert Bly's bestseller "Iron John"--Allen's macho preening with power tools and the philosophy-spouting neighbor, Wilson, played by Earl Hindeman--its ballast remains classic family values, "a comedy where the father is hero," Williams says. "A dad who has a good relationship with his sons, like my dad had with me."

Says his partner McFazdean: "We're not Pollyannish, but it is important that we examine a healthy family. We draw a lot from our own lives."

Much of what Williams writes for the small screen can be traced to his upbringing in Evansville, Ind., a downstate factory and farming community where, as the oldest of four children in a blue-collar household, Williams was always "something of the family leader," recalls his father, Fred. He was the first in his family to attend college (on a football scholarship) and when his parents divorced when he was 15, Williams stepped into the breach. "I don't want to get all psychodrama on you, but because I was the oldest, I became the arbiter between my parents. Now, I realize that a lot of what I write is a celebration of family, that you can fight or whatever but you stay together."

Today, Williams is attempting to practice what he preaches, in person and in his scripts. Now on his third marriage, he is a devout family man who supports various family members, including paying his mother's tuition at Oral Roberts University, keeps a Bible handy in his living room and prays nightly with the two children from his current marriage to actress Angelina Fiordellisi. He also serves as a board member of the New Harmony Project in New Harmony, Ind., a theater development workshop founded by a former minister and dedicated to writers who "explore positive aspects of family, faith and society."

"That Matt is known as Mr. Clean is not inaccurate," says one Wind Dancer insider. "He is not a member of the religious right, but he is very guided by his own spiritual sense."

And in person, Williams does seem the embodiment of a self-made man, one who sees his career almost as a calling. Beyond the obvious nods to his wealth--suede jacket, silk shirt, alligator belt and a pair of expensive-looking tassel loafers--he maintains an air of earnest guilelessness, a decided lack of irony, rare among writers of sitcoms.

"I always knew I could be good at something, if I just knew what it was," he says. "Joseph Campbell would say it's finding your bliss, and boy, when I did find it, it was like, 'This is it. This is why I was born.' "

The scene at hand has something to do with tadpoles and how boys perennially dare their kid brothers to swallow them. But then again, because this is "Home Improvement," a sitcom that takes its title to metaphorical if not metaphysical levels, Williams, Finestra and McFazdean are trying to steer the scene toward a bigger, if equally perennial, theme--competition among men (the feuding boys are back-story for the on-screen rivalry between Allen's handyman character and guest star Bob Vila, the real-life home-remodeling ex pert) and how women just don't get it.

"We've got to get Jill in the scene so Tim can oppose her point of view," says Williams, letting rip with some sample dialogue. "Oh, come on Jill, you ought to be happy that one of your kids has learned to like sushi."

"Good, so by the time we get to the Wilson scene," McFazdean adds, "he can talk to Tim about how this isn't competition, it's really obsession."

"Yeah, but shouldn't we save that reveal for (Act) 2 (Scene) 1?" asks Williams, reaching forward to snatch a tortilla chip from the snack tray on the conference room table, which is littered with automotive and home-remodeling magazines. Nerf balls lie scattered on the floor; overhead a balloon reading "1" has floated to the ceiling. Outside the room, a hand-lettered sign ("No More Seinfelds") has been taped above the doorway--a not-entirely complimentary reference to the dozens of "Seinfeld" spec scripts flooding in from prospective job applicants.

Watching the Wind Dancer brain trust hammer out a script--"beating out the story line," as Williams calls the weekly session--is like walking into a locker room while the coaching staff goes over plays for an upcoming game. Notwithstanding the female scribe hunched over a legal tablet furiously, wordlessly transcribing the day's give-and-take, the room has a no-women, no-outsiders-allowed feel.

The three partners are a tight team. Each grew up in a blue-collar household of all boys in the Midwest. McFazdean and Williams were college roommates at the University of Evansville and Finestra had worked with Williams for four seasons on "Cosby." When Williams moved to Disney four years ago and formed Wind Dancer, he invited the two to become his partners.

