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Home Improvement Actors You May Not Know Passed Away

For the last decade of the 20th century, "Home Improvement” was a reliably pleasant, well-rated ABC family sitcom embraced by millions of American households. The show chronicled the ups and some downs of the suburban Detroit Taylor clan, with an accident prone TV personality father (Tim Allen, whose stand-up routine was the basis for the show), mostly understanding wife (Patricia Richardson), and three boys (all played by actors with triple names: Taran Noah Smith, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Zachery Ty Bryan) to rear and raise. With the help of their wise neighbor (Earl Hindman), handyman sidekick (Richard Karn), "tool girls" (Pamela Anderson, and later Debbe Dunning), friends and family, things needed fixing and they used all the (Binford) tools at their disposal to build them back up over 8 seasons and 204 episodes.

"Tool Time" was the home improvement show within the show "Home Improvement," and both shows made a star out of Tim Allen, an actress out of Pamela Anderson, a mystery out of what Earl Hindman's face actually looked like and a video game for Super Nintendo. "Improvement" also gave us that signature gruffly grunt Tim Taylor constantly used to reinforce his manliness, putting to shame all other grunts in the world. The show garnered 34 Emmy nominations, and won 7 (mainly in the "Lighting Direction" category — because whenever anybody thinks back on the show, the first thing they marvel at is how well it was lit).

"Home Improvement" closed up shop in 1999, but continues on in heavy syndication to this day. As with any show that runs for over 200 episodes, its fanbase came to love the charming characters it visited with week after week — and like any show that has been off the air for multiple decades, some beloved characters are no longer with with us today. So, let's look back and say farewell to the "Home Improvement" actors you may not know passed away.

Earl Hindman as Wilson W. Wilson Jr.

When Tim and his family sought advice or needed to vent, they often went into their backyard and talked things over with their ever dependable, omniscient and plainspoken philosophic neighbor Wilson W. Wilson, played by Earl Hindman. 

The character was based on Tim Allen's childhood neighbor, who was too short to see over the fence, as well as the mythopoetic men's movement leader and writer Robert Bly. Wilson was forever obscured by a fence and a hat, which was the show's long-running gag that grew even more complicated and humorous as they let him out of the house and into the world more often. After (mostly) appearing in every episode, his face was finally revealed to the audience in the series finale curtain call.

Not being fully seen on camera initially upset Hindman's own mother, but she settled into his role and then would get upset when she could see his face. "I'm becoming the best-known unknown actor," Hindman said. But he certainly enjoyed the anonymity — "I like being able to go out and not be recognized and harassed like everybody else would be."

Hindman's face started to get recognized back in the '70s, coming into sight in "The Parallax View," dishing on the soap "The Doctors," causing train delays in "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three," and later playing Johnny Cash's brother in the 1983 TV movie "Murder in Coweta County," and J.T. in "Silverado." Outside of "Home Improvement," his most well-known role was detective Bob Reid on the soap "Ryan's Hope," where a haircut for another project once caused a brouhaha with the show's producers. Fittingly, his final contribution to television was lending his voice as the narrator of the "Tim Allen Presents: A User's Guide to 'Home Improvement'" retrospective from 2003. That same year, Hindman died of lung cancer, at age 61.

Earlier this year, Tim Allen paid tribute to Wilson on his other hit sitcom "Last Man Standing," where his character Mike Baxter meets his old one, Tim Taylor.

Mickey Jones as Pete Bilker

In a kill or be killed type profession, drummer turned actor Mickey Jones estimated in 2009 that he had killed 137 people and had been killed 92 times — on screens big and small. In one of his numerous roles, he was killing it in a funny way on "Home Improvement," as K&B Construction worker Pete "That Would Be Me" Bilker for 13 episodes. 

Pete rocked out with Tim and the "Tool Time" gang, cooking and drinking up a storm in honor of St. Patrick and the Super Bowl, playing in a band using tools as instruments (he swapped out drumsticks for screwdrivers), and once even watched Tim fall into a port-a-John on a job site. Talk about your potty humor!

"If I could say just one thing about Mickey Jones at the end of the day," no less than Billy Bob Thornton once said of Jones, "he's truly an ambassador for the entertainment business."

Jones' entertainment business journey began on the music side as a drummer for Trini Lopez, then for Johnny Rivers, where he provided the backing beat to the hit "Secret Agent Man." Next, he replaced Levon Helm behind the kit and toured with Bob Dylan on his landmark 1966 world tour, and "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)" with Kenny Rogers and the First Edition (he and Rogers were born at the same Houston hospital). An apparent Forrest Gump of the entertainment industry for multiple decades, Jones seemed to be everywhere, including appearing in the gatefold photo, standing behind The Eagles inside the "Hotel California" LP.

