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'This Old House' crew helps new host fit in with the experts

Saturday, October 25, 2003

By Peter McKay

Kevin O'Connor was working happily as a vice president at Fleet Bank in Boston when he "caught lightning in a bottle. " In late 2002, O'Connor, 34, and his wife, Kathleen, had appeared on "Ask This Old House," a spinoff of the popular PBS home renovation series.

The O'Connors, longtime fans of "This Old House" and subscribers to the magazine since the first issue, had asked for help in renovating their 1894 Queen Anne Victorian north of Boston. The TV crew arrived, painting expert Jim Clark showed the O'Connors how to remove some paint-encrusted wallpaper, and it was over.

Then, weeks later, O'Connor got a call from an associate producer with the show. When he asked if O'Connor wanted to "help out" with the show in some way, O'Connor first thought they needed financial services. He was even more confused when he showed up at a meeting with producers and was told he would be taking a screen test.

O'Connor and his wife, a consultant, had loved being on the show, but he had no background in television. Other than his few minutes on "Ask This Old House," he had never been on camera at all. And while he had some woodworking experience, having built furniture and worked on his own renovation project, he was not a professional contractor like most of the show's on-air talent.

After a second screen test, the producers revealed that they were looking for a new host for the venerable show, and that O'Connor had a good shot. Ten days later, the show's creator, director and executive producer, Russell Morash, officially offered O'Connor the job as the new host of "This Old House," replacing Steve Thomas, who had decided to leave the show after 14 years to pursue other interests.

"Russ took me to lunch and then said over the table, 'You're our guy!' " O'Connor recalled in a phone interview. Then he told O'Connor he would have to be quiet about the job until it was officially announced.

When O'Connor was finally allowed to spill the beans about his new gig, the people in his life were floored. When he told his boss at the bank, he stared at him and said simply, "I don't get it." He apparently couldn't fathom why one of his bankers would jump so far out of the corporate mainstream.

O'Connor's parents were even more surprised: "They couldn't believe that someone wanted their son on television."

O'Connor, whose first episode as host aired last Saturday, says stepping in front of the cameras was made a great deal less stressful because he's been accepted so readily by the other cast members: master carpenter Norm Abram, general contractor Tom Silva, heating and plumbing expert Richard Trethewey and landscape contractor Roger Cook.

His life has not changed much yet, but he thinks it might after more of this season's episodes have aired. The fact he's gone from bank officer to TV host in a matter of months "still hasn't sunk in," but he's been too busy to spend much time contemplating his dramatic life change. Besides working on this season's project -- turning a dilapidated barn into an in-law cottage -- he's also filmed remotes and is host of "Ask This Old House," the spinoff show that gave him his start in television.

So how did he do on his first episode? Steve Thomas fans will no doubt be disappointed at his exodus, but the show has weathered a change like this before: In 1989, when Thomas took over after the contentious departure of Bob Vila, Vila's fans were slow to accept Thomas, who brought a confident manner and an eclectic background as a carpenter, sailor, writer and world traveler to the show.

In the years since, Abrams, Trethewey and Silva have slowly eased into more prominent on-camera roles than they had with Vila. Each one now hosts different aspects of the show, speaking directly to viewers instead of to the host. By the end of the Steve Thomas era, "This Old House" was almost an ensemble piece, sort of a "Friends" with toolbelts.

O'Connor, who says his "natural curiosity" got him the job, doesn't pretend to be an expert. When he asks questions on the job site, you really believe it's because he wants to know the answer. And while O'Connor seemed a little awkward on the first episode, coming off more like a bank vice president than a TV host, the show plays off his status as a "newbie."

When he first arrives, the other guys try to convince him that the host's main job to get the coffee.

"This Old House" and "Ask This Old House" air at 3:30 and 4 p.m. Saturdays on WQED/WQEX.

Peter McKay is a free-lance writer and Homemaking columnist for the Post-Gazette.

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