Like many seasoned writing teams, the three prefer to work out the story lines of each episode themselves before turning the outline over to one of the seven staff writers for an actual draft. "The three of us beat out the stories pretty thoroughly," says Williams, adding, "I write the sensitive stuff and the demonic (expletive) comes from the guys. Because we try not to write formulaic stuff . . . we spend most of the time saying what the episode is about, then we make it funny. And usually we're building toward the scene between Tim and Wilson that serves as the show's epiphany."

E piphany is the kind of word that is frequently heard around the Wind Dancer offices, along with various philosophical musings paraphrased from the works of Corneille, Tsao and Robert Bly among others--sayings that inevitably work their way into each episode. Although "Home Improvement" is ostensibly based on the macho, power-tool-wielding character that Allen created during his stand-up career, it is in its largest sense a new age version of the battle of the sexes. Sort of a post-feminist "Father Knows Best."

"I pitched Matt a rough idea for a show called 'Hammer Time' that would examine the modern male point-of-view," says Allen, who had his own development deal with Disney. "But in that series you would not have known if Tim Taylor (Allen's character) was putting you on or not. He would get pissy about women on his (do-it-yourself) show and then he would go home and be nice to his wife."

"Tim brought the whole tool element to the table," says Williams, who had been developing a new sitcom "where the father is hero" when Disney asked him to consider Allen as the star. (Originally Allen was paired with actress Frances Fisher, perhaps best known as Clint Eastwood's girlfriend and co-star in "Unforgiven." She was replaced by Richardson before the series premiered.)

"During the nine months we took to develop the series, Bly's book 'Iron John' came out, Deborah Tannen's book ('You Just Don't Understand') came out, and all this became part of the series--not that men and women shouldn't be together, but that men and women don't speak the same language."

While the series is perhaps his most personal to date--"I draw a lot from my own marriage for many of the arguments; my wife showed up at a taping and I said, 'Honey, don't get upset but the conversation that we had at breakfast I put in the script' "--"Home Improvement" can also be seen as Williams' latest attempt to create comedy "that explores human behavior in ways that will still be funny 20 years from now, the way 'The Dick Van Dyke Show' is still funny. . . . Jill and Tim are complex characters, more than just tags. We don't have to say Tim really loves Jill; you know it. We don't have to have Tim say he loves his kids, you see him come home and (roughhouse) with the kids."

"We're trying to investigate the human condition and not just be formulaic," adds Finestra. "We want a show the whole family can watch together, like 'Cosby' was during its golden period."

Indeed, Williams and Finestra credit their years on "Cosby" for influencing their attitudes toward television comedy, which, as Williams explains, "is based on behavior, not jokes." Says Finestra: "Bill was a great influence on our thinking. He was the kind of comedian who on the first day held out a tennis shoe and said to us, 'I'd rather you call this a tennis shoe than make a joke about it.' That style worked especially well for Matt, who isn't a joke writer but does have very funny takes on people."

"Bill is a genius when it comes to capturing human behavior," says Williams, who also credits Cosby with teaching him the difference between effective and ineffective television writing. "One day he was standing next to me while we watched a scene with Theo and the girls, and Bill, who always had that cigar, kind of socked me in the shoulder and said, 'Wouldn't you like to be a part of that family?' And I said, 'Bing! That's the key to good television--if you want to hang around the bar with the guys on 'Cheers' or the newsroom on 'Murphy Brown'--you invite the audience into that world.

"Bad television just comes at you, it drives you nuts, you just want it to shut up. But good television let's you participate instead of just having jokes thrown at you. It lets you come in and sit on the couch between Roseanne and Dan or Jill and Tim. Wouldn't you like to be a part of that family? Wouldn't you like your dad to work on a hot rod with you? As a result, the audience wants to be a part of that."

