It's Not Just the Acting: It's Rapport--Gordon-Levitt and Taylor Thomas

While re-watching classic sitcoms, I began to wonder, Why was Jonathan Taylor Thomas on Home Improvement so good?

It wasn't simply that he was "cute" (though he was). And it wasn't simply that he was a better actor than the other two "sons." He was--but Home Improvement didn't depend on the child actors; it depended entirely on the excellent Tim Allen. The other adult leads were more than capable of carrying the jokes when necessary.

Jonathan Taylor Thomas excelled for the same reason that Joseph Gordan-Levitt excelled in 3rd Rock from the Sun, where he played a much larger role as Tommy than Thomas did as Randy. In fact, it is rather stunning to watch 3rd Rock and realize how much the cast and scriptwriters trusted a 15-year-old (playing a 13-year-old) to carry a large portion of the show. He does it practically effortlessly.

One reason is skill. The second is emotional rapport.

Emotional rapport in acting is kind of like sexual chemistry but it goes beyond that. It doesn't necessarily token great friendship (a fact that scandal magazines seem to entirely misunderstand--when articles proclaim that the Golden Girls Fought On Set! what they mean is that White, Arthur, McClanahan and Getty weren't planning vacations together and sometimes got terse with each other off camera; on most shows most of the time, most actors are professionals and behave professionally: it's a job after all).

Emotional rapport refers to the ease with which actors play off each other. It also refers to being able to match each other's energy. Even at the age of 10, Jonathan Taylor Thomas "got" Tim Allen. Thomas knew how to feed lines to Allen and act off Allen's lines in return. Some of the early out-takes between Allen and Thomas are hilarious to watch since they clarify this point: as the actual oldest of the three child actors, Thomas understood intellectually and intuitively when something was funny, why it was funny, and how to react. 

Likewise, Gordan-Levitt's utter unself-consciousness on 3rd Rock matches the utter unself-consciousness of Lithgow, Johnston, Stewart, and Curtin. If he had behaved out of sync with the others--portraying unease in the role of old-fogey-stuck-in-a-teen-body-with-no-fixed-gender-re:-behavior, the clueless-alien-family vibe would have been lost.

Sometimes, it isn't the "great" actors that producers want but the actors who can play well with others. It makes a difference to the art and the impact/feel of the final production.

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