Richardson hadn't appeared on a half-hour comedy since she and Allen wrapped Home Improvement in 1999. But now she's back, guest starring on the Jan. 9 episode of Allen's latest ABC comedy, Last Man Standing.
Richardson plays Helen Potts, a neighbor who is good with tools (yes, a nod to Allen's Home Improvement character) but who annoys nearby homes with her loud power tools. Mike (Allen) feels the need to step in when his wife Vanessa (Nancy Travis) and Helen become pals.
Allen said he wanted to wait until the Last Man Standing writers came up with the right role before inviting Richardson to set. "They all said, 'How would you feel about Pat coming on?' I learned a lot about acting from her. I can do comedy, but she's good at the craft of acting. I said it would be great, but I didn't want it to be like an ex-girlfriend or something like that."
Home Improvement alums Richard Karn and Jonathan Taylor Thomas have already made guest appearances on Last Man Standing. "As gimmicky as this kind of thing is, we didn't want it to be too gimmicky. When had Richard Karn and Jonathan Taylor Thomas on, they played real characters, we gave them something to do," says executive producer Tim Doyle. "We wanted to make sure that was the case here too, not just a star cameo. But there definitely are references to Home Improvement in the story."
Richardson says she felt welcome on the Last Man Standing set — particularly because much of the crew (and director John Pasquin) also worked on Home Improvement. "[Allen] seems so content," she says. "It's such a happy set. And he's so comfortable. I feel being here and watching him, I feel so happy to see him so happy doing this."
Might Richardson make another appearance? "If Pat has a good time and wants to come back, we'd be more than happy to have her back," Doyle says. "She's been great. She came in, and she's funny and a very different energy than Nancy Travis. Immediately the voices and their manner are very interesting contrast. If this works, I would fully expect we could have her back."
We were on set to watch the reunion between Allen and Richardson; here's an excerpt from an exclusive chat with the pair.
TV Guide Magazine: What took Last Man Standing so long to bring you two back together?
Tim Allen: Pat's traveling and also its tough to get her. I also didn't know if it would be uncomfortable for her. I didn't think it was appropriate. Then we got Richard Karn in the second season. Jonathan Taylor Thomas wanted to shadow our director and that's what we did for a while, and then we pitched him to come on the show. It is what it is, a promotional idea. But also, these are gifted actors besides the history we have. It's just peculiar, and even having her here is peculiar because we have such a history. There's moment where I look at Nancy and let her know, "There's nothing going on here."
Pat Richardson [to Allen]: When you two went and did a bedroom scene the other day and got into bed I thought, "What's she doing in bed with him? Get that woman out of here!" It's a little weird.
Allen: It's not like we got divorced, she just moved on to another job. There's no bad blood here.
Richardson: But also he's done a million movies with some of the best actresses in the world. He's worked with all of these incredible people so I've gotten used to seeing him with other women. Whenever I see him with other people I think, "Well, he was mine first."
Allen: It was a tough transition to do this show. The best way I can describe it is, you had a Golden Retriever that you grew up with and you love it and it passed on and you go, "I'm not going to get another dog."
Richardson: Am I a dog now?
Allen: No, Home Improvement was the Golden Retriever. I missed that show so much. And this show slowly creeped up on me.
TV Guide Magazine: Tim, talk about making it to Season 4, during what's generally considered a tough environment for traditional sitcoms.
Allen: It's not like when we did Home Improvement. We were king of the hill. Now it's tough to get noticed, it's tough to get a timeslot, it's tough to fight the Netflix/Amazon/Hulu world that's on phones. It's just very competitive. We fight to get noticed in this and we're winning our slot and we're doing everything that ABC wants us to do, but it's a very different world now.
Richardson: Even the networks, they're struggling to fight the world they're in.
Allen: We're on against shows that can either show full nudity, swear, provocative subjects. So we're right against that.
TV Guide Magazine: Pat, what's it like being back on set with Tim?
Richardson: I'm more nervous because I haven't been working as much. It's taking me a couple of days to get back to feeling comfortable. I haven't done a sitcom since 1999. For me it's about getting more comfortable doing a sitcom again. Because I was doing dramas.
Allen: John Pasquin, our Home Improvement director, also directs this show. John knows Pat. It's this weird dance, its hard not to go right back to doing what we did. She calls me Tim sometimes.
Richardson: It's so hard not to call him Tim since that was his character's name on Home Improvement.
Allen: I said, I'm dealing with two great actors in Nancy Travis and Pat Richardson. Pat had to have a character here that made sense.
Richardson: Other than satisfying the Home Improvement people that want to see jokes about us, we have to have a story that makes sense for Mike and Vanessa.
TV Guide Magazine: Will there be many Home Improvement references?
Allen: We do pay an homage. It's a delicate balance, it's a goof.
Richardson: I'm a tool person, so I wake up people all the time with my tools.
TV Guide Magazine: Sounds like a subtle reference to the old show.
Allen: Subtle? Nothing about that is subtle!
TV Guide Magazine: How much do the two of you keep in touch?
Allen: Through John [Pasquin] mostly, he has a Christmas party.
Richardson: I live on the East Coast, so I'm not in L.A. all that much. When I do come, I come at Christmas so we go Pasquin's Christmas party and see each other there. And watch our kids grow up.
Allen: We age, but Home Improvement continues to run. I see Jonathan Taylor Thomas, I see Zachary Ty Bryan quite a bit.
Richardson: A bunch of the crew is the same. Our Emmy winning lighting designer, he's on the show but he's got white hair now.
Allen: Everyone looks like they ate their parent.
TV Guide Magazine: Pat, why haven't you done comedies since Home Improvement?
Richardson: I've been offered sitcoms, I've been asked to audition for sitcoms, but they are so difficult. And I love doing drama [like her former series Strong Medicine]. It's easier. You go you work and you go home. It's not like doing tech week every week. After doing Home Improvement, I stopped working for a really long time. There was four years I didn't work at all. When I came back, I told [my agents], "Just say no to sitcoms." It's such a difficult thing to do. The network gets involved, they're there every day and have more opportunity to ruin it.
I had to wait until my kids went through college before I went back to work. I started doing theater again. I have been doing plays and got in front of an audience again, so that's sort of like doing this. But this is more than just getting in front of an audience. This is so difficult because you're doing a one-act play every week. I don't know how to do that anymore, it's been too long.
TV Guide Magazine: Is there a chance Pat might return for another episode?
Allen: If this character works, she's in the neighborhood. She's not going anywhere. I don't think it was ever designed for that, but it's enough of who she is that you smile at it. Once you get past that, it's an actor working with another actor. There's a little edge to it that reminds you where we came from.