Whatever happened to Jonathan Taylor Thomas?

Jonathan Taylor Thomas was the end-all and be-all of ’90s teen idols. Not only did he star in major TV and movie hits, but he was also a serious heartthrob. The hair? The crooked grin? The soft, raspy voice? Yes, please. JTT, as he was called, warmed hearts as Randy on Home Improvement, cemented himself in pop culture history by voicing young Simba in The Lion King, and led flicks like Tom and Huck and The Adventures of Pinocchio. He graced Bop covers and spread his smile across Tiger Beat (via MTV News). He even took home a Favorite Television Actor win at the Kids’ Choice Awards in 1998.

But then, just as Thomas’ star was about to go supernova, he stepped out of the spotlight. Thomas spoke about fame in a 1997 interview with The New York Times, ”It’s difficult because you want to make everyone happy, but if you try to do that, you’re setting yourself up for failure.” Did he finally decide to put his own happiness first? Did the fame get to be too much? Did he always have other plans for his life? Read on and discover what really happened to Jonathan Taylor Thomas.

A fishing nut that turned into a mega star

Jonathan Taylor Thomas was born Jonathan Taylor Weiss in Bethlehem, Pa. on Sept. 8, 1981, but shortly thereafter moved to Sacramento, Calif. with his family where he enjoyed an idyllic childhood full of outdoor adventures. “I’ve always been this fly-fishing nut,” he said to The Morning Call in 1996. “It’s my favorite thing to do — to stand in a stream in the middle of nowhere and cast out my line.” Adorable. 

It wasn’t long, though, before the fishing nut turned into a serious star. He moved to Los Angeles with his mom and brother, changed his name to Jonathan Taylor Thomas (Thomas being his brother’s middle name, according to TV Guide), and started booking roles. His first big role was Kevin Brady on The Bradys in 1990, followed by the infamous In Living Color sketch in which he played Macaulay Culkin attempting to keep a nefarious Michael Jackson out of his home. But then, in 1991, he won the role of Tim Allen’s son on the hit TV show Home Improvement. Thomas was just 10 years old when he brought Randy to life, making the mischievous yet good-natured middle child a favorite of fans all across America.

Home Improvement wasn't all jokes and laughs for Jonathan Taylor Thomas

While Jonathan Taylor Thomas loved his time on Home Improvement, being part of the Taylor family wasn’t always a walk in the park. Thomas starred in 179 episodes of Home Improvement in just seven years, often spending over nine and a half hours a day on set while managing a full school day’s worth of studying and homework. He also somehow fit in time to hang out with friends, which was important to him. “The industry is neurotic and weird,” he told Premiere magazine in 1996, “and so when I go home and I play basketball with my friends, I’m not Jonathan Taylor Thomas. I’m just Jonathan.”

He also spoke about the scheduling difficulties and mounting stress of fame in an interview with People in 1994: “You have school, friends, learning your lines and making sure your performance is up to speed … I can’t tell you how many shows I’ve done with full-blown migraine headaches.” 

Lion King wasn't a jungle cruise for Jonathan Taylor Thomas, either

Lion King producer Don Hahn raved about Jonathan Taylor Thomas, telling People, “We looked at dozens and dozens of actors before choosing Jonathan.” He note, “But we saw him on Home Improvement and just thought his voice was right. It gives him a very distinctive character.”

So, the star worked on The Lion King for two years, often shuttling between the recording studio and the Home Improvement set on the Disney Burbank lot. “Simba’s like me,” Thomas said in the same People article. “Real curious, fun-loving, always getting into mischief.” But just because he didn’t need to alter his voice for the role doesn’t mean making the film was easy. He spent long hours in front of the microphone to bring Simba to life. The star and his producers were so committed to the story that, as Hahn told People, “We darn near beat him up when we were recording.” The crew would “rough him up” before takes so he could better imitate the sound of a lion cub being chased by a stampede or fighting vicious hyenas.

Jonathan Taylor Thomas hated being called JTT

While Jonathan Taylor Thomas loved acting, he hated fame. He often spoke in interviews about how much he disliked all the attention and the intrusion into his personal life. The young star even hated being on all the magazine covers. Thomas told Conan O’Brien in a 1998 interview there are many parts of his life that he’s thankful for, like his big, fancy SUV. But he went on to say that he was exhausted from being swarmed by fans. He recounted an instance in which a fan approached him for an autograph while he was lighting candles inside New York’s Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, prompting him to tell the woman, “Can we step outside?”

