Twenty-five years after Nala and Simba inspired many an unexpected sexual awakening, a new version of The Lion King arrives in theaters this week. Tragically, it does not feature a cameo by the original voice of Young Simba: the man, the myth, the M.I.A. legend that is Jonathan Taylor Thomas.
A floppy-haired moppet of a child actor with a chain-smoker's rasp, JTT reached a stratospheric level of teen idoldom usually reserved for pop stars and boy bands. When painstakingly arranged compositions of Bop and Tiger Beat's finest centerfolds papered tween bedrooms across the nation, his face commandeered the lion's share of 90s real estate. (The average makeup, based purely on my own experience, was 80 percent Thomas, 20 percent Devon Sawa and a gratuitous rotating corner for Andrew Keegan or the kid from Free Willy.)
And then–in his late teens, right around the time of Y2K—he quit Home Improvement, did a couple of indie films, and vanished completely.
Now 37, he hasn't walked a red carpet in 15 years, and has made only a few on-screen appearances. He didn't run from a massive scandal or have a public breakdown, so why did the world's foremost teen idol disappear?
Let's take it from the top
Jonathan Taylor Thomas was born Jonathan Taylor Weiss in the not-so-little town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, on September 8, 1981, and raised in Sacramento, California. After his parents split, he moved with his brother Joel and mom/manager to Los Angeles, where he finally broke into Hollywood at the ripe age of eight and adopted his brother's middle name as his new last name.
As Thomas began to book modelling gigs and commercials, it became clear to everyone that this was a septuagenarian trapped in the body of a photogenic child star. A devout vegetarian, he was a self-described catch-and-release "fly-fishing nut" who, according to an Angelfire fan page, once caught an 80-pound halibut. He was small for his age and talked like a cool but world-weary philosopher patiently waiting for everyone to get on his level. Which, apparently, was exactly what casting agents adored.
The tiny talent landed his first big role in 1989 playing Greg Brady's son on a Brady Bunch spin-off series. Three episodes of In Living Color followed—including one disturbing "Home Alone Again" sketch in which he played Macaulay Culkin fending off an intruding Michael Jackson—before he scored his career-making gig as Randy Taylor on Home Improvement in 1991.
And here is where our story really begins.
A meteoric and migraine-filled rise
Home Improvement was an instant hit for ABC, and by 12, Thomas was the biggest tween star in America—and already suffering from burnout.
“You have school, friends, learning your lines and making sure your performance is up to speed,” he told People in 1994. “I can’t tell you how many shows I’ve done with full-blown migraine headaches.”
In addition to charming the nation as Tim Allen's wise-cracking middle son, he was also churning out family-friendly films on the side: The Lion King, 1995's Man of the House and Tom and Huck, The Adventures of Pinocchio in 1996, Wild America (a.k.a. Heartthrobs in Nature) in 1997 and I'll Be Home For Christmas with Jessica Biel and Robbie from 7th Heaven in 1998.
But Premiere magazine noted that while Hollywood wanted Thomas to be "the next Macaulay Culkin," he'd prefer to join the DGA and be "the next Ron Howard."
"How serious do you take this stuff? I mean, you should be focused on doing a good job, but… every job has an end," Thomas told the outlet when he was just 14. "I think most [fallen child stars] weren’t prepared for the end. I mean, it’s not the end of your life! You can’t base your life around one thing.”
OMG! It's JTT!
In retrospect, the writing was on the wall from Day One. He loved acting, but he hated the magazine covers. Hated the attention on his personal life. And he definitely hated being called JTT.
"I'm over that. I've always been over that," he politely told Conan O'Brien of his three-initial moniker in 1998.
In fact, looking back at old clips of him being alternately talked down to or fawned over by talk show hosts is painful. Somehow, Thomas spent years graciously answering a stream of inane questions like, "When's the last time Tim Allen took you out for lunch?" (David Letterman) and "Isn't Jonathan's hair the most beautiful color you've ever seen?" (Kathie Lee Gifford).
At a time when straightness was an assumed trait of the Teen Beat set, Thomas was never in a public relationship (though he reportedly dated Dr. Quinn's Jessica Bowman) and deftly dodged any questions about his dating life. He also faced unfettered media probing into his sexuality that would be unheard of for a celebrity, let alone teen star, today.
"Pretty much in Hollywood you're not anyone until it's rumored that you're gay, so I wasn't that upset about it," a 17-year-old Thomas said when Jay Leno asked if the speculation drove him "nuts" in 1998. "Not that there's anything wrong with it, but they're rumors and you should always be kind of careful with that internet stuff."
Leno then proceeded to directly ask him if he's gay.
"No, no, no, no, I'm not. I'm not," Thomas replied, laughing.
Leno hospitably added, "If you want to come out, it's fine."
Two years later, Thomas negated the rumors again in a cover story for The Advocate tied to his roles as a persecuted gay teen in Showtime's Common Ground and a bisexual hustler in indie flick Speedway Junky.
Those slightly edgier parts were the extent of his rebellion against his squeaky clean image. He never emancipated himself from his parents or went on an underage bender at the Viper Room. He even reportedly turned down Jason Biggs' part in American Pie.
Instead, Thomas represented a wholesome, parent-approved version of the 90s and, by all accounts, that's who he was: a well-spoken introvert ( People once labeled him a "Smart Throb") who didn't like the Hollywood scene and struggled with the implications of his fame. For a solid decade, he couldn't go anywhere without an army of teen girls hanging on his oversized sweater du jour. They found him on the backwoods Canada set of Wild America and mid-candle lighting inside St. Patrick's Cathedral.