"I had always dreamed of being an actor, so I went for it," Jones said of his change of mediums. Roles as bearded tough guys, bikers, and nice bearded guys who sometimes ride bikes followed, in fare like the "V" mini-series, "National Lampoon's Vacation," "Total Recall," "Sling Blade," and later on in his career, the series "Justified." Jones died at age 76 in 2018.

Shirley Prestia as Delores

Tim's buddy Harry (Blake Clark) owns a hardware store, which is a place where Mr. Tool Time enjoys his off time. However, it's not usually fun when Harry's wife Delores is around to bust his chops, argue with him over everything, and giving him "The Look." 

Delores was played by comedian Shirley Prestia, and the role ended up being one of the biggest of her career. A memorable episode found her working at the store, driving everyone insane, which led to Tim giving Harry bad advice that, in turn, dissolved his marriage. Tim realizes he's done wrong, works to fix that and make the title of the episode ring true: "When Harry Kept Dolores."

Prestia was one of the founding members of the Los Angeles based improv and sketch comedy troupe and school The Groundlings, where she yukked it up in the '70s on stage alongside legends Paul "Pee Wee Herman" Ruebens, Phil Hartman, Laraine Newman, Edie McClurg and Cassandra "Elvira" Peterson. She went on to a steady career of guest starring and bit parts in sitcoms such as "The Golden Girls," "The Facts of Life," "Cheers," "The Fanelli Boys" (where she crossed paths with fellow "Home Improvement" alum Ann Morgan Guilbert) and "Dharma & Greg" as well as dramas like "NYPD Blue," "Babylon 5," and the films "Hoffa," "Species," "Wag The Dog," and "Leave It to Beaver" — where Tim Allen made a cameo appearance as Tim Taylor.

After an 8 year battle with brain cancer, Prestia died in 2011 at age 64.

Dick O'Neill as Art Leonard

The titular "Ye Olde Shoppe Teacher" that inspired a young Timothy Taylor to a life of "more power" pays his prized pupil a visit three times in consecutive seasons. 

Portrayed by Dick O'Neill, Art Leonard first arrives as a shell of himself, not even able to operate heavy machinery due to his arthritis. Next, in "That's My Momma," he made wanted advances on Tim's mom (Bonnie Bartlett, still with us at age 91), which were unwanted by the son. Things got even iffier when Tim caught Mr. Leonard "shopping around" with another woman, and confronted him about it thusly: "So, one hammer's not good enough for you?" But, all ended well with some kissing and making up.

Straight talking men of authority, with a tinge of a smile, were the types of characters O'Neill excelled at playing. He served the public playing fictional policemen, detectives, army personnel, commissioners, wardens and judges in a wide range of shows like "Car 54, Where Are You?" "Barney Miller," "Sanford and Son," "Diff'rent Strokes," "M*A*S*H," and "Family Matters." For 26 episodes, he played Sharon Gless' pops on "Cagney & Lacey." Never usually the star, he supported others well, like carnival barker Steve Martin in "The Jerk," Jack Nicholson in "Prizzi's Honor," and Harrison Ford in "The Mosquito Coast." He even tangled with Earl Hindman before, in "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three" as subway dispatcher Frank Correll.

O'Neill died of heart failure in 1998 at age 70.

Al Fann as Felix Myman

Master plumber Felix Myman was a key figure for six episodes of "Home Improvement," showing up to the Taylor household for all of the family's "plumbing disasters." He once even got in the crossfire of a caulking gun battle between Tim and Al on "Tool Time."

Felix was played by Al Fann, a productive actor and student of theatre, who even founded his own namesake Theatrical Ensemble to train and develop "a group of highly professional young people emanating from a grass-roots base of raw talents, determined wills and a zest to be something." Some of his Ensemble's student alumni include Janet Jackson, Kim Fields, Laurence Fishburne, and Jaleel White. The Ensemble even provided background vocals for the Stevie Wonder song "Black Man."

Fann's professional breakthrough came in 1953 on "The Bob Hope Network Television Show," and wrapped up in the Coen Brothers 2004 remake of "The Ladykillers." In between, he popped up in "The French Connection," "Good Times," "The Jeffersons," "Happy Days," "Webster," "Dynasty," "Naked Gun 2 ½: The Smell of Fear," "The Fisher King," and "Curb Your Enthusiasm." He passed away in 2018 at age 93.