And that they do. Ever since "Home Improvement" premiered, it has consistently landed in the week's Top 10 shows. While much of that out-of-the-gate ratings success was due to the show's positioning between "Full House" and "Roseanne," ABC executives also credit the series with an unusually broad audience reach. While appealing to the classic 8-8:30 p.m. sitcom audience--women, teen-agers and children--the series also has an unusually high percentage of male viewers.

The show's across-the-demographics appeal became more evident at the start of last season, when the network moved "Home Improvement" from 8:30 on Tuesday nights to 9 p.m. on Wednesdays. It was a non-traditional time period for a family-oriented sitcom, and something of a risk for ABC, but ratings soared even higher. And network executives are banking that Williams can replicate that success when his new series premieres next season.

"We are waiting for them mid-season because behavior-based shows are difficult to create," says ABC's Harbert. "But those are the shows that always end up at the top of the heap."

While the sitcom is still untitled, un-cast and unwritten--the pilot won't be shot until October--it is expected to be given a prime slot, adjacent to "Home Improvement," which will be overseen by Williams and a new writing team: Elliot Shoenman, who worked with Williams on "Cosby"; Bob Bendetson, a former head writer on "Coach," and Billy Riback, currently one of "Home Improvement's" producers.

As for Williams, he envisions the series almost as a second chapter of "Home Improvement." "I've been thinking a lot about parents, about how everyone my age with children is trying to be a good parent and not (screw up) the way our parents did. So now, I'm really intrigued with the idea of a relationship between older children and their parents. A son and his mother, a good relationship where the son helps and respects his mom."

Evansville, Ind., is the kind of close-knit small town where a local football star who becomes a writer of hit TV shows is so well known that even complete strangers confess over the phone, "Oh yeah, we know about him. He's not related to us, but we know about Matt Williams."

It is also, for some, the kind of narrow, crabbed place that can foster a need to escape, to play to a larger gallery. Or as one of Williams' brothers recently confided to another family member, "Matt always needed an audience, but now 100 people aren't enough, he's got to have millions."

Williams was the only one in his family to finish high school. His mother worked as a waitress, his father assembled refrigerators at the local Whirlpool plant until glaucoma forced him to retire in all but complete blindness.

Mark Williams (he changed his name to Matt when applying for membership in Actors Equity) was popular, good-looking and so driven that he spent hours sitting alone in the high school auditorium planning his future away from Evansville. He would return home from these meditative bouts vowing to become a millionaire, rich enough to buy his father beach houses on both coasts. "I wanted to succeed at something," Williams says. "I just didn't know what it was going to be."

That sense of resolve only intensified when his parents divorced. "I didn't want anyone pointing a finger at me, saying, 'His parents owed him,' " he says. "I was going to be beyond reproach." By the time he graduated, Williams was a straight-A student, vice president of his class, sports editor of the school paper, captain of the football defensive team, prom king and the lead in the senior play, "A Man for All Seasons." "I never rested, I never went home. Anytime anything was painful, I just worked twice as hard."

"Matt is a very highly motivated guy," says McFazdean, who first met Williams when they were freshmen at the University of Evansville. "Even in college, he was always setting a goal for himself, like, 'By the end of the year, I want to have achieved X, Y, Z.' "

He majored in English with the intention of becoming an actor and a director. He spent an additional three years at the University of New Orleans earning a master of fine arts degree before moving to Manhattan in the early 1970s.

"I was going to give myself five years to make it," says Williams, who had married his first wife during his years at Evansville. "If it didn't happen, I was going back home to teach and coach."

But New York was one of the few environments that did not immediately respond to Williams' insistent touch. Unable to get work in the theater, the newly divorced aspiring actor supported himself as a model, taking voice lessons to purge the worst of his Midwestern accent, spending hours in front of the television with a legal pad teaching himself how to act for commercials. He also met and married his second wife during this period.

"I had learned quickly that I was the AAWYD--the All-American WASP Young Daddy," he says. "So be it. I knew I wanted to write and direct but the first thing I had to do was make a living. So I laid out my goals: I want three major national commercials by the end of the year."