If the swarming fans, intrusive questions, and inappropriate encounters weren’t enough, Thomas also detested his “JTT” nickname. In that same interview with O’Brien, he said, “I’m over that. I’ve always been over that.” Though he was polite about it, he made it clear that he prefers his real name to his fan-created moniker.

The writing was on the wall for Jonathan Taylor Thomas

Jonathan Taylor Thomas’ dislike of fame isn’t the only reason why we shouldn’t be surprised he chose to exit the spotlight. He was always very clear on his long-term career goals — and they didn’t include acting.

He discussed child star careers in an interview for Premiere magazine back in 1996, saying that many of his young co stars weren’t prepared for their careers to end. But JTT? He was already preparing for his exit. He said, “Every job has an end. … I mean, it’s not the end of your life! You can’t base your life around one thing.” He went on, “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’ practical approach to stardom was just one display of his general level-headedness. Rick Rodgers, a former editor at the ’90s teen magazine Bop, described Thomas as wise beyond his years, even wondering if there was a 40-year-old hidden inside him.

Jonathan Taylor Thomas' Home Improvement exit was far from smooth

Jonathan Taylor Thomas’s maturity, future plans, and dislike of the spotlight finally outweighed his love of acting in 1998, when he left Home Improvement at the beginning of its eighth season. His character, Randy Taylor, took off on an environmental adventure to Costa Rica, leaving Thomas free to join his friends at a private school in Los Angeles.

Thomas didn’t even return to film the show’s finale in 1999, choosing instead to spend the time touring colleges on the East Coast — much to his co-stars’ disappointment. Patricia Richardson, the actress who played Jill Taylor on the show, spoke about Thomas’ exit in a 1999 interview with TV Guide, as reported by the New York Post. She said, “It’s a pretty sore point around here,” adding, “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.” Even jovial Tim Allen was “miffed,” saying in the same article, “I was a little confused at why he didn’t want to do this whole year. He said it was about going to school, but then he did some films. Did he want to do films? Did he want to go to school?”

Did Jonathan Taylor Thomas' mom have something to do with his exit?

Jonathan Taylor Thomas’ mom, Claudine, has always been close with her son. As reported by the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post, she answered his fan mail and often served as defense between her son and his over-zealous fans. JTT himself said in an interview with The New York Times that his mother even helped him choose roles that were right for his age and clean-cut reputation. Did he feel pressure from his mom to bow out of showbiz? There’s no evidence to support this idea at all.

In fact, an article in Premiere observed that Claudine seemed to be more focused on developing her son’s heart and his brain than his career. The New York Times also wrote in a 1997 article that Thomas has always worked with his family’s full support. If his mother did have something to do with his exit, it was probably just simply giving him support.

Jonathan Taylor Thomas attended not one, but three elite schools

Where does a child star go after he leaves the spotlight? School. But Jonathan Taylor Thomas didn’t go to any old school — he attended three elite universities. Thomas started his scholastic journey at Harvard University. He then spent a year studying abroad at St. Andrews University in St. Andrews, Scotland. Apparently he wasn’t just hitting the books at St. Andrews, as The Scotsman, a local paper, reported that JTT was threatening to steal fellow student Prince William’s top “heart-throb” title. 

Then he went on to graduate (under his given name Jonathan Weiss) from Columbia University’s School of General Studies in 2010 with an advanced degree. Speaking to People in 2013 about his time in academia, Thomas said, “To sit in a big library amongst books and students, that was pretty cool,” adding, “It was a novel experience for me.”

Jonathan Taylor Thomas dabbled in voice acting with The Wild Thornberrys

Despite enjoying his time at school, Jonathan Taylor Thomas didn’t exit Hollywood completely. He kept in touch with his showbiz connections throughout the late ’90s and early 2000s, and he even revisited his previous cartoon voiceover success with a recurring role on The Wild Thornberrys.

The Wild Thornberrys aired on Nickelodeon from 1998 to 2004. The cartoon follows a family on their grand adventures and is told from the point of view of Eliza, their daughter who can talk to animals. Thomas’ six-episode arc was in the show’s third season in 2000. He played Tyler Tucker, Eliza’s cousin. Thomas’ first episode, “Tyler Tucker, I Presume,” introduced the character and established that, since the cousins are close in age, the two butt heads often. Thomas’ remaining four episodes as Tyler showed Tyler and Eliza going on to compete with one another and causing complications for the entire family.

