True story behind star’s disappearance
It was the hair, really.
Don't get me wrong - Jonathan Taylor Thomas was cute. But cute looks and a winning grin aren't enough to earn you pride of place, courtesy of Dolly magazine cut-out-and-keep posters. All truly good teen idols have something extra, that je ne sais quoi that causes adolescent girls to swoon.
For Jonathan Taylor Thomas, it was the hair.
Because the hair was good: honey-coloured and golden, just the right amount of floppy and cut in two massive bunches on either side of his preternaturally cute head, like a miniature Leonardo DiCaprio.
The hair stole the show on Home Improvement; the hair was irrepressibly cheeky in Man of the House; the hair that wasn't visible, though whose cuteness was nevertheless implied, in his voice performance in The Lion King. The hair was the thing!
But when your hair is so much a part of your visual identity, it's hard to grow up and, eventually, out of it.
JTT (as he was known) did exactly that, cutting those floppy tufts back into a frosted crop that, as he got older, faded into a darker brown than the golden locks he was so known for.
The last time the actor was seen on-screen, in a guest appearance on Home Improvement co-star Tim Allen's sitcom Last Man Standing, the hair was chocolate brown and pouffed back. (This, I barely need to add, is not teen idol cut-out-and-keep poster hair.)
Since then, Thomas has not appeared on a single television or film screen.
We need to ask ourselves: what happened to Jonathan Taylor Thomas' hair? Because the answer to that question will also reveal what happened to the star himself.
THE EARLY DAYS
Thomas' rise to child star fame is remarkably similar to many of his peers. Born Jonathan Taylor Weiss (the Thomas was his brother's name, borrowed as a stage name), he was raised by a single mother after his parents split. She moved the family to Los Angeles when Thomas was just a kid.
Hollywood came knocking early. Thomas was cast first in The Adventures of Spot and In Living Colour, in which he played his fellow child star Macaulay Culkin in a sketch, before landing the nine-year gig that would catapult him to fame: Home Improvement.
When the aliens escape Area 51 (as they are apparently threatening to do) and look for a microcosm of each decade, someone will hand them Home Improvement to represent the '90s. The sitcom, starring Allen as a regular, tool-loving dad in downtown Detroit, was based off Allen's stand-up comedy and became one of the most popular television series of the decade. It launched the careers of Allen, Pamela Anderson (who starred as Allen's sexy assistant Lisa) and, of course, Thomas.
The actor was just nine when he was cast in the role that would come to dominate his (and almost every adolescent on the planet's) teen years. After that, he became instantly recognisable in a way child stars often are, so much so he was cast to voice young Simba in the 1996 Disney cartoon The Lion King.
"He's a lot like me," Thomas said, as reported on his (still live, and last updated in November 2018) fan site TotallyJTT.net. "He's real curious, fun-loving, always getting into mischief."
The role was a large one, expected to shoulder the enormous emotional burden of the film as - spoiler alert, but you've seen The Lion King, right? - young Simba has to witness the death of his father Mufasa and be told (erroneously) by his treasured uncle Scar it was all his fault. Producers fell in love with Thomas' emotive voice as soon as they heard it. As soon as he was cast, Thomas was under strict instructions to protect his voice by refraining from shouting and drinking lots of hot lemon with honey. This routine - protecting the voice, flying from Los Angeles to Florida and back again for voice recordings - would go on for two years before the film was finished and premiered in 1996.
After The Lion King was over, Thomas returned to Home Improvement, as he did every year until 1998. On Home Improvement, Thomas starred as middle child Randy, a natural comic and actor who was the perfect foil to both of his parents on the show. He would go on to feature in every season until the eighth and final one, when Randy vacated the family house for a study-abroad program in Costa Rica. His last episode was the Christmas special, and Thomas did not return for the television show's final episode in May 1999.
WHY THOMAS LEFT HOLLYWOOD
The reason for Thomas' absence was the curse that plagues almost every child actor: he needed a break.
Some child actors deal with the endless parade of attention and spectacle of their youth with addiction and other unhealthy coping mechanisms. Thomas just wanted some time away from the spotlight.
Because he really was in the spotlight. In 1994, his mother Claudine told PEOPLE Thomas received so many fan letters she couldn't answer them all personally, and she was thinking of hiring an employee to assist her.
He worked almost 10-hour days on the set of Home Improvement and then spent his summer vacations on movie projects, like Man of the House. "You have school, friends, learning your lines and making sure your performance is up to speed," Thomas told PEOPLE in 1994. "I can't tell you how many shows I've done with full-blown migraine headaches."
In interviews, Thomas often tried to reckon with the meaning of his fame. "I get swamped with fan letters, and I do read them," he said. "I appreciate each and every letter. I feel bad that kids take the time and effort to write stuff that comes from deep down in their hearts. It's real important stuff. I'd love to sit down and write a two-page letter to each one, and if I had the time, believe me, I would."
