Home Improvement’s Wilson: More Than Just Half a Head
If you were an avid sitcom fan in the 1990s, chances are you were glued to the television every Tuesday night to watch the antics of “Tim the Toolman” Taylor and his family and wacky friends on the hit entitled Home Improvement. The show, which ran for more than 8 years beginning in September 1991, was one of ABC’s most successful and highest-rated sitcoms ever because it was one of those shows the whole family could enjoy, with slapstick humor that appealed to children and more sophisticated jokes that kept the adults chuckling.
One of the most hilarious – and mysterious – characters in the cast of the show that launched the career of funny man Tim Allen was Dr. Wilson W. Wilson Jr., PhD, a neighbor of the Taylor’s who normally remained mostly hidden behind a fence or other prop during the scenes in which he spoke to Tim or another family member.
Wilson, it says, was inspired by a childhood memory of Tim Allen’s concerning a neighbor who would speak to him frequently but whom he could not see because he was simply too short. That simple memory created many of the show’s most memorable moments.
But who was that man behind the fence?
So, who played Wilson on Home Improvement? That man was Earl John Hindman, who was about 50-years-old at the time the show aired. Hindman didn’t really have any sitcom experience before he was cast in the ABC hit. He had been cast in fairly minor roles in a handful of movies made in the 70s and 80s, including The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, The Brinks Job, and Taps. Hindman’s longest-running gig was actually on a soap opera, Ryan’s Hope, where he played ex-police officer Bob Reid, a confirmed nice guy who was unlucky in love. He appeared in more than 450 episodes of that show between 1975 and 1989.
That means that by the time Home Improvement premiered, TV audiences were more than familiar with the face of Earl Hindman if they were soap fans. However, those who were first introduced to Hindman via Home Improvement didn’t get to see his full face for any length of time until the show’s final curtain call during the last episode that aired in 1999.
So why did they hide Wilson’s face?
The character of Dr. Wilson W. Wilson Jr. was portrayed as an intellect, quite opposite of his bumbling neighbor who always seemed to be making a mess of things. Wilson was supposedly born in Chicago but had traveled the world after receiving his degree in “Forgotten Languages and Cultures.” He often talked of traditions he had learned from various peoples he had visited or studied at the far reaches of the earth and would sometimes show artifacts from his travels. He also often spoke of his deceased wife, Catherine, or his favorite pet parrot, Mozart.
But Wilson’s favorite thing to do was to pepper Tim with advice via famous quotes or from his own words of wisdom garnered from his many experiences in life. He was the neighborhood philosopher, the guru, the man who seemed to know a little something about everything.
Given Tim some much-needed parental advice was one of his favorite pastimes, and he was usually right on the mark. Here’s an example:
“Tim, it’s not unusual for a father to want his sons to succeed. You know I’m reminded of what Wally Schirra, the astronaut, said, ‘You don’t raise heroes, you raise sons, but if you treat them as sons, they’ll turn out to be heroes, even if it’s just in your own eyes’.”
So, why didn’t they just let Wilson come out from behind the fence, bush, wall, rake, or whatever other prop obscured the lower half of his face? Well, the show’s producers never really gave a reason for this other than it’s comedic effect, but many have hypothesized that Wilson was meant to be a sort of “God figure”; a person to whom Tim could turn for sage advice and a neighborly pep talk. It seems a good theory!
Sadly, Home Improvement was the end of the road for Earl Hindman, a long-time smoker who died of lung cancer in 2003. Nevertheless, his character – though he often appeared for less than 5 minutes of screen time per episode – will remain one of the most memorable in sitcom history.