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 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.
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?”
Staff writer Francis Storrs profiled personal-injury lawyer James Sokolove in the January issue. This oral history included reporting by Ian Aldrich.