Vila stresses the basics

Ex-`Old House' star has specials that focus on building, remodeling

December 05, 2004|By Alan J. Heavens | Alan J. Heavens,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

It has been exactly 25 years since the launch of This Old House with Bob Vila as host, and more than 15 years since he left the show.

Still, for most Americans, the two remain synonymous.

"I was at the Habitat for Humanity Awards in New York, and under my name in the brochure was This Old House," Vila said.

"My wife asked me when I thought people would finally get it straight," he said. "They don't have to get it straight. I own part of the franchise."

Unlike his successor, Steve Thomas, who has been rarely seen on television since his departure from the show last year after a 14-year stint, Vila has never left the air.

Besides This Old House reruns for a number of years, there have been Home Again, a number of specials about older houses and styles, thousands of guest appearances and Vila's continuing relationship with Sears and Craftsman tools.

The latest Home Again project, rehabbing a Brooklyn, N.Y., brownstone, made its debut last month and is being undertaken with his son, Chris, a real estate developer in New York.

Vila readily acknowledges that the formula of his show hasn't changed much since 1979. In fact, he seems proud that it hasn't.

"It's a show about building and remodeling," Vila said. "We talk about construction methods, materials and technology."

Although he is unwilling to criticize the competition directly by mentioning names, he distinguishes what he does from what he calls "infotainment."

"These shows have an angle, like a carpenter who is Playmate of the Month or an actor who becomes a carpenter," Vila said. "Then there are the shows with the theme reminiscent of `Queen for a Day.' They have a different approach than I do. I'm here to teach; they are designed mainly to entertain."

Most of those shows also tend to rush their projects to completion.

"I can't comment on someone else's work because I haven't walked around it," Vila said, "but we do have a tradition in TV of building sets and calling them houses. It takes time to put together a solid house or rebuild one. Six months to do it right isn't unusual."

Has anyone pressured Vila to change his format?

"There has never been a discussion about changing," he said. "My partners at Sears and I talk about the subject matter, and I listen to what they suggest, but there is never any pressure on me to do `reality' shows."

On the other hand, he said, "we do have real live people for an affordable shelter home we are doing in a small town in Massachusetts, and these folks will appear on the show."

The lack of pressure to change also could stem from the show's time slot.

"I'm not in prime time," Vila said. "There is a difference."

When Vila started with This Old House in fall 1979, "we were the only ones." Now, with entire television networks devoted to home improvement, the field has become very crowded.

"There is a danger that you can overdo it," Vila said. "And if you overdo anything, people will become less interested in watching any of it."

Vila, who dropped out of architecture school to start R.J. Vila Designer/Builder in Cambridge, Mass., after realizing how little architects were making, remains in the contracting business, and despite his busy schedule tries to do some projects around the house whenever he can.

Vila left This Old House in 1989 after a dispute with creator/producer Russell Morash over Vila's product endorsements.

"I was able to re-create myself and my production company, and carried on with what I'd tried to do for those 10 years on the show," Vila said.

"After I left This Old House, it changed, and changed a great deal," Vila said. "It became scripted, just like a sitcom.

"That's why I have no regrets," he said. "No regrets at all."

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