In the 1990s, Jonathan Taylor Thomas basically defined the term "teen idol." The actor got his start with a role on "The Adventures of Spot" in 1987. Then, when he joined the cast of the family sitcom "Home Improvement" in 1991, his career truly took off. In 1994, Thomas climbed to further heights when he voiced Young Simba in "The Lion King." It seemed obvious, at the time, that he was going to be a massive star. Thomas had an enormous fanbase, who affectionately referred to him as "JTT," and a very bright future as a successful adult actor seemed inevitable.
But even in his early years as an actor, Thomas didn’t feel certain that he would stick with the same career forever. Thomas ended up leaving "Home Improvement" before the show’s finale and pursued other passions far from Hollywood, rather than look for new roles. In recent years, Thomas has rarely appeared on screen at all, and makes a strong effort to keep his personal life out of the press. Here’s why Thomas needed time away from Hollywood, and what he’s working on now.
Thomas has always liked life outside the Hollywood bubble
From the very beginning, Thomas was not a huge fan of the culture within Hollywood. In part, this might be because he wasn’t raised within its unique (to put it mildly) environs. Thomas enjoyed a normal childhood in Pennsylvania before he began acting, far from the glamour and scandal of the entertainment industry. As a kid, he loved playing outdoors, fly-fishing, and spending time with his friends. In short, his upbringing couldn’t have been more different than his life in Hollywood.
Thomas was lucky enough to hold on to his friends from childhood even as his career took off — hanging out with them when he wasn’t working gave him a sense of normalcy he lacked when he was on set. This grounding influence was majorly appreciated by the young actor. "You can’t be trapped in this bubble called the acting industry," Thomas told Premiere Magazine in a 1996 interview. "The industry is neurotic and weird, and so when I go home and I play basketball with my friends, I’m not Jonathan Taylor Thomas. I’m just Jonathan. I don’t like hanging out with other actors and actresses." With comments like these to his name, it’s no surprise that Thomas eventually decided that it was time to pack up and leave Hollywood behind for good.
Stressed out on set
With impressive credits like "Home Improvement" and "The Lion King" to his name, Thomas had already assembled a very impressive resume at a shockingly young age. But for a newbie actor, especially one still making his way through childhood, working so hard came at a high price. While there are legal limits to how long child actors are allowed to work in a day, Thomas still felt overtaxed. Between acting, going to school, preparing for new roles, and trying to maintain some kind of social life, the young talent was busy at all hours of the day. This intense workload eventually started to affect his health: He often showed up to work on "Home Improvement" feeling under the weather, simply because he was dealing with so much stress at such a young age.
"You have school, friends, learning your lines and making sure your performance is up to speed," Thomas said in a 1994 interview with People. "I can’t tell you how many shows I’ve done with full-blown migraine headaches." It’s clear that Thomas rarely had a moment to himself during this time in his life. Coming down with migraines at the age of 12 due to extreme burnout definitely seems to have played a role in discouraging Thomas from continuing to act full-time as an adult.
The burden of constant attention
Thomas’ status as one of the biggest teen idols of his era might seem enviable. But attracting that level of constant, insatiable public attention isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, as Thomas discovered first-hand.
”It’s sometimes distracting to look over and see a whole group of girls staring and giggling," Thomas told the New York Times in 1997, after a crowd of fans showed up near the set where he was filming "Wild America." He continued, ”You are a part of their life, and there is a lot that is owed them. But it’s difficult because you want to make everyone happy, but if you try to do that, you’re setting yourself up for failure.”
In a 1998 interview with Conan O’Brien, Thomas said that being approached by fans at inopportune times could get awkward. He went on to recount a particularly uncomfortable encounter, in which an eager fan approached him in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. When O’Brien asked him if he was still going by the nickname "JTT," Thomas replied, "No, I’m over that, I’ve always been over that." As an adult, he prefers to live a very private life, which is a luxury he certainly did not have when he was younger.
Thomas never assumed that he would be an actor forever
Thomas became very successful at a young age due to his natural talent for acting. But even during those years when it seemed like he was absolutely destined to continue acting into adulthood, Thomas remained open-minded about pursuing other career paths.
