This Old House: An Oral History

On its 30th anniversary, the creators, cast, and (mostly) lucky homeowners of This Old House reveal what the cameras haven’t shown—from how the series almost didn’t get off the ground to who really foots the bill for all those jaw-dropping renovations.

In 2003 Steve Thomas left the show and was replaced by Kevin O’Connor, a mortgage broker who had appeared as a homeowner on a segment of Ask This Old House. He so quickly connected with Tom Silva and the producers that he seemed like a natural choice to join the cast.

Morash: We were stripping wallpaper off Kevin’s house—which needed everything and he knew it—and I remember sort of, not helplessness, but his feeling that powerful forces were overtaking his time and finances. That was appealing. That’s what it’s all about: You take on too big a house, and you do too many things to it all at once, and you sit down at night and have a sip of wine and think, What did I get myself into? Kevin had a lot of that about him.

Silva: So I see Kevin’s toolbox and Russ goes, “What can you do with the tools?” I took his paintbrushes and hot-glued them to the inside of his cabinets. You open the cabinet door, all his paintbrushes were hanging neatly.

Kevin O’Connor (host): You’ve got to understand—it’s one thing to pull a gag on somebody, but this is my kitchen. What’s with that?

Burton: That’s Tommy. When he likes you, he picks on you.

O’Connor: When they first called and spoke to my wife, they didn’t say what they wanted. We sat around the table and talked about it that night. My wife said they were going to ask me to host. I was convinced Russ [Morash] needed a loan.

Burton: Kevin has, more than anyone else, built a relationship with these guys. In some ways, they mentor him, which is kind of cool.

 

In spite of all the budget overruns and the long nights spent pitching in on their renovations, homeowners inevitably develop a genuine sense of camaraderie with the cast and crew by the time that production wraps.

Liz Bagley (East Boston homeowner, 2006 season): I think that what’s so surprising is how suddenly it all ends. You get so used to having people here all the time. And then, there’s no one. We miss the guys.

Nolen: We had lunch with the guys every day. We would all sit up on the third floor, 8, 10, 12 of us all sitting on five-gallon drywall buckets. It was magnificent.

Trethewey: It’s so intense, and all of a sudden we’re gone. It’s like we leave a silver bullet on the countertop—Who were those guys?

Gallant: You feel very special while this is going on. You’ve got a bunch of people who are focused on making your house better—that’s pretty nice. Not only that, but several million people are watching it every week. If you can take it, it’s good for your psyche.

this old house

The newest generation of This Old House stars includes design consultant Carole Freehauf, left, and host Kevin O’Connor. (photographs by walter smith)

Thirty years on, This Old House has made a cultural impact beyond public television and turned its stars into unlikely icons. In the mid-1990s the ABC sitcom Home Improvement featured Tim Allen as a bumbling version of Bob Vila and Richard Karn as his able, flannel-clad assistant, a thinly veiled Norm Abram. Even the homeowners achieve a surprising level of fame.

Vila: The Disney people contacted me before Home Improvement premiered. I think there was some concern in the legal department about whether I was being ripped off. The fact is, it’s a sitcom based on me and Norm, you know?

Carole Freehauf (design correspondent, pictured right): It could be my dentist or the woman who cuts my hair—you find people all over the place who know This Old House.

Silva: You go into a store, you go into a home center, a mall, airport, wherever—it doesn’t matter where you go, somebody will always say something about the show.

Morash: There are Norm look-alike contests where guys grow beards, put on glasses, and wear plaid shirts.

Abram: In the early shows you’ll see me in solid-color shirts, and I would have plaid shirts when it was really cold. Russ was the one who said, “You know, plaids, they work really well; you should wear the plaids.” I said okay, went out and bought myself a bunch of plaid shirts. Now I can’t not put one on.

Nolen: We’ll be standing at Logan waiting for a cab, and somebody will go, “I really like that kitchen.”

Bagley: I was in Paris and some couple came up to me. I didn’t know what they said—it was in French—but it ended with “This Old House.”

Abram: It’s hard to believe 30 years have gone by. A few weeks ago my wife and I went into the Whole Foods in Bedford. This gentleman was there with two children. He’s holding one, one is in the shopping cart. As soon as I walked in the door, the boy who was in the shopping cart recognized me. He turned around and looked at his father, and his father said, “It’s okay, you can talk to him.” So he goes, “Hi, Norm.” I say, “Oh, hi.” And he said, “How did you get out of the TV?”

 

This oral history included reporting by Ian Aldrich.

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