Tim Allen, the lovable lug nut who totes the tool belt on ABC's mock-macho sitcom Home Improvement, isn't faking his famous passion for hardware. When the show, which debuted in 1991, made Allen TV's top talent faster than Lava soap cutting through axle grease, he promptly bought a compost shredder, a John Deere tractor, and a throbbing Mustang with 575 ripsnorting horses under the hood. ''Hammers, hardware I love that stuff,'' Allen confesses on the Improvement set. Yet he still craves the same thing his TV alter ego wants '' More power!''
And he may be about to get it. Not satisfied that the No. 1 show has bested Seinfeld and Frasier, Allen decided to pencil in to his schedule a movie career. His debut last week in The Santa Clause represents a risky departure from his tried-and-smasheroo TV persona. His Santa Clause character, Scott Calvin, an emotionally AWOL divorced father, falls short of the superdad he plays on TV. Before Calvin transmogrifies into St. Nick, ''He's more of a prick,'' says John Pasquin, director of The Santa Clause and, at one time, Home Improvement. In fact, in the original script, by Allen's fellow former stand-ups Steve Rudnick and Leo Benvenuti, Calvin guns down the real Santa when he catches him breaking into his house.
''I thought it was funny,'' Allen says of the earlier version. ''If it was up to me, I would've left it that way.'' But nightclub nihilism didn't spell holiday blockbuster to Disney, and Pasquin convinced Allen to subordinate Clause's edgy humor to the heartstring glissandi of its dad-and-lad- reconciliation plot.
Disney, which had done well by turning a dark script called 3000 into a sweet one called Pretty Woman, warmed to the revision but doled out the dollars with characteristic caution. Clause was shot in a sort of gigantic toolshed in Toronto, the relatively pinchpenny budget accommodating an epic North Pole toy factory but not a soundstage. ''It was awful!'' says Rudnick. ''You'd get tugboats and planes going by [delaying shooting because of noise]. The set was hot, kids (who played Santa's 125 elves) were passing out!'' Allen's fat suit gave him a heat rash. ''That Tim comes across as a jolly guy, knowing how miserable he was that's acting!''
But when Disney execs made a last-minute seven-figure addition to the budget, Tim thought, God bless us, every one! ''Disney put in a bunch more stuff, music and special effects,'' says Allen. ''Now nobody has to explain to their kids why [the effects] look so cheesy.'' Originally slated for Disney's Hollywood Pictures division (whose Egyptoid logo and wobbly record once inspired the cruel industry witticism ''If it's the Sphinx, it stinks''), the film now bears the prestigious Walt Disney Pictures imprimatur. As Home Improvement's Tim Taylor might triumphantly observe, ''Arrgh! Arrgh! Arrgh!''
Nobody has a better philosophical handle on his calculated success than Allen, 41, who did simultaneous college theses in TV production and the philosophy of Bishop Berkeley, who wrote that to be is to be perceived. ''Home Improvement is somewhat perceived,'' chuckles Allen. ''So far, we've surpassed everybody's wildest expectations.'' The latest industry estimates are that the show will earn approximately half a billion dollars in syndication more than any in history except The Cosby Show. ''No one's come near Cosby save us,'' says Allen. ''We have enough kid appeal to go on at dinnertime, but we skirt the line enough to keep it kinda interesting for a more mature audience after nine.''