DETROIT -- Tim Allen's a man who knows what he likes: spending time with his family, cheering on a good football game, messing around with classic hot rods and, of course, making people laugh.
On Tuesday -- a dozen years after he hung up his tool belt and retired the signature grunt that was a staple of his breakout hit "Home Improvement" -- Allen returned to the small-screen sitcom world and reunited with ABC on "Last Man Standing."
It's an intriguing move that he's contemplated over the past decade, a successful career run where he headlined a handful of Hollywood blockbusters, including "The Santa Clause" and "Toy Story" franchises.
"I like doing TV -- I think," the Birmingham, Mich.-raised Allen, 58, says with a laugh during a phone conversation. "Compared to movies, which I adore, this is a way I don't have to be on a far-off location and can be close to home, near my 3-year-old. It's a very structured environment, and with this I'm an executive producer so I'm involved in really all aspects of the production -- from the set design, which is something I really like, to the actors I'm working with and script approval. There's a bunch on my plate right now, but it's cool."
Allen, who recruited many members of the "Home Improvement" behind-the-scenes crew to his set in Studio City, Calif., believes today's ever-fragmented media audience is feeling nostalgic for a more traditional sitcom setting. He's betting they are eager to revisit elements of the manly-man persona he introduced with "Home Improvement," a top 10 Nielsen prime-time ratings juggernaut for ABC from 1991 to 1999. Nearly 20 million people watched the show weekly during its peak ratings period in 1993-94.
"I think what we did was special and, yeah, I didn't want the apple to fall too far from the tree," he says about the factors that weighed on his return.
"I'm going to have a video blog instead of 'Tool Time,' and I have three daughters instead of three sons because I wanted to investigate the humor and relationships a man like that has to deal with it," says Allen, who has two daughters himself: 3-year-old Elizabeth, with his current wife, actress Jane Hajduk, and Katherine, who was born in 1989 to his first wife, Laura Diebel.
"It's perhaps a bit misogynistic of me in wanting to see some of those old -school elements like a man fixing up the home and a woman in the kitchen," Allen admits. "But, I have two daughters. I'm around a lot of men who have daughters themselves or are around a lot of women. That can be a very different world. One I wanted to explore."
In "Last Man Standing," the born-in-Colorado star plays Mike Baxter, a marketing executive for a Denver sporting goods store. The pilot episode opened with Baxter returning from one of his many out-of-town business trips. Because of the struggling economy, that traveling trend is about to change and keep Baxter closer to home, where he can thrust his old-school thoughts on the female members of the Baxter clan: wife Vanessa (Nancy Travis) and their three daughters, including one played by Kaitlyn Dever, 14, who wowed audiences as a young orphan on FX's hit drama "Justified."
"What you get with Tim is that he's a person who knows what works and what doesn't about the medium and he's really sharp about creating lines and scenarios," Travis says. "In front of a live studio audience, there's a whole different level to his energy and that's when everything just feels like magic."
"Last Man Standing" director John Pasquin, who's known Allen for a "thousand years" and directed him in "Home Improvement" and "The Santa Clause," says there are similarities between Allen's two sitcom characters by design. But "Last Man Standing" is a much more evolved entity.
"Tim's character on 'Home Improvement' was much more cartoony," Pasquin says. "With 'Last Man Standing,' I think fans of Tim's will be interested to see how that kind of character departs from that. There is real depth. Not just when it comes to the relationships with his wife and daughters but how it's increasingly becoming a woman's world."
Pasquin adds that Allen, who directly communicated with viewers in "Home Improvement" through the show-within-a-show "Tool Time," will have an outlet to showcase that same testosterone-fueled fella mentality via Mike's video blog.
"Tim really represents that solid, middle-American outdoorsy guy who's into sports and cars and all that stuff. He's a man's man," Pasquin says. "But women really like him, too, because he's empathetic and is not at all afraid to laugh at himself. People are going to see all these different layers of his character's personality."
"I remember thinking, 'Wow, this seems like a really big challenge. How am I ever going to do it?"' Allen says of his decision to do "Last Man Standing."
"But I love playing family guys. There's nothing more fun than watching something with everyone from every age that doesn't offend. It's also probably the toughest form of comedy -- doing something that isn't built around toilet humor or gets its laughs by a shock.
"It's difficult to find something where everyone in the family can watch something together -- but that's what we're trying to do," Allen adds. "Who knows? Maybe no one will be into it and this will get canceled immediately. Then I could go back to my life."