Norm Abram, who recently retired as master carpenter of This Old House, will get quite a birthday present this year.
As he turns 73 on October 3, Abram will be sent off in style with a one-hour tribute special The House that Norm Built, which will air on GBH 2 and across the nation on PBS on Monday, Oct. 3 at 9pm. The special will highlight his 43-year career with classic moments, archived footage, interviews and memories from celebrities, friends, peers and those who worked alongside him.
“When I saw a rough cut of it, I got kind of emotional,” he said. “I’m happy and I love it that people love what I did.”
As a boy in Milford, Massachusetts, Abram loved playing with everything mechanical. He learned the skills and discipline of carpentry and remodeling at his father’s side, watching him in the basement workshop. His first job was to sweep up the floor at the end of the day.
“Watching him work, I got sucked in,” he said. “I got interested in seeing what happens when you make all the moves and cut wood and form something.” When he was finally allowed to handle the saws and tools, he built his sister a wood truck for the sandbox.
“I made some pretty awful-looking stuff at first, but I was as proud as I could possibly be, because I made it.” In more than 1,000 episodes of This Old House, Abram invited his viewers to experience that same sense of accomplishment.
Through high school and college, Abram worked weekends and vacations for his father’s construction company, eventually going out on his own.
And then came the luckiest day of his life. Abram was discovered by GBH creator Russell Morash, who had commissioned him to build a barn. So taken with Abram’s work, he invited the carpenter to help with the renovation of a house in Dorchester—with a GBH camera crew recording the project for a new series. It was an instant success.
Abram served as master carpenter of This Old House since the series’ 1979 premiere and hosted The New Yankee Workshop a decade later. This Old House and Ask This Old House have received a combined 117 Emmy nominations with 20 Emmy wins overall. This year, This Old House won a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Television, Arts & Sciences at the 49th Annual Daytime Emmy Awards. “I give all the credit to Russ Morash,” said Abram. “He’s the genius in this just as he was with The French Chef with Julia Child and Jim Crockett of The Victory Garden.”
Abram took to the role—and television—with ease. “On Day One, Russ said ‘I want you to go up on the scaffolding, and I want you to talk to host Bob Vila and tell him what the problem is with the eaves.’ And I said, ‘I guess I can do that.’”
His unpretentious manner, uncompromising craftsmanship and trademark plaid shirt turned him into a beloved home improvement guru. This Old House also launched an entire industry of do-it-yourself home improvement shows.
"I prefer shows like ours that teach," said Abram. “We were all about teaching, and people caught onto that really fast.”
He may be leaving the program, but he has plenty of plans, including finishing the finer details at his home in Carlisle and motor boating with his wife along the New England Coast.
“It blows me away how many people love This Old House,” said Abram. “I get stopped on the street every day. People often will say, ‘I’m sorry to bother you,’ and I say, ‘Don’t worry about it. It’s because of you that I had a job!’”