Jonathan Taylor Thomas made guest appearances on some popular shows

The ’90s star didn’t limit his guest appearances to cartoons. Jonathan Taylor Thomas also popped up on hit TV shows like Smallville, 8 Simple Rules, and Veronica Mars. On Smallville, Thomas played Ian Randall, a metahuman with the power to create copies of himself. He first appeared as Ian in 2002, introducing the character in Season 2, Episode 9, “Dichotic.” Thomas revisited Ian later in Season 3, Episode 9, “Asylum,” showing off his acting chops and his toned torso.

The show 8 Simple Rules gave JTT a three-episode arc as Jeremy, a geeky young man that captures the attention of lead character Bridget, played by The Big Bang Theory‘s Kaley Cuoco, while the two work on a science project. The three episodes originally aired in 2004. Then, in 2005, Thomas guest-starred in one episode of Veronica Mars. He appeared in Season 1, Episode 18, “Weapons of Class Destruction,” as a new student named Ben whom Veronica, played by Kristen Bell, suspects is responsible for a series of bomb threats.

The '90s star reunited with his Home Improvement castmates on Last Man Standing

Perhaps Jonathan Taylor Thomas’ most memorable return to TV was when he reunited with Home Improvement co-stars on ABC’s Last Man Standing. Thomas’ first guest appearance on Last Man Standing was in 2013. He played John Baker, a young man who quickly courts one of the main characters, in three episodes. The most notable moment of his appearances, though, is when Thomas’ character meets Tim Allen’s Mike Baxter, who greets him with lines like, “Man, you look familiar,” and “That kid was raised right,” joking about their previous on-screen father-son relationship on Home Improvement (via People).

JTT returned to Last Man Standing in 2015 for one episode with Patricia Richardson, who played his mother on Home Improvement. Season 4, Episode 12 had Richardson playing Helen Potts, a widow and Max Baxter’s new neighbor, who enjoyed loudly working with power tools — a nod to the famous neighbor character from Home Improvement. In that episode, Thomas briefly played a different character: Randy, her son.

Jonathan Taylor Thomas has tried his hand at directing

Jonathan Taylor Thomas has spent some time on the other side of the camera, too. He gave directing a shot, taking the lead on three episodes of Last Man Standing: “Haunted House” in 2013, “Hard-Ass Teacher” in 2014, and “Eve’s Band” in 2016.

JTT taking a turn in the director’s chair isn’t surprising. He first gave fans a clue he had directorial hopes back in 1996, when he was just 13. He told Premiere magazine that even though Hollywood wants him to be the next Macaulay Culkin, he had dreams of becoming “the next Ron Howard.” Thomas was even telling his friends about his plans to direct. In 2012, his former Home Improvement co-star Zachery Ty Bryan told Hollywood.com that he keeps in touch with Thomas, revealing that, “[Thomas] was going to Columbia University, he finally graduated. He’s back out here in L.A., and I think he’s pursuing directing…”

Jonathan Taylor Thomas has reportedly been working on a project with these child stars

He didn’t stop at directing! Jonathan Taylor Thomas has also pursued producing and writing. In 2017, he was elected to the SAG-AFTRA National Board, which leads the SAG-AFTRA labor union and represents around 160,000 entertainment workers across almost all screen-related fields (via Fox News).

JTT is also reported to be working on a project with Home Improvement co-star Zachery Ty Bryan and former child star Macaulay Culkin. In a 2018 interview with Access, Bryan said, “We’re in talks of collaborating with Macauley Culkin and his Bunny Ears brand … we kind of came up with a concept, and presented it to them, and it looks like we’re moving forward.” Bunny Ears is Macaulay Culkin’s lifestyle and humor brand that creates and presents a range of content with the goal of “enrich[ing] lives and prompt[ing] chuckles.” The Thomas, Bryan, and Culkin project is apparently a “really wonderful pilot that is sort of R rated,” as described by Thomas and Bryan’s former Home Improvement co-star Patricia Richardson on a Reddit AMA in 2016.

Jonathan Taylor Thomas regrets nothing

Jonathan Taylor Thomas doesn’t regret leaving the spotlight. In 2013, he told People that since he’d been working nonstop since he was just a kid, he was badly in need of “a bit of a break.” He wanted to go to school, see the world, and try new things. And that’s just what he did.

As of this writing, the last time JTT was on a red carpet was back in 2003, according to PopSugar. The actor has no social media accounts — none that are available to the public, at least. No one is even exactly sure where he lives. “I never took the fame too seriously,” he said in the same People interview. “It was a great period in my life, but it doesn’t define me.” He noted, “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.”

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