Taran Noah Smith and Candy Bennici understand firsthand the problems that can arise when a child gains fame and wealth in show business. Their public battle over the "Home Improvement" star's trust fund and his marriage to Heidi van Pelt were headline news in 2001 and led to a lengthy estrangement between mother and son.
But now the two are "happily reunited" as Bennici wrote in her book "Stardom Happens: Nurturing Your Child in the Entertainment Business," in which they also shared their experiences, good and bad, to help teach "Hollywood" parents and children about how best to navigate the lifestyle's highs and lows.
"In 2001, there was definitely some teenage angst-driven strife between us, but it's common between parents and children. It was enlarged because of the media and things like that," Smith told Headlines & Global News in an exclusive interview.
At age 17, Smith sued his parents for early control of his $1.5 million trust fund, claiming they were squandering the money he made playing the youngest of Tim Allen's three sons on the ABC sitcom "Home Improvement" for eight seasons. He eventually gained access to the fund when he turned 18.
"Shortly after that we started to talk and be more of a family," said Smith, who divorced van Pelt in 2007. "Because of the things we experienced, we wanted to relate the story and help other parents and kids go through this experience in a safer manner. We've definitely been a strong, happy family for a long time."
Along with detailing the duo's personal experiences, "Stardom Happens" also lays out a step-by-step guide to every part of the industry, such as finding an agent, surviving the audition process, negotiating contracts, handling financial matters, working with publicists, dealing with fans and more. All of that makes it especially relevant since the odds of finding overnight fame on platforms like TV talent shows and YouTube have increased dramatically since 7-year-old Smith was offered a 7-year contract in 1991.
"When we went into the business, we were so incredibly naïve. We didn't really know much about how anything worked. We didn't even know who Tim Allen was," Bennici said.
Here's more of HNGN's interview with Bennici and Smith about the book, keeping child stars grounded in Hollywood and how the "Home Improvement" star is helping communities around the world rebuild after natural disasters (hint: His TV father, Tim "The Toolman" Taylor, would be proud).
HNGN: Was "Home Improvement the first on-screen role for Taran?
Candy Bennici: He did some commercials. He actually started when he was 6 months old. I was in an agency with my daughter, who was 7 years old, and they asked if he wanted to work. I was like, "You have work for babies?" They said, "Yes, we do," and handed me a card. At 6 months old, he was in a crib with a matching outfit and sheets, and that was his first job. [Later] he did commercials and public service announcements in San Francisco. Both kids would get maybe four jobs a year, nothing big. Then he did an Enterprise rental car commercial and was able to get his SAG (Screen Actors Guild) card from that, which opened a lot of doors.
Taran Noah Smith: I was incredibly lucky. When we went down to L.A., we didn't even know there was a thing called pilot season. We happened to be right in the middle of it, and "Home Improvement" was the third audition I went on in L.A. My first [audition] was a McDonald's commercial, and now that I'm vegan, I never would have forgiven myself for that. The second one was for a TV show that only went one season, so I was lucky not to get those and get "Home Improvement."
Taran, at what age did you start realizing that you were making money and wondering when you would get to see or spend it?
TNS: It was always pretty clear because of what they call the Coogan Law. So 25 percent of everything I was making was put away into a trust fund that I would receive at age 18. It's a strange thing. When they started the law, it said "the age of maturity," which at that time was 21, and because of various wars and drafts, they changed the age of maturity to 18. There's a big difference there, and what we would love to see is maybe splitting that up to where you get a third at 18, a third at 21 and then a third at 25. I think that would really help.
I saw one kid who guest starred on my show and did some movies. I would imagine [he had] a few hundred thousand dollars when he turned 18. Before he turned 19, he had a heart attack because he was already overweight. He could eat all he wanted and could do all the cocaine he wanted. He survived. He was lucky – but that kind of stuff does happen, and it's a lot to lay on not just any 18-year-old but an 18-year-old that has lived in a very strange, surreal world. You have a lot of people who know about you and want to influence you in various ways, and it can be tricky.
Does the book go beyond the financial implications of childhood stardom and discuss the emotional toll that fame can have on a child? What about a section on when the child wants to quit the business?