He appeared in ads for Johnson & Johnson and Mennen, among others. For three years, he commuted to Virginia, where he worked for the Christian Broadcast Network playing "the good guy doctor" on the soap opera "Another Life."

Eventually he broke into theater by volunteering to scrape paint and scrub toilets at a tiny Off Off Broadway house, the now-defunct Wonderhorse Theater. There Williams' first play--"Between Daylight and Boonville," a drama about coal-miners' wives--was produced. He followed that with a series of one-acts that attracted the attention of director Jay Sandrich, who was producing a series for Home Box Office. When Sandrich became the principal director on "Cosby" its first year, he recommended Williams to Werner as a possible writer.

"We were always looking for people who could write honestly," Werner says, who hired him in 1985. "And his first script included a scene for Keshia (Knight Pulliam), the little girl, and Matt really seemed to capture the way a 5-year-old would talk."

He stayed at "Cosby" for four years--"the show was a dictatorship, but I always liked Bill"--eventually becoming one of the series's head writers, with John Markus and Finestra, with whom he helped develop "A Different World," the Cosby spinoff that starred Lisa Bonet.

Eager to create his own series, Williams pitched several series ideas to Werner and Carsey-- including one that involved a household of working-class women, which seemed a perfect fit for a then-unknown comedian that the producers had signed. "Marcy kept saying we have this talent we want you to meet--Roseanne Barr--and that was the starting point."

Williams lasted 13 episodes before his abrupt departure from the series in what he describes "as the first of Roseanne's many power plays." Although Williams and Arnold decline to discuss the particulars, Werner characterizes the disagreement in the blandest of terms: "A clash between a head writer and Roseanne is not that unusual."

He left with the terms of his contract intact--a buyout of his remaining three years plus a percentage of the show's soon-to-be hefty profits--entertaining numerous calls from studios and producers anxious to sign him. "I was the flavor of the month," says Williams, who went with Disney, a studio not known for its hands-off treatment of writers, "because of the money ($10 million) and because I liked Jeffrey." Williams also had sagely wrangled what few other producers could at the studio, creative control.

"We tailor-made a deal for Matt and his needs," says Katzenberg, who declines to elaborate on the contract's specifics. "But he is unique; everything he touches has quality and good taste."

Which is not to say that everything Williams creates is a hit. In addition to the failure of "Carol & Company," his initial foray into filmmaking--he co-wrote the screenplay for "Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken," a family drama about a teen-age girl who loves horses, produced by Disney's Buena Vista Pictures--died at the box office within days of its opening over Memorial Day weekend in 1991.

And most recently, Williams' attempts to return to the theater, as director of "The View From Here"--a drama by a young playwright, Margaret Dulaney, that was developed at the New Harmony Project and produced this spring Off Broadway at the Lamb's Theatre starring Williams' wife--was all but savaged by New York critics. "Matt Williams has directed the play in a way that maximizes its idiocy," said Howard Kissel in the Daily News.

"I was braced for that," Williams says ruefully. "Now that you get labeled 'TV,' you're going to get slammed no matter what. The attitude sort of becomes 'How dare a sitcom writer?' "

Williams continues to look beyond network television. He is developing more feature films, some of which he will write, some of which others will script. The first project: a screen version of "Miz Lil & the Chronicles of Grace"--short stories about the American Midwest in the 1950s, seen through the eyes of a young boy--by Walter Wangerin Jr., a former minister and the founder of the New Harmony Project. The script will be written by Horton Foote, the Oscar-winning screenwriter ("Tender Mercies") and playwright.

"There is a whole dark side to Midwestern life, a whole manic dark side that I haven't explored yet and it scares me why I haven't done it," Williams says, sounding like the restless high schooler again. "I want to use a lot of the other colors on the palette than those you are allowed to use on television. I feel like everything I've done up until now has been a warm-up lap."

He mentions his play, "Between Daylight and Boonville." "You know, there is a character in that who just wants to break away and be, to just go and do. And she says to her family, 'Don't you realize I have a destiny? Don't you know what a destiny is?' And I realize now how autobiographical all that is."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
64°