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There's no more room for 'Home Improvement'

BURBANK, Calif. -- If it makes fans of the long-running sitcom "Home Improvement" feel any better, Tim Allen seems to be having a harder time saying goodbye to the show than anyone else.

"This is really, really difficult for me. I get very emotional," Allen said in a recent interview with TV critics on the set of the sitcom. "I don't want to end this. I'd like to live this life. I wish I lived in this house. I'm happier here than almost anyplace else."And, after eight years, the Disney lot seems a lot like home.

"I think I've been here longer than most of the executives," Allen said. "It's a family. I love it here at Disney. . . . There's no good time to do this."

So why now, particularly when both the studio and the network (Disney-owned ABC) wanted the show to return for a ninth season?

"It would have been my choice, actually, to end it last year," Allen said. "It seemed like that was really the time to go when we were right in the top five."

And the ratings have slipped rather dramatically in the past few years. From its peak during the 1993-94 season, when "Home Improvement" was averaging 36.3 million viewers a week, to today, the show has lost nearly 60 percent of its audience. On average, 15 million viewers have tuned in this season.

Still, the show attracts enough viewers for it to be a valuable property for ABC/Disney. And both Allen and his co-star and TV wife, Patricia Richardson, were offered big bucks to re-up for another season -- seven figures a week.

Still, they both declined.

"When it's just about money and it's just about ratings, it's just about over," Allen said.

"My feeling is that this is a good way to end it," Richardson said.

Tuesday's 90-minute finale (7 p.m., Ch. 4) is actually three half-hour segments. The first is loaded mainly with scenes from earlier shows. The second is a rather mundane, predictable and disappointing episode. And the third includes interviews with cast members and some rather funny outtakes from over the years.

The end of the line for the fictional Taylor family mirrors the end of the line for the cast and crew of the show. In that middle segment, Tim (Allen) prepares for the final episode of his fictional fix-it show, "Tool Time." (He's quitting because he doesn't like the direction his bosses are taking the show.) Jill (Richardson) and Tim mull over Jill's big job opportunity in Indiana. And just as they think they've got things figured out, another big opportunity is presented to Tim.

It's much the same for cast members, nearly all of whom insist they're excited about upcoming opportunities.

"Personally, I love doing film. And I can't do both now," Allen said. "And my heart is totally with 'Home Improvement.' This year I stepped up more as executive producer than last year. And I love the show and it takes up all my time and I've been diminishing every other interest I have. It was time for me to do this. And Pat and I both decided there's no good time to say this."

(Allen is already at work on the sci-fi comedy-drama "Galaxy Quest" with Sigourney Weaver and Alan Rickman.)

"I'm interested in writing and producing," Richardson said. "There's a whole world out there waiting."

The teenage actors are blithely optimistic. "I'm looking forward to moving on and branching off into other forms of this business," said Taran Smith, who plays Mark.

"I think it will be good for all of us to move on," said Zachary Ty Bryan, who plays Brad. "I think it will definitely be good for all of our careers."

(Of course, it wouldn't take long to add up all the sitcom child stars who moved on to adult success. After Ron Howard, Rick Schroder and Janet Jackson, you've got to start thinking pretty hard. And Bryan's first big movie, "The Rage: Carrie 2," was a box-office bomb earlier this year.)

Earl Hindman, who plays next-door-neighbor Wilson, took a decidedly different tack.

"I'm not leaving. I've decided to stay about three more years. ABC doesn't know that yet," Hindman said.

"I've had the best time of my life the last eight years. I, personally, don't want it to end. . . . I'm going to miss everybody very much because it's about the best group of people I've ever worked with."

There was unanimity in that opinion, although -- with the exception of Hindman -- everyone agreed it was time to move on.

"It's very scary and it's very exciting to think of what's next," said Richard Karn, who co-stars as Tim's sidekick, Al. "Eight years has been very comfortable here, and we've had a good time. If you keep doing the same thing over and over you tend to lose some of that magic that was there at the start for you as an actor."

While more than 20 million viewers have left the show behind over the years, Allen rejects the notion that it was because of a decline in quality.

"I think we've tried to stay the comfortable family we started out to be," Allen said. "We've taken the strengths and didn't let it get out of hand. It didn't get really big and brassy, where it could have gone. We've really worked hard to keep what we think is its strong suit and not let it get crazy. It's very difficult for the writers to keep this on an even keel and keep it grounded."

As a matter of fact, what has proved almost impossible in recent years is for network television to produce family sitcoms that were appropriate for children and yet still entertained adults. And, arguably, "Home Improvement" has done that better than anyone else for the past eight years.

Richardson credited the writers and thanked them for the input she was allowed into a sitcom that was "us trying to be a family show that was from the parents' point of view instead of the children's," and was "something intelligent, given that we were in a fairly sweet sort of family show arena."

However, the show has been in a rut for years. There are exceptions, but the formula rarely varied -- Tim would do something stupid or inconsiderate, Jill or Al or one of the boys would be unhappy; Tim would go to Wilson for advice; all leading up to a happy ending.

On the other hand, there was something comforting about that formula -- something that helps explain why "Home Improvement" has been such a hit in syndicated reruns.

"It's like good spaghetti -- it's better the second time," Allen said. "I think that's why we've done so well in reruns. This show is just as fresh in reruns because there's something new in it."

But there's not enough "new" left to convince Allen to make more episodes. It's a decision he's certain of but at the same time can't quite explain.

"Why did Michael Jordan decide to go out? It's the same deal," Allen said. "When is it ever the right time to shut the door on something that has this much love and care in it? There's no way to do it."

"It's a love affair with everybody here."