"This Handyman's Special"
Magazine name: TV Guide
Issue: December 17, 1994
Richard Karn's 'Tool Time' bit earns him fame - and enough fortune for home improvements.
Richard Karn owes his wife, Tudi, big-time. Not because she gave birth to his pride and joy - a 2-year-old boy named Cooper. And not because she married him in the first place, even though as a struggling stage actor pulling in $150 a week, he wasn't much of a catch.
No, he owes Tudi because she convinced him to take the biggest gamble of his life - to load up their beat-up '74 Buick Apollo five years ago and leave New York for Hollywood. Call it "Ricky & Tudi's Excellent Adventure."
"We were the typical married starving actor family," recalls Karn, 38. "I was doing a play in Columbus, Ohio, and I got a call from Tudi. She said, 'We're moving to Los Angeles.' And I said, 'Are you sure about this?' She was. We packed that car so tight - we called if the Mean Green Driving Machine - and stayed with friends all across the country. Kiddingly, we said to each other, 'You never know. Maybe we'll hit something really big.'"
Boy, did they ever. In a series of remarkable flukes, Karn wound up landing a bit part as toolmaster supreme Al Borland on ABC's HOME IMROVEMENT. The show took off, and Karn's character - an everyday blue-collar teddy bear of a guy who'd make any mom proud - has become huge. In fact, the "Q ratings" - a key measure of how recognizable and popular a celebrity is - now rank Karn as the second most likable man in prime time, trailing only HOME IMPROVEMENT's star, Tim Allen.
"When I saw those numbers, my jaw dropped," says Karn. "To be more recognized than Andy Griffith and Michael Richards is a little scary."
Along with the fame has come fortune. He now has a weekly paycheck that could feed a family of four for a year, a cozy home he never thought he could afford, and a Caddy in the carport.
"I never thought I'd own a Cadillac," says Karn standing in his driveway admiring the view. Just so he won't forget, Karn keeps a photo of that ugly green gas-guzzling Buick on his fridge.
Of course, Tudi's gamble should have backfired - Karn didn't have an agent, a place to stay, or a job. He knew a few people in L.A., friends who had already made The Move. "It's the move everybody makes," says Andy Cadiff a friend of Karn's who produces and directs IMPROVEMENT. "You come out here looking for the pot of gold. I remember the call from Rick. He said, 'I'm out here. I'm gonna give it a go.' Under my breath I said, 'Yeah, you and everybody else.'"
After a series of odd jobs, he scored two regular gigs: catering bar mitzvahs and weddings at the Stephen S. Wise Temple, and managing his apartment building. Karn's show-biz luck began to change when he got pulled over by a cop for making a "California stop" - a slow roll through a stop sign. He went to the Improv Traffic School, where he sat next to a woman who happened to be an agent. Talk about karma. She told him about a show called HOME IMPROVEMENT that was casting a neighbor and a handyman.
Karn called the producers (whom he knew from his theater days), but the parts were already cast: Stephen Tobolowsky (the annoying salesman in "Groundhog Day") had landed the role of Al. But Tobolowsky bowed out to make a movie, and Karn was asked to fill in just for the pilot. Then just for a few episodes, as a reappearing guest star.
No wonder he continued as an apartment manager - rent free - for the rest of the season. "They basically thought of me as this guest star who stuck around."
Perhaps because of that status, Karn has become the official welcomer for the guests. "Whether you have one line or 10, Rick will make you feel comfortable," says Debbe Dunning, IMPROVEMENT's "Tool Time" Girl. "An hour after he meets you, he's got his arm around you, giving you pats, saying what a good job you're doing. He's just a sweet guy."
With his position at IMPROVEMENT secure, Karn is ready to hammer out some new deals. Already, he's hosting a celebrity golf tournament (ESPN, Sunday, Dec. 18, 1 P.M./ET) for cancer research, as well as producing and starring in an ABC-TV movie during the next hiatus.
Karn is also thinking about a spinoff. "ABC jumped," says a source close to the actor. "They're cashing in on his Q rating."
Meanwhile, back on the set, Karn is hoping for more airtime for his character. "You rarely get a story about Al," he says. "Al is peripheral, as much as I fight against that. Someday, I may win that battle."
But even though Karn and Allen are neck and neck in the Q ratings, there's no question about who's the boss. "We're No. 1 and 2, but Tim's the franchise," says Karn. "Right now he's the 500-pound gorilla. In a few years when I get my own show, who knows? Maybe this is what broke up Martin and Lewis."
- By Mark Schwed
Thanks to Adam for sending this article.