Bob Vila with Tim Allen and Richard Karn on Home Improvement.
Bob Villa on This Old House.
Foundation Interviews: Bob Vila
The project manager turned television host built home renovation entertainment.
There was a time before home improvement shows existed, but a likeable project manager named Bob Vila changed that. After Vila restored his own Boston home and was asked to host a local television show to explain the process, the public's interest in home renovation was unleashed and a new category of entertainment was born.
For nearly thirty years Vila hosted multiple shows, starting with This Old House on PBS, then moving on to Bob Vila's Home Again, Bob Vila and Restore America with Bob Vila. In the nineties, Vila appeared as a guest on the ABC comedy Home Improvement, acting along Tim Allen as a TV handyman. Today Vila's videos are popular on YouTube and can also be seen at his website, BobVila.com. Vila was awarded a Daytime Emmy lifetime achievement award in 2022, and he's also the author of a number of books on architecture and renovation.
Vila is proud of his role in making the do-it-yourself spirit part of the television landscape: "When I was growing up, there wasn't a great deal of interest in fixing up old houses," he said. "I like the idea of being remembered as the granddaddy of home improvement."
He was interviewed in June 2010 by Karen Herman for The Interviews: An Oral History of Television, a program of the Television Academy Foundation. The following is an edited excerpt of their conversation. The entire interview can be screened at TelevisionAcademy.com/Interviews.
Q: Tell us a little about your family.
A: My parents came to South Florida [from Cuba] during the tail end of World War II. When I was ten, we moved to Havana. I was a total American kid with a Davy Crockett raccoon hat, and all of a sudden I was living in Havana. That lasted for three years and ended with the Castro revolution. I was twelve-and-a-half when we came back [to the States].
Q: What kind of kid were you?
A: I was always interested in building and construction and architecture. When you'd ask me, "What are you going to be when you grow up?" I always said, "Architect."
Q: Where did you go to college?
A: I spent two years at Miami Dade Junior College, which is a marvelous institution. I did an associate degree program in pre-architecture. I took courses in architectural drafting, mechanical drafting, construction, technology, architectural history ... I loved it, and I did well.
I went from there to the University of Florida, where I was accepted into the architecture school, but I shifted into the school of communications because the higher math requirements in the curriculum gave me a lot of trouble.
Q: What did you do when you graduated?
A: As soon as I got my [journalism] degree, I went off to be a Peace Corps volunteer in Panama. After two years in the Peace Corps, I lived in Europe for two years. I was excited about traveling and seeing the architecture of old Europe. When I finally came back to the States, I went to study architecture in Boston. So, from the time that I was living in Europe, the whole business of architectural history and restoration has been a passion.
Q: What was studying architecture like?
A: The program I enrolled in at the Boston Architectural Center in 1973 was a cooperative program — you worked in the field or in an architect's office and went to school at night or in the afternoon. I hooked up with a group of investors who were buying an old Boston brownstone and got hired to be their project manager. That was my first real hands-on experience with a hundred-year-old house — a highly detailed brownstone. I realized the business potential of buying and restoring old brownstones in Boston. I didn't finish the degree program. Instead, I started an investment company buying brownstones and renovating them, converting them to condominiums. That's pretty much what I was doing during the mid-to-late seventies.
Q: Were you onsite for the projects that you worked on?
A: I was onsite — as the project manager. I was the guy getting splinters in his hands, doing demolition, learning how to fill a dumpster efficiently, how to manage a crew and budget and how to borrow money from banks. It was a lot of fun.
Q: How did you get into television?
A: It was an accidental career. The project that became the pilot for what later became This Old House was not a brownstone, it was a stand-alone wooden house that my wife and I bought when we were married in '75. We restored it in '76. The house was on Beacon Street in Chestnut Hill, near Boston College, and a lot of people went by. It ended up in The Boston Globe, featured in the Sunday magazine, and it was good publicity for my business. It also got featured in Better Homes & Gardens, and a television producer saw the article and approached us about shooting a TV pilot. We agreed to do it — that was probably 1977. The project was not really This Old House. It was going to be called House Calls and be a TV magazine show that looked at different finished renovations on a weekly basis. They shot their pilot and went away, and that's the last I thought about it for a while.
Q: Were you on camera?
A: Oh, absolutely. This woman knocked on the door, my wife and I brought her in, gave her a tour, talked with her about what we'd done. It was probably a twenty-, twenty-five-minute pilot. And what they discovered was that they had somebody who was telegenic. The bearded guy who had just done the work had a natural ability with the camera. I always have. I've never paid much attention to the camera. It took another couple of years before they put a deal together, got funding and created the first This Old House.
This guy, Russ Morash, had a lot of credibility. He had been at WGBH for years and had been the first producer for Julia Child [The French Chef]. When they called me maybe a year and a half after we had shot that pilot, the project had evolved into a nuts-and-bolts, how-to program that was going to focus entirely on an old derelict house in an old Boston neighborhood called Dorchester. They had bought the house. He had put together the crew that was going to be doing the remodeling and sprung it on me, "Would you like to be the host of the show?" And I said, "Sure."
Q: Without any reservations?
A: I thought it would be a lot of fun. It was a local show. And this coincides with the period where I'm developing properties and I've gotten more freedom and more time and less economic pressure. So, we did the project in maybe fourteen weeks. Norm [Abram], the carpenter, and the crew worked their tails off to get this done in time. We were shooting a show, and it would air three days later — it was close to being live television. And these were the days where you didn't have little cameras on tripods; you had two big semi trailer trucks full of equipment and cables everywhere. We came on the air in the Boston/New England region and quickly found an enthusiastic audience. We were nominated for the regional Emmys, and we won. The program was then picked up to go national on PBS.
