Little Big Man : Heartthrob and Hot Property at 14, Taylor Has a Veteran’s View of Hollywood


Jonathan Taylor Thomas scarcely looks his 14 years. At 4-foot-11, the pixieish actor could pass for 10 or 11. Until he opens his mouth.

Then you’d swear he was 45.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Dec. 22, 1995 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday December 22, 1995 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 4 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 18 words Type of Material: Correction
Child actor--Actor Jonathan Taylor Thomas was incorrectly identified in a headline in some editions of Thursday’s Calendar.

He talks about narrow-mindedness and superficiality in the movie and television business as if he were a longtime Hollywood veteran.

“It’s kind of odd,” Thomas said in an interview last week. “Once you have a movie and it opens well, people automatically become interested and that’s the shallow aspect of this business and you just have to accept it. . . . This business is very much based on how much money things will bring in. But then, I think most businesses are about making money.”


These days, Thomas is becoming a business unto himself.

For the past five years, he has starred as Randy, the middle son on the hit Buena Vista Television series “Home Improvement.” In the process, Thomas has claimed the hearts of hordes of pre-pubescent girls and has emerged as the most popular cover boy on teen magazines.

After providing the voice of the young Simba in Disney’s 1994 smash “The Lion King,” he co-starred in March in Disney’s “Man of the House” with Chevy Chase and Farrah Fawcett and got most of the credit for its strong $9.5-million opening. (The film grossed $40 million.) He stars as Tom Sawyer in a new live-action Disney film “Tom and Huck,” which opens Friday, and this summer audiences will see Thomas play the title role in New Line’s live-action version of “Pinocchio” starring Martin Landau.

He is Disney’s hot new property--Buena Vista Television is owned by Disney--and the biggest name among child actors since Macaulay Culkin. Disney insiders joke that any day now, he will occupy his own office strategically placed between those of top company executives Michael Eisner and Michael Ovitz.

The success of “Man of the House” more than doubled Thomas’ fee for “Tom and Huck,” to $600,000 from an initial $250,000, according to a source with knowledge of the deal. He owes Disney one more film under an option with the studio, but no project has been selected.

“He literally was the first person we thought of for Tom Sawyer,” said the film’s producer, Larry Mark. “He was at the top of the list from the get-go, both because of his acting talent and because he has a certain amount of box-office appeal.”

Indeed, even British film director Peter Hewitt was won over by Thomas’ charm and acting ability, though he initially expressed reservations about casting a contemporary sitcom star to play the lead in the Mark Twain classic.

“I had never watched ‘Home Improvement’ and everyone at Disney was talking about this boy,” Hewitt said. “The idea [to cast him] came right from [studio chief] Joe Roth. I was being told he’s this big teen heartthrob and he’s on this very popular sitcom. I didn’t know who he was or what he looked like, but I knew of the phenomenon that was Jonathan Taylor Thomas. So, on that basis, I thought it wasn’t a good idea [to cast him as Tom Sawyer] . . . until he got in the room. He read through some stuff and he was just marvelous.”

Hewitt said he was “under no delusions” about who would win if he had not found Thomas appropriate for the part.

“[Disney] never said, ‘Meet with Jonathan and if you don’t give him the job you’re out of a job,’ ” Hewitt said. “But, had I then called them and said, ‘I met with him and he’s just not right,’ it could have gotten into a situation where they said, ‘We really want to work with him, so get used to it.’ I’m just glad it didn’t get into any of that.”

Thomas accepted Hewitt’s hesitation graciously.

“I kind of suspected he wasn’t sure about me,” Thomas said from a limousine car phone after a flurry of interviews for “Tom and Huck.” “It’s only natural for a director to be concerned about his project. I would have expected him to be a bit skeptical, especially with a period piece and my being in a hip kind of ‘90s series.”

Just what makes Thomas so hot?

His success can be attributed to a combination of talent, looks, smarts, charm and plain old luck, industry insiders say.

“He’s not cute as a button, although he’s certainly incredibly attractive and appealing. I think that makes him more interesting. He also seems incredibly open. He sort of invites you in as if he’s saying, ‘Come have some fun with me,’ ” producer Mark said.

“Generally, kids who are really successful in Hollywood are small for their age and have kind of a pleasant, blendable look; they don’t have to be gorgeous,” said Judy Savage, owner of Savage Agency, which has represented children and young adults for 18 years. “The ones who succeed are generally very smart and the luck comes in when they’re in a project that takes off, whether it’s a hit television series or a movie that makes a lot of money. Jonathan Taylor Thomas has the whole package. He’s got a darling voice, plus he’s smart, adorable and talented. And he’s in a vehicle that’s highly visible.”

This is a key moment in Thomas’ career, according to Savage, who does not represent him. His future bankability, Savage predicts, will rest largely on the box-office success of “Tom and Huck.”

“If you get to the point where your name sells tickets, then you have a much better chance for longevity in your career,” Savage said. “Shirley Temple was one of those, Macaulay was another and Jonathan may do it. I think he’s just about at that point.”

Said director Hewitt: “As long as he doesn’t turn ugly in puberty, he’s got a future.”

Perhaps even behind the camera, Hewitt added. “He absorbs what’s going on like a sponge. I could very easily see him moving into directing, if that’s what he would wish.”

And, at this point, it is exactly what Thomas would wish.

He is painfully aware of the pitfalls of making it big when you’re under 18 and is methodically planning to make the kind of graceful segue from kid actor to serious director, a la Ron Howard or Jodie Foster. He hopes to go to a top theater or film school, preferably Northwestern, Yale or NYU and then become a director.

“I think kids often get caught up in this industry and take it for more than it really is,” he said. “I think you just have to take it with a grain of salt because nothing in this industry really totally makes sense. . . . Kids in show business today have had examples and they’ve watched what’s happened to other child actors, and it’s not been good. We’ve seen what traps others have fallen into and hopefully we’ve learned and we can ignore those.”

His mother, Claudine Thomas, a former social worker, is widely credited for imbuing her son with a level head, an adult work ethic and a child’s sense of fun and innocence. (He has a 17-year-old brother, Joel; his parents split a few years ago.)

He even looks philosophically at his teeny-bopper idol status.

“Those teen magazines are a forum to get positive messages out,” said Thomas, who devotes a lot of his spare time to charitable causes. “I feel I’ve been put in this position for a reason. So I like to use the popularity and notoriety to channel good, positive messages.”

Thomas seems to have the perspective of someone much older and wiser--not to mention the vocabulary of someone at least twice his age.

When told that there may be a film version of the life of singer Otis Redding (one of his favorite musicians), Thomas grew excited and asked a flurry of questions, sounding like a studio-mogul-in-training.

“Who’s going to play Otis Redding? What about Laurence Fishburne?” Thomas said. “I’d love to see that. I’d go see it in a second.”

Hewitt found him both mature and childlike while working on “Tom and Huck.”

“He’s very funny and he’s wise beyond his years,” he said. “But at the end of a long day of looping [voice-overs in post-production], we were getting along really well, but then he started punching me. I had to remind myself, ‘Oh yeah, he’s 14.’ ”

Thomas is savvy enough to know that his newfound star could not only tarnish but also fade away entirely and accepts that possibility with aplomb.

“I’ve made a point not to make this my whole life,” Thomas said. “There are other sides to my personality and other sides to my life. If this business went away, it would be a blow, because I’ve put a lot into it; but it wouldn’t be devastating because I have an education. If it ends, it ends. . . . But right now things are going pretty well.”