At the height of his fame, Thomas was clear-eyed on the reality of his life options as a child star. In his 1996 conversation with Premiere, he discussed one of his most impressively mature beliefs: Namely, that the reason so many child actors struggle to deal with the demands of the industry as they get older is because they have never considered that acting might not be the right career choice for them after all. Even in 1996, with his career at its apex, Thomas resisted putting all of his eggs in one basket. In fact, he believed that doing so would mean courting failure.
"I mean, you should be focused on doing a good job, but … every job has an end." Thomas detailed in his interview. He continued, "You can’t base your life around one thing. So that’s why I focus on school, I play sports, I learn the technical side of [filmmaking]. Because sometime it’ll change, and I’ll have my education to fall back on."
Thomas took time off to finish high school
Thomas always worked hard in school, just as he worked hard when he was acting. But eventually, he realized that it was becoming downright impossible to balance both — especially while holding himself to a high standard. Ultimately, Thomas decided that he needed to take some time away from acting in order to finish his high school education. When Thomas came to this momentous realization, he was still working on "Home Improvement." The popular young actor knew that leaving would be a disappointment to the show’s legions of fans, but he had to make the best choice for his future. So, in 1998, Thomas left the sitcom for good.
After Thomas graduated from high school and set his sights on college, he reflected on his choice — and realized that he had absolutely made the right call. "It’s been a very demanding year," he said in an interview at the 1999 Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards, "and, you know, looking back, 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."
Thomas’ abrupt exit from Home Improvement became a sore spot
Although Thomas’ reasons for skipping out on "Home Improvement" were understandable and deeply wise, his co-stars still felt disappointed by his sudden exit. Thomas’ choice to focus on school rather than coming back to say goodbye to the show in its finale became a particularly tender spot for his colleagues, and it seems like he may have burned some professional bridges as a result.
"It’s a pretty sore point around here," Patricia Richardson, who played Thomas’ mom on the show, told TV Guide in 1999 of his decision to skip the show’s ending. "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."
Tim Allen was also upset by Thomas’ refusal to return for the show’s highly anticipated finale episode. Allen stated that when he inquired into Thomas’ decision, Thomas became irritated, leading to some hard feelings between the two actors for some time. "He was a little miffed at me," Allen told TV Guide. "I was a little confused at why he didn’t want to do this whole year." He continued, "It got mixed up in the translation. I mentioned [publicly] that I was confused. I don’t think he liked that."
Thomas wanted to travel and go to college
Thomas could have probably continued acting full-time after finishing high school, had he been interested in doing so. But instead, he chose to go down a different path. "I’d been going nonstop since I was 8 years old. I wanted to go to school, to travel and have a bit of a break," Thomas said in a 2013 interview with People.
That’s exactly what he did: Instead of getting back in front of the camera, Thomas decided to pursue higher education. He had always worked hard to earn good grades in school, even as he juggled homework with time on set. Suddenly, he had the opportunity to simply focus on academics without juggling acting as well. Thomas’ college years were richly multifaceted: He enrolled in Harvard, and was eventually able to study abroad at St. Andrew’s University in Scotland. Later on, he ended up at Columbia University, where he graduated from the School of General Studies in 2010.
Thomas thoroughly enjoyed his time in college. "To sit in a big library amongst books and students, that was pretty cool," Thomas said. "It was a novel experience for me." Indeed it was, given his childhood spent under studio lights. That he relished the experience as much as he did is a testament to his flexibility and ambition.
Thomas’ choice of adult roles was limited
There’s no denying that Thomas was a major teen idol. But time marches on, and every teen idol has to grow up at some point. As many of them discover, early fame doesn’t always translate to success in one’s adult years. Thomas proved to be no exception.
”It’s very hard to make a teen idol type into an edgier type as he gets older,” said talent agent Judy Savage, when asked about Thomas’ future in a 1997 interview. ”It’s not in their souls." Compounding this problem was the fact that while Thomas’ fans weren’t necessarily ready for him to grow up, he was looking to take on more challenging roles that took him out of his comfort zone. However, he was also at peace with the idea of moving on to something new, if going in a different artistic direction wasn’t in the cards for him.
