Actress juggles her 'Home Improvement' role and a real home life

THE BALTIMORE SUN

With full knowledge that the refills will keep coming until she may burst, Patricia Richardson orders an ice tea, shoving aside the diet soda she likes so well for the promise of a beverage that knows no limits.

"They just keep pouring it in," the actress said gleefully at a neighborhood cafe near her Santa Monica, Calif., home.

The co-star of ABC's "Home Improvement" orders lunch carefully on this unexpected afternoon off from the No. 1-rated show in the country. Today, it's poached salmon with baby greens, dressing on the side.

"I had a lot of the baby fat," explained Ms. Richardson, who began her role as Jill Taylor three months after twins Roxanne and Joseph were born. "I still have a lot of the baby fat. I'm never going to recover from this pregnancy."

Now almost 3, her twins (she and her husband, actor Ray Baker, also have an 8-year-old son, Henry) have grown up on ABC's "Home Improvement," which has knocked "Roseanne" off its perch to claim the top spot in the Nielsen list.

She's not a household name

It has made a household name out of comedian Tim Allen, the macho star of the show-within-the-show "Tool Time" and has increased the visibility of Ms. Richardson, the only one of the fictional Taylors to have acting experience.

Just last week, Mr. Allen wondered why an Emmy nomination has eluded his co-star. "I'll never understand it," he told USA Today. "She constantly amazes me. She can just turn on the emotions. I'm so proud of her."

dTC These days, while she doesn't want to appear ungracious for having the luck to be on a hit show, Ms. Richardson finds herself struggling to take her character out of the shadows of being merely a wife and mother into the light of a fully dimensional woman.

"Right now, for the most part, she's been a character who only exists in reaction to her husband and children, which is a situation in my life I would have avoided strenuously," Ms. Richardson said in a soft Texas drawl, which becomes more pronounced, she says, when she's comfortable or mixing it up with her Southern friends.

A woman of strength

During the three years "Home Improvement" has been on the air, Ms. Richardson has worked to imbue her character with strength.

"If Tim doesn't have somebody strong working opposite him, he looks abusive," she noted. "She has to be a strong person or she wouldn't be able to cope in that marriage."

BWhen Tim Taylor looks like he gets the last word in, in comes Jill Taylor to slam-dunk him.

"Every once in a while they give me a really, really good zinger," she said. "Sometimes we have to be careful because I don't want every line I say to him to be a put-down on him. After a while, it's not going to be funny anymore."

Ms. Richardson is ever vigilant about her character lest Jill Taylor becomes boring or, worse, a woman who isn't allowed to make mistakes.

"There are very few women involved in the whole show," she said. "They need somebody in there with a strong voice to come in here and say, 'Hey, wait a minute. What is this? Donna Reed time?' Once in a while, there's the tendency to want to write

a male fantasy of the woman that makes up easily, gets mad but is easily placated."

And now that Jill is working, Ms. Richardson is concerned that the writers make it absolutely clear how hard it is for parents.

"These guys wrote 'Cosby.' " she said. "I don't want that kind of situation where you've got two people who are working, a million kids, and nobody cleaning the house, nobody being the nanny."

Jill Taylor will not be a clone of Clair Huxtable, Ms. Richardson insisted.

"You have this beautiful woman who is always imperturbable, has a sense of humor, looks gorgeous, is a lawyer and has five kids. Her house is perfect. How is she doing that? And how inadequate does it make me feel to watch that?" she asked.

"I know it's just a sitcom, but you start picking up through osmosis that somehow, you're supposed to be delivering everything," she said. "Our show has always had a really good foot planted in reality. That's one of the things I fight for."

Audience identifies

The audience makes a connection to their own lives, Ms. Richardson said.

"What I hear most often is that people say, 'You are watching through our window. This is our life. How do you know?' "

An actress since she was 18 -- Ms. Richardson previously had starred in "FM," "Eisenhower and Lutz" and four other short-lived shows -- she began making the rounds again shortly after the twins were born. It was suggested she audition for NBC's now canceled "I'll Fly Away" for the role of the sexy lawyer that eventually went to Kathryn Harrold.

"I was like, what is the point? I cannot play this part. I'm 60 pounds overweight so the only parts that were left were wife and mother parts, which I had a lot of misgivings about," she said.

She considered those roles a "dead end" as an actress. "Usuallythe parts aren't very interesting to play, but that was all I could go up for," Ms. Richardson said, tucking into her salad.

With that in mind, she was cast in a dark comedy centered on a young family created by the producers of "The Wonder Years," but they had trouble filling the husband role.

Meanwhile, ABC and Disney told her they wanted her for a family sitcom built around a stand-up comic. But the pilot script left her lukewarm.

"It was good, but I thought it was pretty standard fare," she recalled. "I really didn't have a clue this would be as big a deal as it turned out."

But on the night the pilot for "Home Improvement" was taped, her husband knew his wife was going to be employed for a very long time.

"Ray came back and said, 'This is the show you're going to do for seven years. You'd better get used to it,' " recalled Ms. Richardson. "You can't tell from audiences. People were really -- laughing, but people really laughed at other shows I had done that didn't go. It meant nothing to me."

Ms. Richardson knows the trials of being a working mother. She totes her own twins to the Burbank set every day, but she rarely gets to spend time with Henry.

"The hardest thing is my 8-year-old," she said sadly. "I don't get to see him at all except for the week that I'm off. I'm off every three weeks for a week, and I know most working people don't even get that."

She met her husband 13 years ago in New York City. They married two years later, which gave her enough time, she said, to know there was going to be some work involved. He was divorced, and she didn't trust her ability to stay in a marriage.

"I was very nervous when I married him. I was hyperventilating all the way down the aisle. I really was about to pass out during my entire wedding," she said, laughing. "I just didn't know if I could marry anybody. Now I'd marry him in a second. I'd marry him a million times over."

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