At 'Home' in 'Color'

On the days when ABC's "Home Improvement" tapes, super mom Patricia Richardson can be found juggling five kids--three sons in the hit sitcom and two of her own, 18-month-old twins Roxanne and Joseph. Bringing her toddlers (but not her oldest, 7-year-old Henry) to the set every day can make life a bit hectic, but Richardson wouldn't have it any other way.

"When they're doing (the show within a show) 'Tool Time' and other scenes I'm not in, I get to go off and be with the twins," Richardson said. "But if they cry as you're leaving the dressing room--'Mama, Mama'--and you have to shut the door, it's hard. But I feel very lucky because most women don't even get that opportunity."

Being on television's only breakout hit of last season has meant increased salary demands by many of the series' cast members, but Richardson has taken a less financial, more family-oriented tack. "Right now, if one (twin) wakes up," she explained, "there's no quiet place to put the other. So I told the producers, 'I'm not renegotiating for more money but I want another room.' "

On the set Richardson has plenty of room, matching quips and wits with her screen husband Tim Allen, macho handyman host of the how-to local cable series "Tool Time." Her character Jill Taylor projects a gutsy but never overbearing female counterpoint, a supporting role Richardson gladly accepts.

"For the Emmy nominations they were going to submit me in the leading category," she said, "and John Pasquin the director and I both said no. I'm not. A lot of the heart of the show is centered around our relationship and I get to do a lot, but the show is driven from Tim's character.

"One part of me wants the show to be about me sometimes because it's always more interesting as an actor--your objectives are clearer, it's more fun. You get a lot to do. It's like a bigger hamburger to chew on. However, I'm always comfortable in a supporting role, particularly if I'm working with someone who's as good as Tim is. Tim is so easy because he's a good actor. He's genuinely funny and very responsive."

Richardson embraces her show's real-life approach to real-life problems. "I always have a problem with shows that take a family and make it seem like some sort of an ideal situation," she said. "I don't think that's what life is about or what families are about ... what I want to see is a real family struggling, making mistakes. If there was anything I could say I wanted Jill to be, (it) would be not perfect. I don't want her to be all glamorous and sitcomy and skinny and beautiful."

On the subject of skinny: Richardson was a last-minute addition to the "Home Improvement" cast after another series had fallen through. She was then nursing her newborns and still carrying some postpartum weight. (She has since dropped 25 pounds and would feel comfortable losing another 10, but the producers also don't want her character skinny.)

When the pilot was taped, she recalled, "I wasn't that anxious to work. I had my babies so I thought, 'It'll be great. I'll do this pilot and get all this money and I won't have to work again until December,' never ever thinking that in July I'd be back to work."

In most series an actor portrays a single character, but in a skits-and-bits show such as "In Living Color" the cast gets to play any number of personas. So what does Tony nominee and Yale School of Drama graduate David Alan Grier prefer--shaping one character or juggling multiple personalities?

"In a lot of ways 'In Living Color' is closer to what I was trained to do, i.e. repertory theater," said Grier, noted for the series characters of blues singer Calhoun Tubbs and gay film critic Antoine Merriweather, among others.

"One week you're doing this, another week you're doing that--a leading role, a supporting role. I'm really starting to feel like I'm in a company because when I walk into work every day the great thing is the security. I know I can try anything."

That confidence undoubtedly extends throughout "In Living Color's" talented ensemble cast that includes Jim Carrey, Damon Wayans and Kelly Coffield. But with so many cooks tinkering in the kitchen, creator Kennen Ivory Wayans is clearly the person producing the main course.

"Keenen is definitely the artistic center," said Grier. "With us it's all flailing arms and 'Me me me--I don't want more lines, I just need more things to say!' You really do need a person to say, "Stop." Keenen is brilliant at that. I think a great director is one who makes the actor think it was his idea."

Grier was initially a reluctant cast member. He'd turned down offers several times before his wife Maritza persuaded him to do the series, a fortuitous decision that Grier still hears about on occasion. "Only in key moments of negotiation does she throw that on the table," he admitted with a smile, explaining that his initial resistance stemmed from a belief that his theatrical acting should drive his career.

"I always felt like you should never try to buy an invitation to the dinner," he said. "You should wait, and when it's your time you will be invited. But that's really not the way Hollywood works. You have to hustle and work on building a career. Not everyone's career is based on, 'I saw you in this wonderful play at the South Coast Repertory--here's a three-picture deal.' "

Grier had worked extensively on stage and in film before "In Living Color." In 1982 he earned a Tony nomination for his Broadway portrayal of baseball great Jackie Robinson in "The First." He later teamed with Denzel Washington and Adolph Caesar in an off-Broadway production of "A Soldier's Play," roles that all three reprised for Norman Jewison's film version, "A Soldier's Story."

His first movie since joining the series is Eddie Murphy's current hit "Boomerang." Grier hopes that his next film, currently in development at Murphy's company at Paramount, will catapult him beyond supporting role status.

"It's the first project being written for me," he said, "and that represents the next level I'd love to be in, because usually I'm the guy who's told, 'It's for an albino midget but make it work' or, 'It was written for a blonde woman but we know you can bring something to it.' "

"Home Improvement" airs Tuesdays at 8:30 p.m. on ABC. It moves to Wednesdays at 9 p.m. in the fall.

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