Instead, Thomas would give his fans time in person. As his fan site TotallyJTT delightfully recalled, Thomas would travel all across America for autograph sessions, and he never left before every single fan had their time with him. JTT's motto? "I never want to disappoint anyone."
Add to that the great hordes of girls following Thomas around Los Angeles, hoping for a glimpse of him in the wild, and no wonder he felt overwhelmed enough to quit Hollywood. (Yes, girls did this. There's a whole section about how to meet Thomas and, crucially, what to say to him if you do on TotallyJTT.net, a website I have now spent too much time on.
"Just remember, treat Jonathan just like any other friend, because that's just what he wants to be, your friend," they advised super fans.)
Later, Thomas summed up his desire for distance from Hollywod, saying: "I'd been going non-stop since I was eight years old," he told PEOPLE in 2013. "I wanted to go to school, to travel and have a bit of a break."
That's exactly what Thomas did. He enrolled first at Harvard before travelling to St Andrews University in Scotland, where he was a contemporary of Prince William and Kate Middleton. ("Prince William may have won over a legion of female fans, but his status as the teenagers' undisputed heart-throb at St Andrews University is now under threat,"The Scotman reported at the time.)
Thomas loved being a student. "To sit in a big library among books and students, that was pretty cool. It was a novel experience for me," he told PEOPLE.
Remember, that for eight years while working on Home Improvement, Thomas had to juggle regular school hours with being on the ABC backlot and ready to film his scenes as Randy. According to his own estimate, he only made it to his Los Angeles Public School "one week out of every four". Not to mention that for the first two seasons of the hit show, Thomas and his two on-screen siblings were told to spend their recreation time playing in the unused - and unsafe - parts of the set and sit in directors' chairs that were chained together at all times. (The conditions got so bad that at one point all three boys went on strike, refusing to turn up for work until they were given a safe and professional working environment.)
It's no surprise, then, Thomas embraced the anonymity and normality of walking around a college campus. In 2013, he told PEOPLE the break was exactly what he needed.
"I never took the fame too seriously," he said. "It was a great period in my life, but it doesn't define me. 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."
With university over, Thomas returned to Hollywood in a small way, with voice roles in The Wild Thornberries and guest parts in Ally McBeal, Smallville and Veronica Mars. There were a few movies, like Walking Across Egypt and Speedway Racer. But for the most part, before Thomas' return to television in Last Man Standing alongside his Home Improvement co-star Allen, he was absent from screens.
So, what was he doing? Partly, he was living a normal life. He was living in Los Angeles, going hiking, eating vegetarian food, watching movies and going to the theatre. Occasionally, a fan would spot him at the mall or buying groceries and would blast it on Twitter. But, mostly, Thomas retreated from the public eye. He didn't appear on red carpets. He shied away from press events.
He was only lured back onto television by Allen, who had a part for a character on his mid-noughties sitcom Last Man Standing he thought Thomas would be perfect for. It was also an opportunity for Thomas to try his hand at a true passion of his: directing.
"The character expanded more and more as he got on set," Allen told Yahooin 2013. "He got into it, but again, this is a kid that's really intelligent. He likes directing, he loves this business, but he's not sure that this is what he wants to do. We certainly would like him to come back (on camera) because he does a great job. He's fighting it, but everybody loved him."
Thomas went on to direct three episodes of Last Man Standing, including one in 2016.
Since then, he hasn't directed anything new, though he was inducted onto the SAG-AFTRA board in 2017.
But back in 2011, Thomas admitted to Entertainment Weekly being out of the spotlight and behind the camera was his true ambition. "I think at this point, I'd eventually like to work behind the camera," he said. "That's not to say I would never act again. I'm not quite sure, to be honest. I still have a passion for TV and film (and) could see myself working in it."
Today, Thomas is 37 years old. He has no social media accounts, or no public ones at least. No one quite knows which city he lives in. As a teenager, he once admitted reading "the out-of-state real estate ads" for fun. "I eventually want to move out of LA. I wouldn't mind going back to the East Coast. I'm from Pennsylvania. But I don't know if I could take the winters."
The last time he was on-screen was in 2013. The last time he was spotted by paparazzi was in Los Angeles in August of that same year. (The hair was chocolate brown.)
The last time he was on a red carpet was in 2003. Thomas has all but disappeared from public life.
But the teens of the '90s remember him. "Remember all the girls, how they loved him?" Allen wondered aloud to Yahoo in 2013. "A couple of them (from Last Man Standing) said they had posters of him on the wall of their bedrooms."
"It was so funny," Allen continued. "Because they go, 'Is he here?' I go, 'Yeah, he's standing right behind you'."
Hannah-Rose Yee is a freelance writer. Continue the conversation @hannahroserose