The Unbuilder

updated 06/11/2001 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/11/2001 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Don't ask Keith Chapman to repair a leaky faucet, unstop a drain or tighten a squeaky door. "Can we fix it? Yes we can!" may be the motto of his TV cartoon creation Bob the Builder, a five-day-a-week staple on cable's Nick Jr. But Chapman? No, he can't. Once, trying to renovate his bathroom, he says, "I just took this huge sledge-hammer and smashed the hell out of the wall. All this brickwork fell out and literally filled up the bathroom, and I couldn't even get out. My wife thought I was hopeless."

His three sons and his artist wife, Kirsty, concur. "He superglued his fingers together," recalls 12-year-old William, "and when he phoned for help, his hand got stuck to the phone." Adds 10-year-old Ben: "He isn't very good at DIY [do-it-yourself]. My mom will ask me to put up the pictures."

Despite his klutziness, Chapman, a London advertising executive, remains a hero to William, Ben and Bertie, 7, along with children in 107 other countries, for creating Bob. The 9-in-tall hard hat with the red-checked shirt and sunny disposition is the driving force behind an animated armada of talking bulldozers, steam shovels and dump trucks.

"Bob has a great message, all about working together and helping each other—and kids are fascinated by machines," says Brown Johnson, Nickelodeon's head of preschool programming, who brought an adapted version of the BBC series to the U.S. in January, using American voice-over actors and dialogue. Since then Bob the Builder has become one of the highest-rated cable shows among children age 5 and under.

Bob is also big business. Across the pond, some 600 Bob products, including yogurt and cereal, are already being hawked, and plans are under way for a U.S. line of Bob-themed toys, dolls and clothes. Chapman, 42, who earns a percentage on every Bob item sold, estimates he's taken in several hundred thousand dollars so far, enabling him to buy his family a five-bedroom Victorian-era house in the upscale London neighborhood of Putney.

"It is a dream, isn't it?" says Chapman of his success. In fact, it began as a childhood daydream. Growing up in Essex, on the outskirts of London, the second oldest of five children, he spent his spare time drawing comic strips. "I used to think, 'One day my characters will be as famous as Mickey Mouse,' " he says.

Chapman's parents—Roy, now 68, a manager at a manufacturing company, and Pat, 64, a onetime maternity nurse—were less sure about their son's future, especially when they learned of his plans to attend Great Yarmouth College of Art and Design. "My dad thought I was completely mad," Chapman recalls. "He always used to say to me, 'Why don't you get a proper job?' "

Chapman did just that. After graduating in 1979 he signed on as a junior art director with an ad agency. Five years later he married Kirsty Asher, a Great Yarmouth classmate who'd been impressed by his can-do spirit. "Right from the beginning he said he would make a million," says Kirsty, 42, who works part-time as a day-care aide. "Everyone believed him because he was so determined."

Even as the couple struggled financially over the next several years, Chapman doodled on. In 1982 he began drawing the vehicles at a construction site near his home in Wimbledon. "Then I thought, 'They need somebody to look after them,' so I started sketching Bob," Chapman says. But it wasn't until the early '90s, when his sons were asking for new bedtime tales, that Chapman regaled the boys with Bob's adventures—such as rescuing a family of mice. Suddenly he realized the character's commercial potential. "Kids like diggers, they love scooping up sand," he says. "I didn't see why Bob couldn't be as big as Thomas the Tank Engine," another British phenomenon.

Producers at England's HIT Entertainment agreed, and Bob the Builder made its debut in '99. Though he ceded creative control on the show, Chapman, who retains royalty rights, reports, "They say I will be a millionaire over the next year or two."

Meantime he has quit his advertising job. "I can just sit home and be creative," he says. "I've got so many good ideas." With luck, none will involve knocking down bathroom walls.

Galina Espinoza
Eileen Finan in London

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