”I would like to do edgier material, because that’s what seems to be respected,” Thomas mused in that same 1997 piece. ”Maybe this will last forever. Acting will get you to a lot of places, but there are a multitude of things I can do later on. Acting is just one of them.”
Thomas chose to walk away from fame
When Thomas reflects on his career today, he says that he doesn’t regret leaving fame in his past. "I never took the fame too seriously," he said in a 2013 interview with People. "It was a great period in my life, but it doesn’t define me."
But even though Thomas chose to step away from the spotlight, he remained interested in writing scripts, directing, and working behind the camera in some way. Exploring these avenues was an interest he held for years, in fact: In his 1996 interview with Premiere, he mentioned that he might want to have a career like Ron Howard’s. In time, he did indeed try his hand at directing: Thomas has directed several episodes of the comedy series "Last Man Standing."
Thomas has also continued to stay connected to Hollywood — albeit in a very different way than he used to. Even though he hasn’t resumed acting full-time, he does spend time in Los Angeles, the beating heart of the entertainment industry. His life is a full one: "I watch a lot of movies, I hike, I stay up on shows and theater," Thomas told People. While he does not want to focus solely on acting, he still has an appreciation for the industry that he grew up in, and the craft of acting itself.
Choosing to be a guest star
Though it might seem otherwise to the casual observer, Thomas did not actually leave acting after exiting "Home Improvement" and enrolling in college. He has occasionally appeared in movies, albeit minor ones, and voiced Tyler Tucker for a short run of episodes on the hit Nickelodeon cartoon "The Wild Thornberrys."
Although Thomas has never again been a regular on a TV series after his time on "Home Improvement" came to an end, he has continued doing a wide variety of guest spots. You might have spotted Thomas on shows like "Smallville," "8 Simple Rules," or "Veronica Mars." "Home Improvement" fans were particularly thrilled to see Thomas appear alongside his TV dad Tim Allen on four episodes of "Last Man Standing." However, Thomas has not acted since 2015, when he wrapped up this short role.
If we were to take a guess as to the origins of this hiatus, it seems like Thomas continues to enjoy acting, but only when the right opportunities come up. He also seems to prefer not to commit to long-term roles or feature films. Perhaps this will change at some point in the future – Thomas likely has many years ahead of him. But for now, he seems to be content living his life largely outside of Hollywood’s glaring spotlight.
A potential pilot?
Today, Thomas does occasionally keep in touch with some his "Home Improvement" co-stars. While some tension did erupt after he chose not to participate in the show’s finale, it certainly seems like it has dissipated over the course of the ensuing years. In fact, Thomas and Zachery Ty Bryan, who played Brad Taylor, Randy’s older brother, even worked together to come up with a pilot episode for their own TV show.
In 2016, Patricia Richardson revealed to fans on Reddit, "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." Naturally, this sparked quite a bit of excitement amongst fans. However, it doesn’t seem like this pilot was ever picked up — Richardson let this gossip slip several years ago, and no pilot from Thomas and Bryan has ever materialized. While fans would love a chance to see it, it looks like this project is one of many pilots that has never made it to the small screen. Still, the future is unwritten — who knows where that pilot, or Thomas and Bryan’s collaboration, might end up?
Becoming a producer
Fans who loved Thomas when he was younger might be wondering if he’s currently working on any upcoming projects. If you’re hoping that he’ll pop up on your favorite TV show or in a new movie, you’re probably out of luck. But take heart: He is busy working on fascinating new projects, in exciting new roles to boot.
Most enticingly, Taylor has been hard at work as an executive producer on the show "Master of Ceremonies." This eye-popping series promises to take viewers on a journey through 1980s America by exploring the wild, wicked, and weird world of Chippendales, the era’s infamously raunchy all-male dance revue. The series is an adaptation of the memoir of the same name, which chronicles author David Henry Sterry’s time as the master of ceremonies at the Chippendales show in Manhattan. The series does not yet have a release date.
Maybe Taylor has a bright future as a producer, or maybe he’ll consider returning to acting one day. He’s never limited himself to Hollywood, but for the right role, perhaps he would get back in front of the camera. Whatever comes, fans can be certain he’ll keep marching to the beat of his own drum.