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."
Growing up in a large family proved good practice for handling supporting roles. Having moved frequently as a result of her father's career as a Navy test pilot, Richardson recalled many long car rides singing harmony with her three sisters. Later on came vocals in church choirs and theatrical roles after she moved to New York following graduation from Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
"When I used to be a singer a little bit I was really always more comfortable singing harmony with other people," she said. "There's something real joyous about the shared experience."
That experience translates to the screen, where 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."
Perhaps that mindset stemmed from her earlier sparkling roles in two short-lived sitcoms, "Eisenhower & Lutz" and "FM."
"They were both good, ambitious shows that didn't talk down to the audience," she said. "They were worthy efforts that for one reason or another didn't make it, so I knew that 'good' had nothing to do with whether 'Home Improvement' went or not. In my mind it was another family sitcom with a stand-up comic. How many of those have they done? This whole thing is kind of kismet. Ray (Baker, her actor-husband) calls it the lottery. You get lucky and you pull the right number and you get a seven-year bonanza."
This season the series will expand to give Jill a part-time job and introduce her parents as well. Its fall move to 9 p.m. will allow for more adult situations.
A second sitcom will enter Richardson's life when her husband begins "Great Scott," a Sunday night fall series on Fox.
"One of the big reasons we moved to L.A. is because we were tired of traveling all over the country," she said, referring to their previous itinerant film and theater work.
"Sitcom is the perfect mom and dad job."
"Home Improvement" airs Tuesdays at 8:30 p.m. on ABC. It moves to Wednesdays at 9 p.m. in the fall.