Tom Poston as Fred / Ned / Ted

Milquetoast Tom Poston is perhaps the most prolific comedic actor to appear on TV sitcoms, so it's no shock that his resume included ratcheting it up on "Home Improvement" three different times. 

He first showed up as a multi-hyphenated desk clerk named Fred trying to "help" a snowed-in Tim and Al get home in "'Twas The Night Before Christmas." The next season he played Fred's brother Ned, a "helpful" auto shop owner who allows it to become a delivery room in "The Tool Man Delivers." Fred and Ned's brother Ted ("You look awfully familiar — have we met before?") is the Taylor's personal guide at the annual Detroit Lions Thanksgiving day game, although this time around, it's Tim who is of no "help," knocking out the stadium's electricity.

Steve Allen, Don Knotts, Bob Newhart, Tim Conway — these are among the revered comedy legends that worked with and greatly respected the talents of Poston, and yet he may not be as appreciated as many of his contemporaries were. Poston's career thrived on supporting work, early on in theater, and his television resume read like a what's what of sitcom history — "The Phil Silvers Show," "Get Smart," "Mork & Mindy," "Newhart," "The Simpsons," "Murphy Brown," and "Will & Grace." While not a giant film actor, he did make some leaps to the big screen, including spending another Christmastime with Tim Allen as Father Zabriskie in 2004's "Christmas with the Cranks." He was even married to sitcom royalty, spending his final years with Suzanne Pleshette. Poston passed on in 2007, at the age of 85.

Ann Morgan Guilbert as Wilson's Mother

Ann Morgan Guilbert was only 14 years older than Earl Hindman when she showed up to play the woman who brought Wilson Jr. into the world for the Mother's Day-themed episode "To Build or Not to Build." Wilson flew her in from the Yukon and the two were excited to celebrate in Greektown with plenty of Ouzo, but before they headed out, they imparted wisdom and motherly gift ideas to Tim on behalf of his boys. Wilson's mama wasn't tall enough to see over the fence, so she talked with her hands, which lead Tim to quip, "I see where Wilson gets his good looks."

A "D" grade in Chemistry at Stanford led this nursing student to switch majors to speech and drama, and Guilbert's long career on stage and screen began. 

Her first big role was playing neighbor Millie Helper on "The Dick Van Dyke Show," and off the set she was rather close with costar Mary Tyler Moore (they enjoyed playing the word game Perquackey). She played Nora for ten episodes on "The New Andy Griffith Show," mother to Joe Pantoliano and Christopher Meloni on "The Fanelli Boys," talked fresh produce with Burgess Meredith in "Grumpier Old Men," guest starred in both "Seinfeld" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm," and memorably played a grandmother on "The Nanny," "Modern Family," and in Nicole Holofcener's Independent Spirit Award winning 2010 film "Please Give."

Guilbert acted up until her death in 2016, when she died of cancer at age 87. A mother herself, she is survived by two daughters, including actress Hallie Todd, who played the mother on "Lizzie McGuire."

Wendie Jo Sperber as Sue

As the clock started to run out on "Home Improvement," things got a bit corrosive and explosive in the show's three part finale "The Long and Winding Road." A new producer of "Tool Time” wanted to spice things up, put the tools down and do a talk-only program. 

What he actually did was stage a Jerry Springer-like three ring circus with Butch's wife Sue claiming she had been sleeping with Dan, inciting an on-set brawl. Brassy-mouthed Sue, played with high intensity by Wendie Jo Sperber, came out swinging and ended up kicking Tim in the chin. The ratings stunt left Tim furious, questioning whether to go on with the show.

Sperber broke into Hollywood as a scene-stealer right off the bat in Robert Zemeckis' Beatlemania pic from 1978, "I Wanna Hold Your Hand." She would reteam with Zemeckis and join Steven Spielberg for "1941," "Used Cars," and the first and third installments of "Back To The Future," where she notably played Marty McFly's disinterested sister Linda. She also collaborated with Tom Hanks on the TV show "Bosom Buddies," and two years later in "Bachelor Party."

Sperber's time with "Home Improvement," and life, were both unfortunately short lived (she died of breast cancer in 2005, at the age of 47), but she got a kick out of it and many other parts she played over 27 years. She had the "willingness to go the extra mile for the comedy no matter how it made you look," reflected former "Buddies" castmate Telma Hopkins.