12/14/1992 at 01:00 AM EST
SHE HAS WHAT MIGHT BE THE MOST THANKLESS job on TV. Patricia Richardson's Jill Taylor, the wife of Tim Allen's blustering macho man on the sitcom smash Home Improvement, works part-time as a magazine researcher, cooks, cleans and cares for three young sons—and those are the easy parts. As Home viewers know, Jill's most arduous task is saving her domicile from certain destruction every time her tool-happy husband picks up a torque wrench. With sass and some brass, Jill survives and even prevails.
For her considerable efforts as Jill, Richardson, 41, has won over audiences, critics—The New York Times praised her "down-home humanity"—and even her madcap costar. "She teaches me a lot," says Allen, a stand-up comic when the series began. "Sometimes she's so good I need a reality check: 'Hey, wait a second, this isn't my home! She's not my wife!' "
But for all the plaudits, Pat Richardson sometimes is envious—of Jill Taylor. "Jill's more sane and centered than I am," says Richardson. And no wonder. When she leaves the Home set, waiting for her at her toy-strewn, two-story Santa Monica house are her husband, actor Ray (Places in the Heart) Baker, 44, and their children, 7-year-old Henry and 23-month-old twins Roxanne and Joseph—not to mention Henry's pet lizard, Sparky. "My life is about trying not to spread myself too thin," says Richardson. "I don't want to fail my children or my husband."
It doesn't help that the theatricality she brings to her TV persona works against her in daily life. "I have a side that is extremely Southern—highly strung, dramatic and way overemotional," says Richardson, who was reared partly in Texas. And she's her own worst critic. As Baker puts it, "She's a perfectionist. You name it, she has it under a microscope to see how it can be improved. She read 16,000 books on parenting."
In fact, two years ago, the onscreen model of motherly cool sought out a parenting therapist to help her throttle back. "I grew up in an anal-retentive house, so it's really hard for me not to walk through a room and start picking things up," Richardson says. "But I've learned to let go."
And that has meant going against the grain of her upbringing by her father, Laurence, a Navy test pilot who became an aeronautical executive, and her homemaker mother, Mary Elizabeth. "My folks wanted to bring us up as if it were the military," Richardson says. Pat and her three sisters (she's the next to youngest) also had to adjust to frequent family moves, due to their father's career. "I got good at cutting off people, she says. "I'd try to distance myself from the painful loss." She was the rebellious black sheep until, at 13, she got hooked on acting when she saw a production of Oliver! "I knew I never wanted to do anything else," she recalls. Her parents were less enthusiastic, and her mother "still to this day calls actors 'just a bunch of kooks,' " she says. Richardson studied drama at Dallas's tony Hockaday school for girls and at Southern Methodist University. "Acting," she discovered, "loosened the knots of pain," and she's now on good terms with her family, vacationing with them every year.
Richardson chased her dream to New York City, where in 1974 she was hired to understudy the title role in the Broadway musical Gypsy. Commercials, a couple of plays and small parts on TV followed. At a reading for a play in 1980, Richardson met Baker. The play never made it, but the pair were a smash, marrying in 1982. After Henry's birth they moved to L.A., where Richardson worked in such short-lived series as Double Doable, Eisenhower and Lutz and FM. Then things got interesting. She became pregnant again, and "as I was driving down Melrose, I felt a couple of bubbles in my stomach," she says. "I had this flash: There are two babies in there!" Sure enough, Roxie and Joe debuted in 1990.
Four months later the producers of Home Improvement called; Frances Fisher (Clint Eastwood's girlfriend and Unforgiven costar), originally signed to play Jill, had bowed out. Richardson stuck a crib in her dressing room (she also has two daytime nannies) and started trading jabs with Mien. The success of the show has enabled Richardson and Baker to splurge on some real home improvement. "We've always furnished our houses with free stud, like we were college students," says Richardson. "It's all on the Way out." Strenuous redecorating—along with tennis, bike riding and step-machine workouts—keep Richardson in supermom shape. She also rallies behind pro-choice, environmental and help-for-the-homeless causes.
And while she hopes to add TV movies and films to her already madcap schedule. Richardson is right where she wants to be. "The twins have rooted her," says Baker. "She's less flighty, more secure." Picking up Roxie, Richardson looks as happy as Tim Allen holding a 10-pound buzz saw. "This," she says, beaming, "this helps me to calm down."
JOHN GRIFFITHS in Los Angeles