Nailing the Part
Such handiness makes Dunning a perfect replacement for actress Pamela Anderson, who left Home Improvement at the end of last season to concentrate on her Baywatch role. As Heidi, Dunning joins the ranks of women who got their first big breaks as sexual-objet walk-ons, among them Raquel Welch (in the '60s on The Hollywood Palace) and Mary Tyler Moore (her voice and legs, on Richard Diamond, Private Detective, in 1959). Dunning's role on Home Improvement often involves little more than bellowing, "Does everybody know what time it is?" ("Tool Time!" cries the audience.)
So what if it's not Lady Macbeth ("Is that a putty knife I see before me ...?"), "It's a stepping stone," says the cheery, pragmatic Dunning. "It's not degrading. I'm just introducing a show." Having spent the last seven years taking bit parts (Married...with Children; Knots Landing), commercials and modeling jobs, she is thrilled to have stable work. "Before, I'd be running around from audition to audition, sometimes five a day," she says. Dunning is comfortable on the set of Improvement, where she likes to sneak up and scare Allen ("He screams") or snip people's hair with wire clippers. "I get fidgety," she admits.
When Dunning auditioned for the part of Heidi against hundreds of other women, her agent urged her to go natural. "The producers were going the wholesome route," she says. "But when I walked in and saw all the beautiful women, I thought, 'Why didn't I put more make-up on?' " Now, Dunning is glad the role doesn't call for tarting up. "I like being considered both voluptuous and the girl next door," she says.
And really that's pretty much what she is. Dunning was raised just a hammer's throw away from the Bur-bank soundstage where Improvement is filmed. Her father, Bob, 48, works as a TV and film sound technician, and her mother, Diane, 48, had a career as an animator until she bought a pet shop five years ago. A tomboy, but with dramatic aspirations, Debbe grew up trying to emulate her older brother Dan, 30—an aspiring artist and musician (currently a meat cutter) with whom she used to ride motorcross bikes—and idolizing Vivien Leigh. ("I put my mom through hell, acting like Leigh for four years.") At John Burroughs high, she skipped the school plays and opted for cheerleading and track and field. The 5'7", 113-lb. Dunning was a school record-setting shot-putter. It wasn't until she got to Pierce Junior College in Woodland Hills that Debbe began formally studying drama; meanwhile, she supported herself as a dental assistant. "I remember at the time thinking, 'Wow, maybe that's what I'll do in life,' " she says.
Tooth time's loss is Tool Time's gain. Off the set, Dunning is "doing the dating thing." Her apartment, which she shares with two cats and a Schnauzer, is filled with crafts and jewelry of her own design and shelves she installed herself. Okay, so what's the Tool Time Girl's favorite implement? "Tweezers," says Dunning. "For plucking my eyebrows."
JOHNNY DODD in Los Angeles