Most of America knows Tim Allen best as the genial, lovable sitcom dad from Home Improvement and his current red-state reassurance vehicle Last Man Standing. But if you were looking for coke in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in the mid-70s, you might have known Tim Allen as your drug dealer. Enough people knew him as such that in 1978 an undercover officer set up a sting operation that might have landed Allen in jail for life had he not snitched on nearly two dozen other dealers.
Allen, who was born Timothy Dick, had a fraught upbringing. In 1964, when he was 11, his father was killed in a car accident while returning from a University of Colorado football game. Two years later his family moved to Michigan, and his mom remarried. He eventually matriculated at Central Michigan University, but soon transferred to Western Michigan University, in Kalamazoo, where he would meet his first wife and, according to one biography, begin dealing drugs. He graduated in 1976, and by October of 1978, he was staring at decades—if not life—in prison.
It is not difficult to find mentions of Allen's arrest on the web—there is a small paragraph about it on his Wikipedia—but details are scarce. The basic story is simple—here is a retelling from a CBS News slideshow titled "Celebrity arrests they wish they could forget":
On October 2, 1978, Tim Allen was arrested in the Kalamazoo-Battle Creek International Airport for possession of over 650 grams (1.4 lb) of cocaine. He subsequently pleaded guilty to drug trafficking, and provided the names of other dealers in exchange for a sentence of three to seven years, instead of possible life imprisonment. He was paroled on June 12, 1981 after serving 2 years and 4 months in the Federal Correctional Institution in Sandstone, Minnesota.
It's probably not true, though, that Allen wishes he could forget his arrest. He's talked about his time in prison in many interviews over the years. Here he is talking about how he matured in prison in a 1997 story in the Los Angeles Daily News:
In 2011, he participated in Esquire's "What I've Learned" feature, telling interviewer Cal Fussman, "When I went to jail, reality hit so hard that it took my breath away, took my stance away, took my strength away." He continued:
The law was passed to teach people a lesson. Selling more than 650 grams of cocaine got you life in prison. They thought it would be a deterrent. It wasn't. I was put in a holding cell with twenty other guys — we had to crap in the same crapper in the middle of the room — and I just told myself, I can't do this for seven and a half years. I want to kill myself.
Still, despite Allen openly discussing his criminal past, we get only scraps of his story. In the first story, Allen's two-plus year jail sentence is given a sentence of examination, which appears typical of articles from around that time, including reviews of his book Don't Stand Too Close to a Naked Man. Esquire, meanwhile, provided no context at all for why Allen was sent to prison, or what law regarding "650 grams of cocaine" he was talking about. (A 1997 paper from a Michigan public policy think tank explains that a month before Allen's 1978 arrest, Michigan legislators passed a law that attached a life sentence to any conviction of selling 650 grams or more of either cocaine or heroin.)
The simple fact of Allen's arrest lives on the internet, as do its most primary details, but the full story has more or less been buried in the sands of time. There is at least one source, though, that investigates Allen's coke-dealing past at great length: an unauthorized biography of the actor, called Tim Allen (Overcoming Adversity), written by an amateur historian named John Wukovits.
Portions of Wukovits' book is available on Google Books, and it provides a full look at Tim Allen, amateur drug kingpin. Here Wukovits writes about the sting at Kalamazoo International Airport, set up by an undercover officer named Michael Pifer, who Wukovits says (via a previous Allen biography) had been steadily tracking Allen (then Tim Dick) for months:
According to Wukovits, Allen spent the next 60 days in jail awaiting his arraignment, part of which encompassed the time in the holding cell that he describes to Esquire.
Later, Wukovits writes about Allen's plea deal with federal authorities (the "he" at the beginning of this passage refers to Allen's lawyer, Jim Hills):
So, Allen turned government snitch, and in the process spared himself from spending the rest of his existence in prison. According to Wulkovits, Allen's information "helped the authorities indict 20 people in the drug trade and resulted in the conviction and sentencing of four major drug dealers."
As one might expect of a small time drug dealer who flipped for the feds, Wulkovits writes that Allen, at the time, feared for his life. The threat to his safety appeared to have been legitimate enough that Allen served his sentence a federal facility in Minnesota, as opposed to Michigan, where a judge thought he might be less likely to run into someone with an incentive to hurt him.
Allen seemed to have endeared himself to the judges tasked with assessing his fate. The judge who got Allen in state court after his federal sentencing told Allen at the time that he expected him to "be a very successful comedian":
Hopefully that man never saw Wild Hogs.