Exit Interview: Paul DiMeo

Media’s most emotional handyman stars on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition

Like the heart-wrenching reality TV show that’s made Paul DiMeo famous (and may send him — or Exit Interview — to therapy one day), a chat with him about his work on ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition is a three-hanky affair. The 50-year-old carpenter revealed a sense of humor about his soft side, called out the former Sixer who dissed his show, and theorized that Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia could bring peace to the Middle East.

How did a guy from Media end up on this mega-hit show? I was building a deck for one of the co-VPs who was putting together the pilot. At that point, it was called Space Invaders, about five designers who moan and bitch about each other and try to remodel a house in seven days.

Like Carpenter Island. Exactly! I talked it over with my wife — we’re going into reality TV? What are we doing? So I went to the audition. I never saw Trading Spaces and had no idea who this crazy Ty Pennington guy was. He says, “We want to build a gymnasium that opens up into a pool.” I knew enough from Broadway shows that you could totally do that with hydraulics. He said, “And we’re going to do it in seven days.” I said, “Not with me,” and I walked out of the audition. I got a call the next day — ABC loved me. We shot the pilot and realized as soon as we had this family with this little girl with cancer that it was not about us arguing what color to fucking throw up on the walls. And the rest, my friend, is history.

The conceptual tweaks were huge. I think Space Invaders would have been a bust. So do I! What it taught me is the power of the people. It’s the blue-collar folks who come together and make this thing happen. The Camden, New Jersey, family was phenomenal.

Was that one dangerous? We certainly heard our share of pop-pop-pop, as we have in other areas, like South Central or Queens. It’s funny — [songwriter] Richard Thompson says it best: You go down the darkest alley, you find the brightest jewel. That’s not to say the struggles in the fields of Iowa are any less than the struggles in Camden, but between me and you, they are. There, you’re trying to plant your corn and reap your harvest, whether the locusts have come or whatever. But in the city, man, you have the crack, the crystal meth, the gangs.

What was the most emotionally draining project? Camp Barnabas, a summer camp in Missouri. The Teas family put all their money toward this camp for disabled kids. Paul Teas said anyone who comes there leaves a little bit of their heart, and to this day, I say when this thing is over and done, that’s what I want to do. It was just a phenomenal place, man.

You have a bit of a reputation as a crier. Do fellow handymen tell you to stop making carpenters look like wussies? I hear from my buddies in Delaware County saying, “What has become of you, man? You weeping fool!”

Is it hard to hammer through the tears? Sometimes, yeah, man. Sometimes it is. I remember Philadelphia’s children’s hospital. You walk through and you’re never the same. You say, what the fuck are we doing fighting wars, man?

I’ve honestly never seen an entire show, because I can’t take it. Even this conversation is breaking me down. Does ABC assign each cast member a therapist? [laughs] That’s so funny. No, ABC does not give us a therapist. I just had a little girl with me who has cystic fibrosis, and one of her Make-A-Wish things was working on sets. So I took her under my wing for a week. When I said bye to this little girl … you never know what tomorrow brings. That, brother, that rips my heart apart. That’s what gets me. [takes a breath] I try to let myself go on that emotional journey. And I usually weep like a baby.

As a Philly sports fan, have you struck up any friendships with athletes through the show? I’m in awe of athletes. I still believe I’ll someday play basketball like Charles Barkley. [Ex-Eagle] Jeremiah Trotter really helped us on the North Philadelphia build. Brian Dawkins sent a signed jersey, it meant so much to that kid. Chris Webber great guy.

Webber managed to produce something off the court? It’s funny, I was talking to Webber’s manager, she said he wants to be a guard. He doesn’t want to be that bruising kind of player. But my hat’s off to the guy. I was going to do an Allen Iverson room. This kid was such an Iverson fan, and [Iverson] was going to come up and the last day he didn’t. It became a Chris Webber room because Chris did, and it was great.