He came, he sawed, he conquered: The dynasty Norm Abram has built
As the ‘This Old House’ star prepares to hang up his TV tool belt, a look back at his legacy and his plans for the future.
He was a comfort to fans across the country, who would tune into PBS to watch him deftly replace shingles on a worn-out roof or expertly craft a new dresser from scratch, always advising viewers — in a laid-back Boston accent — on the importance of first donning their safety goggles. But after more than four decades of reminding millions to “measure twice, cut once’’ on the acclaimed home improvement show “This Old House,’’ Norm Abram is saying goodbye to life in front of the camera — though he’s not ready to hang up his hammer just yet.
In addition to building another workshop in his Rhode Island home, Abram will spend the next few years “finishing the [Carlisle] house that I didn’t finish because I was working too much,’’ he said in an interview with the Globe.
When the show returns for a 44th season, the master carpenter, whose retirement was announced in May, will be missing from the cast of experts. But his influence will surely live on.
“Norm is a living legend that helped create the home improvement television genre, and entire networks are now in existence because of the trusted expertise to generations of homeowners that he provided,’’ Dan Suratt, vice president of This Old House, Roku, said in a statement. He will be sent off in a one-hour tribute titled “The House That Norm Built,’’ which will air on PBS and Roku on Oct. 3 at 9 p.m.
Abram’s journey to becoming perhaps the most famous carpenter in the nation (outside the Bible) began long before “This Old House,’’ when he was a young boy growing up in Milford. Abram’s father, a professional contractor, helped foster his interest in the field from a young age, gifting him a toolbox one early Christmas.
“These were not tools that you would give a child today or you would be allowed to give a child today,’’ Abram said. “These were real, a real saw, real hammer. All of it was real.’’
Abram helped his father on projects at home, learning the trade by watching and asking questions. “He would bring home materials that he had to put together for a cabinet or something like that … and he just let me watch,’’ Abram said.
After spending time as his dad’s “cleanup person’’ at home, Abram soon began joining him on jobs, working with his father’s company during the summers and in college.
After leaving the University of Massachusetts Amherst after five years — where he was an engineering student, then a business major —Abram joined a team building homes in New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, and Massachusetts. Years later, while working on his own on a home in Nantucket, Abram met Russell Morash, who would later become the producer of “This Old House.’’ “Russ,’’ as Abram refers to him, was so impressed by the lack of scraps Abram had left after construction, that he brought him onto a project in Winchester. From there the show was born.
Abram took to working in front of a camera naturally, first appearing in the show’s second episode, perched on rickety scaffolding as he explained to then-host Bob Vila how he was fixing the eaves of a home in Dorchester.
“[Morash] said, ‘I want you to get up on the scaffolding with Bob Vila, and I want you to show him what’s wrong and how you’re going to fix it,’ ’’ Abram said. “And I said, ‘OK, I can do that.’ And the thing is, I don’t think I was ever very nervous about it. The camera never bothered me. I never felt that it was there. … I think I was confident enough in what I was doing.’’
The show brought Abram and the crew across the country, offering chances to explore the world outside the homes they were building, whether it was taking an elevator to the top of the Golden Gate Bridge (a thrill for Abram, who loves heights), or visiting a NASA base while working on a home in Florida and meeting — and comparing tools with — an astronaut.
“This Old House’’ also led Abram to host his own spinoff, “The New Yankee Workshop,’’ which ran from 1989 to 2009. “When it started out, I think we were going to do four seasons of the show, which would cover a year’s worth of TV,’’ Abram said. “And I guess we did OK, because it lasted until 2009.’’
Since its creation, no home improvement show has rivaled the longevity of “This Old House.’’ When the show began, the Sony Walkman was the hottest new invention and a former Hollywood star was on the cusp of becoming president. The deluge of home improvement shows brought on by the creation of HGTV was decades away, and the median home price in Massachusetts was less than $100,000. The show also changed, with three different hosts, an array of cast members, new locales, and numerous building styles — snapping up 117 Emmy nominations and 20 wins along the way.
But Abram was always there. And he was always himself: unassuming, clad in his iconic plaid and denim with a tool belt slung around his waist, explaining in meticulous detail the task at hand.
It’s this teaching style that made “This Old House’’ unique and to what Abram credits the show’s success and longevity.
“ ‘This Old House’ was a teacher more than anybody else,’’ Abram said. “And that makes me feel really good about everything, and hopefully everything will continue that way. How many TV shows just go on after 40 years?’’
And how many people can say they were there for it all? Only Norm.
Kelly Garrity can be reached at [email protected]. Subscribe to our newsletter at pages.email.bostonglobe.com/AddressSignUp. Follow us on Twitter @globehomes.
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