Kate Meyers
May 21, 1993 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Richard Karn was never supposed to get the role of Al Borland, Tim Taylor’s hypercompetent Tool Time helper on Home Improvement. Not only was the character supposed to be older than Karn, he was also supposed to be played by Stephen Tobolowsky (Groundhog Day). Not to be deterred, Karn, who was acting five parts in Macbeth at the First Baptist Church of Beverly Hills and working as an apartment-building manager at the time, gave his all in a 1991 audition. When Tobolowsky bowed out for scheduling reasons, executive producer Carmen Finestra called Karn to say, ”I hope you haven’t shaved that beard off.”

Karn, 37, kept the beard and proceeded to fashion Al’s quiet, bemused I-know-more-than-you-do-Tim demeanor into an indispensible element of the series. Karn says his off-camera relationship with Tim Allen ”is almost like the one on the show. Al knows what to do, but he’s not an entertainer. I’m an actor, and Tim is a stand-up comic who says, ‘I’m not an actor, I just play one on TV.”’ Karn smiles. ”I sometimes say Tim plays my assistant.”

After the first season, Karn felt secure enough to leave his day job with its rent-free flat and moved his family (wife, actress Tudi Roche, and son, Cooper, 1) into a four-bedroom house in Studio City. ”It still feels surreal,” says the Seattle-bred son of an architect. ”My dad’s become a minor celebrity among his friends, but he still sees me as the little boy who bends nails every time he picks up a hammer.”

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