Tim Allen recently made the news, arguably not for the best reasons. Allen, one of a number of 90s-era comedy stars with conservative leanings, was on ABC’s talk show The View ostensibly to talk about the upcoming season of his sitcom Last Man Standing. But he quickly veered into complaining that he can’t say certain things…things like the “n” word. Though it’s not the first time Allen has groused about living in a culture that may push back against him using, you know, the cruelest possible racial epithet, it’s a stark reminder that there was a time when he all but dominated a subset of popular culture.
Some of Tim Allen’s biggest projects are celebrating anniversaries this year. We’re now just a month removed from the 25th anniversary of The Santa Clause, the wildly successful Disney comedy in which Allen played a grouchy businessman at a toy company who literally transforms into Santa Claus after he inadvertently kills the big guy. (In case you forgot, yes, the hero of the film kills Santa Claus is the setup.) Last month also marked the 20th anniversary of Toy Story 2, in which Allen reprised his voice role as the heroic if arrogant Buzz Lightyear. And this month marks the 20th anniversary of Galaxy Quest, in which Allen played a William Shatner-like has-been whose work on a Star Trek-style science-fiction TV show leads to him and his fellow cast members working with real extraterrestrials to withstand a vicious alien threat.
After that, Tim Allen’s career moved down steadily. The release of Galaxy Quest was the peak of his all-encompassing fame, which is now a hazy memory.
No Vulnerable Spots
It may now be hard to overstate just how famous Tim Allen was in the 1990s. He’d risen through the ranks of stand-up comedians through the 1980s, after a now-infamous arrest for drug dealing. And like a number of popular stand-up comics, Allen got his own TV show in the early 1990s. The ABC sitcom Home Improvement featured Allen as Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor, a Detroit-area TV host of a DIY-home-improvement show in the vein of Bob Vila’s This Old House. (Remember Bob Vila?) Home Improvement quickly became one of the biggest hits on television — its 1999 series finale was the fifth highest-watched finale of the 1990s, and it was among the ten most watched shows on television each season that it aired.
In 1994, Allen all but made his film debut in The Santa Clause. (He technically made his debut in a thriller called Tropical Snow, a film that we all know and adore, obviously.) The high-concept comedy didn’t boast a big cast, but it didn’t need to. As Home Improvement aired its fourth season on ABC, The Santa Clause became a solid hit at the box office. The family comedy was the fourth highest-grossing film of 1994 domestically, making more money than Speed, Dumb and Dumber, and Pulp Fiction. Adjusted for inflation, it made around $250 million. And at the same time, Allen had a New York Times bestselling book, Don’t Stand Too Close to a Naked Man. (Insert your own Tim Allen-gorilla-grunt here.)
The following year, Allen co-starred in the first Toy Story as Buzz Lightyear, affording him the status of co-starring in the year’s most successful film at the box office. By the time he appeared in the sequel, Home Improvement had come to a close, but Toy Story 2 was still a huge hit, a film so good that many people argued it was better than its predecessor. Just a month later, Allen top-lined the ensemble comedy Galaxy Quest, as its lead character, the vain Jason Nesmith.
Never Give Up
Galaxy Quest is one of the great modern comedies, a film that has been gradually embraced over time in spite of being a mild sleeper hit at the box office in early 2000. (The film was released by DreamWorks SKG on Christmas Day 1999.) The premise is unbeatable: what if the cast of Star Trek was beamed up by actual aliens who thought their fictional show were a set of “historical documents” and wanted the crew to help them fend off some nasty extraterrestrial baddies? Though Star Trek is obviously not invoked in the film, it’s very easy to see parallels, from the spotlight-hogging lead actor to the more serious second lead to a female character whose only job was to echo what the computer said, and so on.
Allen isn’t the only funny part of Galaxy Quest, granted. Though it’s hard to choose one standout, if push came to shove, that would have to be Sam Rockwell in one of his earliest breakout roles as a visibly scared version of the redshirt Star Trek actor who existed simply to get killed by the alien threat of the week. That said, Allen is contributing a lot to the film that reminds you he’s got enough talent (or he used to) outside of the stand-up world. Nesmith is grappling with a good deal of emotional baggage before he’s absconded away by aliens, realizing just how much the rest of his castmates can’t stand him and wondering if he’s wasted his life by spending all his time at fan conventions, store openings, and other low-class events.