''You are a part of their life, and there is a lot that is owed them,'' he told the New York Times of his rabid fandom in 1997. ''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.''
Taylor vs. Taylor
The most controversial thing Thomas ever did was snub the Home Improvement series finale.
Two years after his Emmy-deserving cancer scare episode, he chose to leave the sitcom at the start of its eighth and final season. As Randy Taylor jetted off to Costa Rica on an environmental study, Thomas happily returned to his private Los Angeles high school.
At the time, he said he didn't appear on the May 1999 finale because he was "back east" looking at prospective colleges and "the whole timing thing didn't work out." But reports swirled of an outraged Tim Allen and a disappointed cast.
“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?" Allen told TV Guide. "…I mentioned [publicly] that I was confused. I don’t think he liked that.”
Richard Karn, who played Al Borland, expressed concern over Thomas' autonomy in the decision.
“Jonathan’s life at that point wasn’t necessarily all his own life," Karn said in 2016. "His mom was also deciding what he should or shouldn’t do. That comes down to a particular parental guidance idea that she had. I think Jonathan really would have rather done the episode.”
Mother knows best?
Thomas and his mother, Claudine Gonsalves, were undoubtedly close. Nearly every talk show appearance of his included an anecdote involving her, she answered his fan mail, and filmmakers often recalled her constant presence on set. Still, the extent of her control over her son is unclear.
Message boards and comment sections are filled with fans convinced Gonsalves is the real reason he fled the spotlight. Unsubstantiated claims of her being fiercely protective, controlling and foisting an unhealthy codependency on her son abound. But Premiere observed in 1994 that he was "watched over by a mother seemingly more intent on the development of his brain and heart than his bank account," and the New York Times made a point to note in 1997 that "Mr. Thomas has worked steadily in high-profile projects with the support, but not the interference, of his family."
The Lion King's co-director Roger Allers recalled how he drew on their bond to get enough emotion out of Thomas to react to Mufasa's death.
“Since his mother was always there, and I knew they must be close," Allers told Premiere. "I used her as an example: ‘Think of how this would feel: You’ve just seen your mother fall into a river and now you’ve found her washed up.’" And although Simba's first line in the scene is a heartbreaking "Dad!," Allers said, "‘Let’s go,’ dimmed the lights… and Jonathan said, ‘Mom!’”
Whatever the case, Thomas never expressed any regret over bowing out of Home Improvement early.
"Had I stayed at the show and tried to do academically what I'm doing now," he told the press after his 1999 Kids' Choice Award win, "I would have put myself in an early grave."
Hitting the Ivy League
The aughts were a time of change and discovery for our young hero. In 2000, a 19-year-old Thomas enrolled at Harvard University, where he spent two years studying philosophy and history. He also studied abroad at St. Andrews in Scotland, which the local paper warned put fellow student Prince William's "undisputed heart-throb" status at risk.
Thomas left Harvard in 2002, but eventually returned to academia and graduated (as Jonathan Weiss) from Columbia University's School of General Studies in 2010. "JTT is actually a pretty smart guy, and a good writer," read a rave review from one purported CU classmate.
Despite Kathie Lee Gifford's love of his sandy blonde (dyed) hair, College Jon went brunette and made time for guest roles on Ally McBeal, Smallville, 8 Simple Rules, and Veronica Mars through the first half of the decade. He also worked steadily as a voice actor for several animated TV films and The Wild Thornberrys.
Rumors and sightings
For a wildly famous star who spent time on three different campuses, remarkably little leaked of his collegiate affairs. But reports of Thomas' general activities over the last 20 years range from the sweet and mundane to the oh-please-god-don't-let-it-be-true.
TMZ caught him exactly once: exiting Hollywood's ArcLight Cinemas, where he looked well preserved in tortoiseshell glasses, patiently signing photos and indulging random questions about Simba in 2013.
Redditors claim he used to be a regular at a few LA area dive bars where he always "seemed a little bit sad and distant," and on one Karaoke Tuesday at Los Feliz pub Ye Rustic Inn, "someone sang lion king [sic] and he left."
Since around 2010, Twitter users have also periodically reported sightings of Thomas in Vancouver, indicating he may be at least a part-time resident there, where he enjoys shopping, drinking coffee in a hat and sunglasses, and looking "kind of like a mountain man."
Now, for the troubling: Several sites allege that he voiced a fetus(!) in an anti-abortion ad. If he did, the video and concrete details surrounding it are virtually nowhere to be found online. Although Tim Allen is a noted conservative, JTT has never publicly spoken about his political or religious leanings, and a rep for Thomas did not respond to my request for confirmation.
A timid resurgence
Around the time of his 30th birthday, Thomas began slowly venturing back to his roots.
In 2011, he consented to a Home Improvement reunion photoshoot for Entertainment Weekly, which marked the first time the rest of the cast had seen him since his departure from the series in 1998.
Any hard feelings were seemingly resolved, and soon after he joined Tim Allen on the set of his sitcom Last Man Standing, guest starring in four episodes and directing another three, most recently in 2016.
"He's just been on the set all the time," Allen said in 2013. "But he's so shy… 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."
JTT is dead. Long live Jonathan Taylor Thomas!
For now, Thomas is quietly doing Hollywood his way.
In 2017, he was elected by his peers to the SAG-AFTRA National Board. His Home Improvement brother Zachary Ty Bryan says they're working on a project together with Macaulay Culkin, possibly an R-rated pilot of sorts. And it seems highly likely Thomas will continue down the path of directing and finally get that DGA card he's dreamed of for so long.
“I’d been going nonstop since I was eight years old,” he told People in 2013. “I never took the fame too seriously. 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.”
He really hated the magazine covers.