Q: Who was your intended audience?
A: I think if you ask that question of Russ Morash, he would have said young homeowners and people who are interested in do-it-yourself projects — which up to a certain degree is true. As the years went by, I more and more realized that there were tons of people who loved watching the show, who had no intention of picking up a hammer, but were simply fascinated by understanding the process — taking away the mystery of what's inside the walls and how it all works.
Q: Was anything scripted or were you ad-libbing throughout?
A: I ad-libbed my way through from the first day. I had a passion for it; I'd studied it, and so I had a vocabulary. I could tell you what those parts are called and where they come from; whether they are derived from Greek temple architecture or a revivalist thing. For me, there was nothing more fun than to take a camera on a tour of something and explain to the viewer why I thought it was special.
Q: As the show went on, did you have more duties aside from hosting? Were you more involved in pre-production or the way the show was structured?
A: No. That really was not an avenue that was opened or offered to me. The fact that my role was limited to being the host was a source of some dissatisfaction to me. So after ten seasons, when I was more or less forced out of the show, I was not heartbroken.
Q: Can you talk about being forced out?
A: During those years I'd had several opportunities to be a spokesman. While I was still the host of the PBS show, I was also the spokesman for the Time Life books on home improvement.
Towards the end of the decade, I was offered the possibility of being the spokesman for a small home center chain in Connecticut, Rhode Island and some other New England states. Any time I was offered something like that, I had to run it by the powers that be at PBS, to make sure that there were no conflict-of-interest situations. They approved this. I shot a commercial. And before it aired, I was called into the business office at WGBH and told that I could not go ahead with this campaign for this home center chain.
I remember asking why and being shown a letter from one of the founders of one of the biggest home improvement businesses in America. Essentially the letter was telling the people at PBS that this company would cancel all of its underwriting on PBS if I was allowed to continue with this campaign. The reason being that this company had this small home center chain in their target, and they were going to take it over and put their own stores in this region.
So, I offered to break the contract if my colleagues at WGBH would be willing to indemnify me from a lawsuit from this small company. They refused to indemnify me.
We found ourselves at an impasse and essentially, I was told, "Either you do this, or you're out of here." So, I was out of there. It was a real difficult time. I'm a PBS guy. That's where it all started. I was sad to see this whole thing evolve in that direction. But as a result, a big ad agency heard that I was on my own and putting together a show and asked if they could sponsor part of the show for their client, Sears Craftsman Tools. That's how the relationship with Craftsman Tools began, and we created a partnership where we produced and owned the syndicated Bob Vila's Home Again shows.
Q: Was This Old House the first show of its kind on the air?
A: Yeah. This Old House is the granddaddy of all home improvement shows. I think for the first five years at least, we didn't have any competition.
Q: How was Home Again different from This Old House?
A: With Home Again, I was much more interested in promoting the concept of not just renovating, but recycling. And I wanted to do more middle-class programming as opposed to super-wealthy types of projects.
Q: The show went off the air in 2007. What was the reason for that?
A: Primarily, losing our audience. The world of syndicated television changed drastically in those last few years. Reality programming — it's ironic because in many ways I'm the granddaddy of all reality programming. But the production costs, the diminished audience, the time slots — in syndication, you're at the mercy of whoever buys you in each market, and they'll put you on whenever they feel like it. It became harder and harder for our audience to find us.
Q: Around the 2000s, HGTV and a lot of the cable networks came into play. Did you have any involvement with the cable home improvement shows?
A: Not really. I might meet some of the people involved at a home improvement fair. But I wasn't involved in any of the programs they were developing. When the ultimate tearjerker came along ...
Q: Extreme Makeover?
A: Yeah — there was the possibility of some involvement there. That was a runaway hit show. But it was foreign to me, the whole approach that is peripherally about home improvement and home building, but mostly about pathos and almost soap opera situations. The direction of much of the cable home improvement shows is radically different from what I was doing.
Q: You were on Home Improvement. Is the show based on you?
A: You might say. ... It's funny because when Disney was getting ready to launch that show, somebody in the legal department must have had a light-bulb moment and said, "Has anybody run this by Vila?" My lawyers and my agents got approached, and I was invited to come out to see the show and to do a guest spot the very first season of Home Improvement. I was essentially myself, doing a guest appearance on Tim Allen's local show in Detroit. And he accidentally knocks me out with a 4x6 or something like that. I spent a week there and had a blast. And the show was very well received. I was on several times. It opened up a brand-new audience for me. Kids who'd never heard of Bob Vila or This Old House all of a sudden heard about Vila.
Q: How would you like to be remembered?
A: I like the idea of being remembered as the granddaddy of home improvement. I have no trouble with that. The whole idea of having inspired a lot of people to bring new life to old houses is something that I'm proud of, and very happy that it's taken that turn. When I was growing up, there wasn't a great deal of interest in fixing up old houses. There was mostly interest in moving away from them. And that's shifted in the last thirty years.
I think I had a little bit of a role in that. I like to think I did.
The contributing editor for Foundation Interviews is Adrienne Faillace.
Since 1997, the Television Academy Foundation has conducted over 900 one-of-a-kind, longform interviews with industry pioneers and changemakers across multiple professions. The Foundation invites you to make a gift to the Interviews Preservation Fund to help preserve this invaluable resource for generations to come. To learn more, please contact Amani Roland, chief advancement officer, at firstname.lastname@example.org or (818) 754-2829.
To see the entire interview, go to: TelevisionAcademy.com/Interviews.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #5, 2023.