Once Nesmith is brought aboard the replica of the NSEA Protector, it takes him a few minutes to realize that he’s not just on some fan-made set, but an actual spaceship in actual outer space. After that realization hits, Allen gets to play a less cynical man, as Nesmith recruits his cast members as a way to extend an olive branch their way for his years of mistreating them. His excitement is much more enjoyable than his grouchier side. Frankly, that much is true in Allen’s first big-screen hit, The Santa Clause, where the actor is a lot more engaging to watch once he’s fully transformed into Santa. Before that transformation, it feels like he’s making an early audition to play the venal title character of Bad Santa.
Galaxy Quest has withstood the test of time for 20 years not only because fandom has further dominated popular culture (in ways that almost make the way fans are depicted in the 1999 comedy quaint), but because the entire cast has at least a few things to do comedically. Allen, here and in the Toy Story films, works best as part of a larger ensemble as opposed to being the sole focus of attention. Perhaps that’s part of the reason why, when you look at his post-1999 career, you see a lot fewer bright spots.
Allen’s biggest cinematic successes in the 21st century have been easy enough to spot, because they’re sequels to some of the aforementioned earlier titles. Allen is, of course, one of the stalwarts of the Toy Story franchise, having appeared in both Toy Story 3 and Toy Story 4, along with some of the Toy Story Toons shorts and even the direct-to-DVD movie Buzz Lightyear of Star Command: The Adventure Begins. In 2002 and 2006, he headed up the two sequels to The Santa Clause, the first follow-up all about the new Santa being tasked with finding his Mrs. Claus, and the second featuring him tussling with Jack Frost (Martin Short). Though both Santa Clause sequels performed solidly (Santa Clause 2 made just $5 million less than its predecessor), neither was as massive a hit.
Only one of Allen’s films since 1999 managed to be successful while not at all being connected to his earlier work: the 2007 comedy Wild Hogs, which may not stand out in many people’s memories, but still grossed $163 million domestically that year. (For context, that means it outgrossed Knocked Up and Best Picture nominee Juno.) A few years later, Allen moved back to ABC with the more right-wing-leaning comedy Last Man Standing, a program that now resides on Fox (ironically moving networks right around the same time that Disney bought the majority of 21st Century Fox).
This Fine Crew
It may be easy to peg Allen’s slow downturn of fame as being due to his political preferences. It’s much easier to think of movie stars who are either stridently liberal, or at least not stridently conservative. (Allen did publicly support Donald Trump for President, a statement that can’t be confidently made about a lot of movie stars.) But Allen’s dip in popularity occurred well before the last decade of divisive politics (and frankly, it started even before the horrors of September 11, when that division truly became a gaping maw).
It’s not that Allen vanished either, but what may have been made clear by the post-1999 work he made is that there were limits to his talents. In The Santa Clause, though he plays a toy-company executive, he doesn’t seem too far removed from the grumpy dad on Home Improvement (and he does, of course, do the gorilla grunt at one point). In the Toy Story films, Buzz Lightyear’s unshakable confidence mixed with mild arrogance doesn’t feel too far removed from Allen’s persona either. What he managed to do — or luck into — was find a series of roles that fit him perfectly and found a way into working on audiences.
The luck has run out, even if Last Man Standing is now about to air its eighth season. There’s no reason to doubt the show’s premiere will be delayed further even after Allen’s ridiculous and insulting comments on The View. But the era in which he was a dominant force in popular culture and comedy is so far removed that you can watch the Toy Story films and forget who that voice of Buzz really is. And you can (and, of course, should) watch Galaxy Quest without thinking too much about the forces that led Tim Allen to so perfectly embody a self-involved star. 1999 was a great year for Tim Allen: his popular TV comedy came to a well-received close, and he starred in two genuinely brilliant film comedies to boot. The intervening twenty years have proven that year was something of a fluke.
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