AS HE PREPARES TO DRIVE FROM the 17th tee of the Malibu Country Club, actor Richard Karn suddenly finds himself accosted by another golfer. "Hey, is that Al?" the stranger inquires. "Why isn't the Tool Time girl caddying for you?"

Karn's TV alter ego, Al Borland (a serious miniature golfer), has been known to snap at small children for breaking his concentration. But Karn's bushy brown beard can barely conceal a wry grin. After four seasons as Tim Allen's sidekick on ABC's Home Improvement, Karn, 39, has happily reached that rarefied stratum where no sanctuary is sacrosanct—not even a golf course. He has gotten there by playing the consummate straight man. When Allen, as Tim "the Tool Man" Taylor, is about to do something really stupid—like accidentally chopping a table in half with a monster chain saw—Al's job is to step in and deliver his signature warning: "I don't think so, Tim." And how does the star feel about Karn's scene-stealing expertise? "Rick's a horrible, horrible man," says Allen. "I can't imagine working with anybody worse."

He's kidding, of course. The two are buddies off the set and on the links, where Allen is a 25 handicapper and Karn a 20. Golf is more than Karn's weekend passion. On June 10-11 in his hometown of Seattle, he'll host his own second annual celebrity golf tournament, featuring Samuel L. Jackson, Craig T. Nelson, Tom Poston and Tool Time girl Debbe Dunning (Allen will be away in Greece). Last year the event raised $40,000 for cancer research.

In 1983, Karn—born Richard Karn Wilson—lost his 56-year-old mother, Louise, a noted painter, to bone-marrow cancer. The tournament is his way of keeping her memory alive. Karn is close to his father, Gene Wilson, 68, who is—yes—a contractor and built the house where Rick grew up with his sister Sue, now 44 and a mother of two. Karn sees himself as a combination of both parents—"the practical contractor and the artistic spirit."

"People ask me all the time: 'Can he fix things?' " says Karn's wife, Tudi, an actress who specializes in commercial voice-overs. "And I say, 'Well, ironically, yes.' " Like Al, Karn enjoys making home improvements around the four-bedroom house in Studio City, Calif., that he and Tudi, 39, share with their son Cooper, 3.

Karn's artistic side first blossomed in plays at Seattle's Roosevelt High School and in local summer stock. In 1979, after graduating from the University of Washington's School of Drama, Karn moved to New York City, where, within a week, he landed a Michelob commercial that kicked off the 1980 Super Bowl—and dropped his last name because there was another Richard Wilson in the Screen Actors Guild. He scored in a few more TV ads before making his 1983 Off-Broadway debut in the play The Other Shore. Also in the cast was Tudi Roche. "We didn't come on till the second act, so we had the whole first act to get to know each other," says Karn, who proposed the following year on her birthday, July 19, at 1:05 p.m., the exact minute of her birth. They happened to be shopping for housewares, and Karn popped the question while Roche was holding a pair of pot holders.

A year after their 1985 wedding the couple were walking through Manhattan's Port Authority bus terminal one night when Tudi, then 31, suddenly collapsed. She lapsed into a three-day coma, during which doctors discovered she had a brain aneurysm. Fortunately tests revealed that an artery had leaked rather than burst, which would have been fatal. After surgery, Tudi went home and recovered fully. Karn even manages to joke about the ordeal. "I tell her I should have taken out the five-year warranty when we married," he says.

In 1989, weary of the separations imposed by stints in regional theater, the couple moved to L.A. to start a family. A year and a half later, Tudi was pregnant with Cooper and her husband was attending traffic school (after rolling through a stop sign) when a classmate, an agent, told Karn about a new sitcom called Home Improvement. The actor originally signed to play Al had left to pursue a movie career, and Karn was given a try out. "After three or four shows, the chemistry between Rick and Tim was evident," says the show's co-creator Carmen Finestra.

Recently the Karns commuted to work together when Tudi taped a guest shot as Carrie, the globe-trotting sister of Tim's wife, Jill (Patricia Richardson). She and Karn had no scenes together. "So I could stand back and watch," he says, "and feel the relief washing over me, since she was very good."

At home, says Tudi, "Rick's a great father"—giving his son baths and reading him stories. But has he shown Cooper how to use a hammer yet? "Of course he has," says Tudi, with mock indignation. "I was worried that he was going to get the chain saw out too early, but he hasn't. So far."

MICHAEL A. LIPTON
TOM CUNNEFF in Malibu

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  • Tom Cunneff.