A 3-D version of “The Lion King” -- the animated movie first released 17 years ago -- has now taken the top spot at the box office two weekends in a row. That unlikely feat has prompted many questions in Hollywood circles: How has the 1994 film had such enduring cultural appeal? Will studios now begin re-releasing a glut of older titles in 3-D? And -- obviously most important -- what in the name of Tool Time happened to Jonathan Taylor Thomas, the one-time teen pinup who gave mellifluous voice to young Simba in the film?
As a former teenybopper who, admittedly, plastered JTT’s visage all over my bedroom walls, that last question had been haunting me for some time. Ever since he left his role on the popular sitcom “Home Improvement” to pursue higher education in 1998, JTT hadn't been seen much in public. I remember my middle-school friends and I feeling bereft when he decided to put acting on hold to attend college. For years, we had persuaded our parents to purchase issues of BOP magazine for us at Walgreens so we could tear out the JTT posters inside.
We had dreamed about what it would be like to one day grow up and marry him, collecting treasures together along the beach (just like he did with Farrah Fawcett in "Man of the House," of course).
But while a few years out of the spotlight would have been tolerable, 13 JTT-less years had become, frankly, too much to bear. Where had this modern-day J.D. Salinger disappeared to?
So I was quite pleased when, earlier this month, a new photo of JTT surfaced. Entertainment Weekly had somehow managed to lure the 30-year-old out of his cave for a “Home Improvement” reunion photo shoot. They'd even conducted a brief Q&A with him!
Alas, the interview offered little insight into the actor's current life. He said he’s been “going to school, and traveling quite a bit, getting to read a lot of books.” Really? Even if he was boning up on the collected works of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, it shouldn't take that long, not for someone like JTT.
Desperate for information, I reached out to "Lion King" studio Disney. Might JTT want to do an interview to help promote the re-release, I inquired? Sadly, I was rebuffed. JTT, I was told, was not doing any press for the animated classic.
Broken but unbowed, I decided to email JTT’s agent. (Yes, he still has one, and she actually represents a handful of popular Young Hollywood stars.) Would her client be willing to do a quick interview with me? “Unfortunately, he is not interested in participating,” was the dispiriting response I soon received.
I called her up in the hope of getting more information. “He was in school at Harvard and Columbia and he took some time off,” she replied. “He’s getting back to work. I have no comment on what he’s doing now.”
Her response confused me. Sure, JTT hasn’t starred in a film that had been released theatrically since 1998’s “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” -– an underrated gem, by the way, in which a thwarted Christmas trip results in a journey of searing self-discovery. Could he be embarrassed that he hasn’t had a high-profile job in recent years? If so, that was nonsense. Nothing you do should ever bring you shame, JTT.
The next step was to ferociously search the IMDB listings of his former costars who might be in touch with him. Suddenly--like the bear that popped out of nowhere at JTT and his friends in the suspenseful denouement of "Wild America"--it appeared: the personal email address of Zachery Ty Bryan! Bryan played JTT's older brother on "Home Improvement" and was bound to know where his on-screen sibling had been hiding out. I was almost embarrassed I didn't think of it sooner.
I sent Bryan (or ZTB) a message inquiring about JTT's current life. He responded immediately with a bio of his own production company, saying only of his one-time fake sibling: "The EW shoot went great! It was wonderful to see everyone in person!"
JTT, if only you gave me that much.
I was out of options, and needed to get back to an assignment interviewing a young star who was, you know, actually relevant. My job often requires that I talk to the tweens popular with today's younger generation -- Justin Bieber, Taylor Lautner, Zac Efron. I’m often perplexed by the obsession with them. After my Nancy Drew impersonation of the past six hours, however, it seemed just a little bit harder to pass judgment.
Photo: Jonathan Taylor Thomas in 1998's "I'll Be Home for Christmas," the most recent feature-length film he's appeared in on the big screen. Credit: Alan Markfield