How Tim Allen Went From Cocaine-Trafficking Criminal To ‘Home Improvement’ Star

Published November 7, 2021
Updated August 26, 2022

After being caught with more than half a kilo of cocaine, Tim Allen faced life imprisonment in 1978. So he decided to make a deal — which eventually led to fame and fortune.

Tim Allen is undoubtedly most famous for his role as Tim Taylor, the family man on ABC’s Home Improvement which catapulted the stand-up comedian into a new stratum of fame.

Premiering in 1991, the hit sitcom aired on televisions across America for eight seasons with a total of 204 episodes. While the character Allen played is recognizable, and the actor’s subsequent Hollywood films in the 1990s were successful, few people know he used to be a drug dealer.

The family-friendly comic actor you know and love spent two years and four months in a federal prison for drug trafficking. Of course, that deal was only feasible once he agreed to rat out nearly two dozen drug dealer peers.

Almost every stand-up comedian has an interesting background and origin story of just what made them get up on stage and face the general population’s collective fear of public speaking. Turns out that this unsuspecting sitcom dad might be a contender for the top of that list.

Tim Allen’s Early Life

Born in Denver, Colorado on June 13, 1953, Tim Allen’s birth name was really Timothy Dick. According to Biography, Allen was teased about his last name, which provided him the chance to use humor as a defense mechanism.

Allen’s father Gerald Dick was killed in a car accident when the young boy was only 11 years old. Allen and his father were very close before the fatal crash and it was actually Allen’s dad who taught him everything there was to know about cars.

Young Tim Allen

TwitterTim Allen was actually born Timothy Dick. When he was 11 years old, his father died in a car crash.

“I loved my father more than anything,” Allen later said. “He was a tall, strong, funny, really engaging guy. I so enjoyed his company, his smell, sensibility, discipline, sense of humor — all the fun stuff we did together. I couldn’t wait for him to come home.”

After the family moved to Detroit, Michigan, his mother got remarried to her high school sweetheart. The two raised Allen and his siblings fairly traditionally before Allen left for Central Michigan University. He then transferred to Western Michigan, where he met his first future wife.

He also began dealing drugs. Two years after graduation in 1976, he was caught — and faced serious time in prison for the first time in his life.

Tim Allen: The Drug-Trafficking Cocaine Dealer

Tim Allen Mug Shot

Kalamazoo Michigan Sheriff’s DepartmentTim Allen’s mugshot. Before he played the dad on Home Improvement, he was caught at Kalamazoo/Battle Creek International Airport in possession of over 650 grams (1.4 pounds) of cocaine.

According to CBS News, Tim Allen was arrested in the Kalamazoo/Battle Creek International Airport on October 2, 1978. He was caught with more than 650 grams — 1.4 pounds — of cocaine.

Unfortunately for Allen, state legislators had just passed a law that tied a life sentence to any conviction of selling 650 grams or more of cocaine.

A few resources specify the details of Allen’s arrest, but John F. Wukovits’ book Tim Allen (Overcoming Adversity) is by far the most substantial.

As Wukovits explained, Allen was set up by an undercover officer named Michael Pifer, who allegedly had been following the amateur drug dealer for months. It was Pifer to whom Allen unwittingly gave the brown Adidas gym bag filled with cocaine.

Wukovits explained that it was Allen’s idea to choose the airport, as he’d seen this sort of scene on television before. He put the bag in a locker and then walked up to Pifer and handed him the key. Once Pifer opened the locker and its contents, Allen was swarmed.

Instead of receiving his expected $42,000, Allen found himself handcuffed.

Sandstone Minnesota Federal Correctional Institution

Federal Bureau of PrisonsAllen’s cooperation got a life sentence off the table, but he still faced between three to seven years in prison. He ultimately served two years and four months at the Federal Correctional Institution in Sandstone, Minnesota.

“The next thing I observed,” Allen later told the Detroit Free Press, “was a gun in my face.”

Facing life imprisonment, he pleaded guilty to drug trafficking and opted to provide the names of other dealers to authorities in exchange for a lighter sentence. That allowed him to be sentenced in a federal court rather than a state court — so the new Michigan law could be ignored.

As the future star charmed a judge throughout the ordeal, he told Allen that he expected him to “be a very successful comedian.” Fortunately in the comedy world, being a snitch isn’t a dealbreaker.

In Michigan, meanwhile, Allen’s information “helped authorities indict 20 people in the drug trade and resulted in the conviction and sentencing of four major drug dealers.”

Allen still faced three to seven years in prison, but ultimately only served two years and four months. He was released from the Federal Correctional Institution in Sandstone, Minnesota on June 12, 1981.

Tim Allen’s Third Act

Tim Allen At The Laugh Factory

Wikimedia CommonsTim Allen performs in 2012. He began doing stand-up by night almost immediately after being paroled in 1981.

“When I went to jail, reality hit so hard that it took my breath away, took my stance away, took my strength away,” Allen later told Esquire.

“I was put in a holding cell with twenty other guys — we had to crap in the same crapper in the middle of the room — and I just told myself, I can’t do this for seven and a half years. I want to kill myself.”

Amazingly, that’s when the comic in him began to grow. Before long, he was able to make some of the toughest prisoners and even guards laugh.

“I was funny before that,” he told the Los Angeles Daily News. “Prison grew me up. I was an adolescent that woke up too early when my father was killed, and I stayed at that angry adolescent level.”

Allen wasted no time exploring his talent upon his release, working at a Detroit ad agency by day and doing stand-up at the Comedy Castle by night.

He found his persona on stage, and soon booked commercials. A year after his daughter Katherine was born in 1989, he booked a Showtime special.

A clip from ABC’s Home Improvement.

This caught the attention of Disney’s Jeffrey Katzenberg and Michael Eisner, who offered him movie roles. Allen turned them down. He eventually persuaded the studio to let him do his schtick as part of a sitcom. Home Improvement premiered in 1991, with his drug-dealing past behind him.

The rest is history — from his successful run in the sitcom until 1999 to roles in classic movies like Toy Story.

While his path in life might not be the most advisable route to take, the decisions he made — some more honorable than others — certainly had him come out on top.

After learning about Tim Allen’s cocaine trafficking before ‘Home Improvement,’ see 66 photos of celebrities before they were famous. Then, check out these shameless cocaine advertisements from the 1970s.

Marco Margaritoff
A former staff writer for All That’s Interesting, Marco Margaritoff holds dual Bachelor's degrees from Pace University and a Master's in journalism from New York University. He has published work at People, VICE, Complex, and serves as a staff reporter at HuffPost.
Jaclyn Anglis
Jaclyn is the senior managing editor at All That's Interesting. She holds a Master's degree in journalism from the City University of New York and a Bachelor's degree in English writing and history (double major) from DePauw University. She is interested in American history, true crime, modern history, pop culture, and science.
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Margaritoff, Marco. "How Tim Allen Went From Cocaine-Trafficking Criminal To ‘Home Improvement’ Star.", November 7, 2021, Accessed May 21, 2024.