The Celebrity Collector

Richard Karn,  is an avid golfer and has a sizeable
collection of signed golf balls

By Ken Hall

Growing up in Seattle, Wash., actor Richard Karn was drawn to the outdoors and spent a lot of time fishing and playing golf. Looking every bit the rugged outdoorsman, he was a natural to play "Al," the cordless power tool expert on TV's "Home Improvement." With a stout build, trimmed beard and a clean lumberjack shirt each week, Karn was the perfect "Tool Time" sidekick for Tim Allen.

As it turned out, Karn's love of the great outdoors (golf especially) has led to other things in his life. For one, he regularly holds the Richard Karn Celebrity Golf Tournament in his home state (this year's event will be held just outside Seattle on July 26th), with the proceeds going to benefit cancer research. And that's resulted in a nice collection of celebrity-signed golf balls, about 80 in all.

"I've got them all in a self-contained, wall-mounted cabinet," Karn said from his home in Los Angeles. "I've devised a rack system, with each rack acting as a golf ball holder. There are about nine balls per rack." He added it isn't easy to sign a golf ball. "You have to rotate it as you sign it, to keep up with the dimples," he said with a laugh. "Some of the signatures are a little bit wobbly."

Karn's collection is about equally divided between celebrities (or noted public figures) and golf professionals. In the former category, he has one signed by the late Bob Hope ("I got it when I played in the Bob Hope Desert Classic in 1996. He only played the first three holes and the last three holes, but he knocked it around pretty good"), Samuel L. Jackson, Jerry Ford and Bill Clinton.

But Karn really lights up when he talks about the golfers he's played with, rubbed shoulders with and gotten autographs from. "One time I was playing the Augusta National in Georgia and I saw this big, looming figure. I got closer to see who this tall man could be, and it was George Archer (the golf pro and one of the top all-time tour money winners). I felt so grateful to get him to sign a ball."

Other golfers who've been happy to oblige Karn include Fuzzy Zoeller, Arnold Palmer, Tom Kite, Davis Love III, Vijay Singh, John Daly, Chi-Chi Rodriguez and Phil Mickelson. Great golfers all -- legends even -- but what, no Tiger Woods? "I asked Tiger for his autograph, but he has a tight contract that prevents him from signing balls. I did get him to sign a glove, though. That he could do."

The Phil Mickelson autograph almost didn't happen. When Karn approached him, at a tournament, Mickelson mistook him for a stargazing fan and dismissed him. Besides, he's restricted from signing almost as much as Tiger is. "But his wife recognized me and kind of poked Phil in the ribs. He caught up to me and signed the ball. I tease him now that I sold it for a huge amount on eBay."

Signed golf balls aren't the only collectible in the Karn household. Richard's wife, the former actress and singer Tudi Roche, is a big fan of salt and pepper shakers and many of her pieces are displayed in the kitchen. These include a hamburger that splits apart and one part becomes the salt shaker and the other pepper; a rod and reel; boots and cactus (bought in Texas) and a pair of bears.

"Tudi was out gift shopping for somebody and came across a Statue of Liberty set, and she liked them so much she ended up keeping them for herself," Karn explained. "Since then, the collection has grown and she buys new pieces when she's out and about. One of my favorites is the Harley-Davidson motorcycle set. It comes apart so the rider is one piece and the bike the other."

Richard Karn Wilson was born Feb. 17, 1956, one of two children born to Gene and Louise Wilson. He dropped his last name when he applied for membership in the Screen Actors Guild and found there was already a Richard Wilson listed. He acted in school plays and was active in community theatre and summer stock. He majored in theater at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Karn's professional acting debut was in a 1979 Michelob beer commercial. He since has done another beer ad, for Miller Lite. In New York, he acted in the off-Broadway productions "Losing It" and "The Other Shore" (where he met Tudi), as well as in the Broadway plays "Me and My Girl" and "Our Father." His TV debut was as a sketch player on Carol Burnett's "Carol & Company" in 1990.

By this time, Richard and Tudi had moved from New York to Los Angeles to raise a family (their son, Cooper, would later appear in a "Home Improvement" episode titled "I Was a Teenage Taylor"). Karn was piling stage credits, becoming comfortable as a comic lead. He earned high praise by receiving a Critic's Choice Award from the Los Angeles Times for his work in "Our Father."

But stardom was still eluding him. Work in two films -- "Desperately Seeking Susan" and "House of Games" -- ended up on the cutting room floor. It wasn't until he rolled through a stop sign while on his way home from a rehearsal for "Macbeth" that Karn's life would change forever. He was given a ticket and ordered to attend traffic school. It was the best thing that could have happened.

"One of the people in traffic school was a talent agent who told me about a new TV show called 'Home Improvement,'" Karn recalled. "The series was being produced by several writers I had met while working in repertory years earlier in Indiana. I made a few phone calls and was able to arrange a meeting, but I was told the show had already been cast. I asked for an audition anyway."

His persistence paid off. As it happened, the actor who had been chosen to play the "Al Borland" role decided instead to accept a movie part. Karn was in, but only for the pilot, he was told. They were fairly sure the original actor would return for the series. But when Karn delivered the now-famous line, "I don't think so, Tim," it got the biggest laugh of the pilot and the part was his for good.

"Home Improvement" was the #3-rated show in its first full season (1991) and consistently ranked in the top 10 Nielsen ratings during its seven-year run. Even after the show was cancelled, Karn had become so linked with his character it led to other opportunities outside of acting. He was a spokesman for Wayne/Dalton, the garage door maker (and golf tournament co-sponsor with Karn).

Karn is currently a spokesman for the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corp., based in Atlanta. He travels across the U.S. and Canada for RBRC, educating consumers about the importance of rechargeable battery and cell phone recycling. His likeness appears on RBRC materials, usually in a dressed-down, "Al" persona. He also makes public service announcements for the firm.

Lest we suggest that life for Richard Karn in the post-"Home Improvement" era has been all corporate spokesman gigs, he's still very much on television (as anybody who watches cable TV can tell you). He's the host of the weekly game show "Family Feud," which is seen in syndication nationwide. Karn replaced Louie Anderson, who took over for Richard Dawson on the hit program.

Karn could have forgone acting to become a fourth-generation builder. His father, Gene Wilson, is a retired Seattle architect and building contractor. "I got a kick out of seeing my son as the brains behind 'Tool Time," he once said of the show-within-a-show. Karn's mother, Louise Wilson, was a noted Pacific Northwest artist before losing her battle with bone-marrow cancer in 1983.

Karn said he's proud to be involved in the fight against cancer in honor of his mother through his charity tournaments. And he's not a bad golfer, either -- a 9 handicap!


Karn has enjoyed success, first as "Al" on Home Improvement and now as the host of Family Feud.

Karn is dressed in full "Al"
regalia as a spokesman for the Rechargeable Battery
Recycling Corp.

Payne Stewart (center) was a guest on Home Improvement prior to his death in a plane crash.

Richard swaps golf tips with Lee Trevino at one of Karn's charity golf tournaments in Washington.

Karn (center) is flanked by former President Gerald R. Ford (left) and golfing great Fuzzy Zoeller.








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