USA WEEKEND visits the set to find out why this heartthrob is leaving TV’s “Home Improvement” to prep for college.

In this article:

  • Child star from Bethlehem
  • Maintaining control of his life
  • Other stars who have gone to college

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Teen star Jonathan Taylor Thomas returns to Home Improvement for Christmas on Tuesday, as his character, Randy Taylor, meets with disillusionment during a family homecoming. “You guys are getting on with your lives,” Randy says. “I’m having a hard time staying in step.”
The truth is, Thomas is the one getting on with his life. Now 17, he has been with the show since he did the pilot at age 9 in 1991. The holiday episode will be his last: He’s pulling the plug on what industry insiders estimate is no less than $50,000 a show to focus on his studies.
Yes, he’s heard all the incredulous reactions. “It is walking away from a lot, and I know that,” Thomas told USA Weekend last month on his last day of taping. But the decision to quit was really not a struggle. “”There were no ‘maybes.’ It wasn’t like: ‘If you do this, I won’t go to school.’ It was: ‘I’m going to school. This is what’s happening.’ ”
It’s not just about pursuing his love of academics, or finding out whether he wants a career outside of show business. Thomas wants to go to football games and homecoming dances. He wants to join clubs and argue about politics with his peers. “I don’t want to grow up in this business and only know this business.”

Child star from Bethlehem
Thomas, who was tutored on the set and is now a junior at a private school in Los Angeles, has set his sights on either an Ivy League college or Northwestern University. Not only are they top schools, but they’d take him away from the West Coast to cities that have real winters and the kind of wonderful old buildings he admires. “Coming from the East Coast, I miss that,” says Thomas, who lived in Bethlehem, Pa., until age 5, when his family moved to California to pursue his stardom. “You come out here and they say, ‘That’s an old building. It was built in the 1940s.’ It’s like, come on!”
Thomas lives with his mom, Claudine Thomas. She and his dad, Steve Weiss, are divorced, but Weiss also lives in California. Brother Joel, 21, is a college junior studying business.
Thomas’ mother says that education is a greater priority with him than fame and that the decision was entirely his. “He’s been described as an old soul,” she says. “He’s mature and insightful. He can be in the middle of a chaotic situation and it will not take him over. … Hollywood is not his entire life. He has his friends outside the scene. He attends church. … It’s part of his life.”
That’s not just puffery. Thomas proudly shows off his pink- and green-highlighted European history book. “Kinko’s loves me,” he says. “I’m highlighter nuts.” He’s waiting for his PSAT results and honestly anxious about taking the SAT. He wants to be accepted by a top school, but not because he’s a pinup.
“People have said, ‘Oh, you’re a celebrity and that will help you get into a school,’ ” Thomas says. “My answer has always been: ‘OK, great, so I get into a school based on my name. But how will I fare once I’m there? If I can’t be competitive, it’s a waste of my time.’ ”

“I’m maintaining control of my life”
The decision to walk away is loaded with risk. Certainly, young stars such as Jodie Foster and Brooke Shields left for college and returned to find success. But countless heartthrobs become whatever-happened-to fodder. “His decision is a most precarious one because he has a home base there,” says TV Guide‘s Matt Roush. “Every time you have a flop movie, you can always go back to the show. So he’s taking a chance on eroding his popularity.”
The only people surprised by Thomas’ decision are those who don’t know him. He repeatedly stresses that Hollywood is an industry, not a lifestyle. “I’m maintaining control of my life,” he says. The only jewelry he displays is a modest silver ring – on his finger, not some other body part. “I’d never let this business dominate me or my family. … Unless you control what you give and what you take, it will consume you.”
Like fellow child star Ron Howard, he’d love to direct, but says he might forsake Hollywood altogether for law or politics. Meanwhile, he plans to take on movie projects as long as they don’t interfere with his studies.
On his final day of Home Improvement, Thomas enjoys his last chance to cut up with his co-stars. His surprise entrance prompts big screams and applause from the live audience, as does his final bow. But as he walks on the Taylors’ carpeted steps for the last time, heading out the door, Thomas doesn’t look back. Like Randy Taylor, he found out a long time ago there’s a lot to discover in the world. Something beyond smash hits and stardom, a world with real snow on its rooftops.
Other actors and actresses who also went to college


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