CB: The first part covers how to get into the business. The second part is about once your child gets a job... and the third section is about when your child becomes a star. Basically, how do you stay grounded is the biggest challenge – keeping the child as normal as possible in a very abnormal world. For me, that was the biggest challenge. That's something parents often don't think about. Even going to auditions, they're going to get rejected a lot. How do you deal with that? On the set, I made sure Taran had friends come over that were not involved in the business. I kept him doing outside activities, as many opportunities to be around normal kids as possible.
Let them understand that your love is for who they are, not what they're doing, and let it go [if they want to quit]. Many parents won't do that. They just say, "We'll keep trying." It's really wrong to do that. We call them the "pot of gold parents", the ones that are out there for the fame and money.
Did you come to these conclusions by making these mistakes yourself, witnessing others make those mistakes or a combination of the two?
CB: I think it was a combination, but we really did see a lot of situations we knew were not the way to go. With our own situation, we learned from our mistakes. We were so unaware of the concept of predators out there. In his first year, Taran was 7 years old, we were in Santa Monica, and a man grabbed my arm. Taran was maybe 20 feet from me. He said, "Listen, I need to talk to you. I work for the FBI, and the three boys from 'Home Improvement' are the top target of pedophiles in the world. You can't just leave him alone. Don't ever let him out of your sight." It was something that did not come into my brain. You're in the fun of it, and you're not thinking about things like that. Unfortunately, you need to be aware of those situations.
Can parents and children living outside of California who want to get into show business benefit from this book?
CB: Absolutely. That's really what I wrote it for, because when we would travel all of these people would ask, how did this little kid get on a TV show? So I wrote specifically to help people all over the country and the world. It's an easy-to-read book and very informative. I mention that the laws are different in every state and show how to find the child labor laws and look them up in your state. And it's not just for actors. There are kids in all kinds of performing arts. You have the 5-year-old opera singer and the 7-year-old golfer. These kids are starting out, and they jump into this fame situation so quickly. How do you deal with that as a parent? How do you keep your child normal through all of that?
Have the laws changed over the last 20-25 years?
CB: The laws are a little different now. It used to be 25 percent [of the salary] for larger projects like TV shows and movies that were put into the trust fund, but they didn't put anything in for commercials and smaller jobs. Now it's 15 percent of everything. So even the smallest one-day job or half-day job, 15 percent of everything the child makes goes into the trust fund. They have to have the account set up or your child can't work. The labor laws are pretty much the same.
Taran, what are you doing now that you're not acting?
TNS: Over the last few years I've been working as an installation artist at various festivals and some museums. I spent half of 2014 in the Philippines doing disaster relief for an organization called Communitere. We went into the Philippines after the most massive typhoon on record hit in late 2013, and we helped set up a resource center based around a maker space. A maker space is set up like a workout gym, but instead of workout machines you have tools. It's an open shop, and we provided everything from sledge hammers to a 3-D printer and a laser cutter. Basically it's "teach a man to fish." Instead of going in and building a new house or setting something up for them, we provided the tools, the space and the expertise to enable a community to do whatever they needed to rebuild their lives. My official title was Maker Space Maker because my job was to set up the shop and create the system that made everything go.
The other side project I started before I ended up going to the Philippines was a floating art gallery I built that I call The FairWeather Gallery. It's sort of a combination of my heritage. My dad is a boat builder, and my mom studied art history and is much more of an artist, so I'm combining the two in my life.
I'm the only cast member of ["Home Improvement"] that's kind of left the business. It's not because I didn't like it. I wouldn't trade it for the world. I had a wonderful time, but it's something I did all my childhood life, and by the time I was 16 or 17, I just wanted to do other things. I really enjoy working with my hands and working with tools and having something physical to look at and say that I built at the end of the day. That's what makes me happiest.
So you probably don't notice when you're in those articles like "Where Are They Now" or "Whatever Happened to Them?"
That's the funny thing. If anything ever goes wrong, especially around L.A., it gets printed. But if I do anything good or right, then no one pays attention. That's OK. The people that are involved notice, and that's what makes it important for me.