If you thought Patricia Richardson was a great mother on TV, that’s nothing compared to what she’s like in real life. “The reason I turned down the ninth year of Home Improvement” — and $30 million! — “was because I was a single [divorced] parent and away from my kids too much,” Patricia, 67, exclusively told Closer Weekly of her son Henry Baker, 33, and twins Roxanne and Joseph Baker, both 27. “I left the show, and I have put my children first since then. That’s why I’ve kept quitting the business: to be with them.” And, for a time, she cared for her ailing parents.

Fortunately for us, the four-time Emmy nominee has kept working in films such as Ulee’s Gold with Peter Fonda (which earned her an Independent Spirit Award nomination), TV series like Strong Medicine and The West Wing, and her new Lifetime TV movie A Christmas in Tennessee. Now Patricia opens up to Closer about the sacrifices she’s made, reuniting with Tim Allen, and much more — scroll down to read our exclusive Q&A with the actress!

Patricia Richardson
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Congrats on A Christmas in Tennessee! It looks like you sing in the film…

My first job in New York was [on Broadway in 1974’s] Gypsy, and then I didn’t work for a year. If you did musicals, they sort of didn’t take you seriously as an actor. I’m not that great of singer, but I can belt! [Laughs]

Have you always enjoyed singing?

Growing up we moved a lot, and we were always in the church choir. I was also in school choruses, so I grew up singing with people and that’s still my favorite thing to do.

People remember you best from Home Improvement. What are your favorite memories of working on it?

There are so many! Tim and I were always cracking each other up. We came up with so much of what you saw on the set every day. Then there was the time that Tim was throwing potatoes around at the male crew members and hit a female camerawoman in the face, so that became kind of a joke.

I got hit in the head with a football more than once because it took so long for Disney to give the kids an outdoor space to play that was safe — and they weren’t that good at it! It was just a fun set, and we really were a family.

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Do you and Tim still keep in touch?

When I go back there [to guest star on Last Man Standing], yeah, but I travel a lot and he does, too. He is very dedicated to Nancy Travis, who is the nicest person in the world, and he has his own real wife, so what’s he going to do hanging around with me? When I went to do the show, he would think it was so weird. He’d do a bedroom scene with Nancy, then I was on the set and his real wife would be out in the audience. He was so confused!

You’ve talked about leaving Home Improvement in 1999 after your 1995 divorce from actor Ray Baker made you a single mom.

I also passed up another show that won, like, 30 Emmys. But I don’t mean to sound like, “Oh, I sacrificed this huge thing for my children,” because it’s what I wanted. Granted, it’s what they needed, but it was also what I needed because I missed them terribly. Home Improvement had much longer days than most sitcoms. Because I was involved in all the writing, I was away from them more than I wanted and felt I missed so many things.

How did you deal with the show’s meteoric success?

I really hated fame. Jonathan Taylor Thomas and I had similar reactions — he backed off, too, and went to school. I didn’t do charity events, because I was desperate for time with my kids and husband, who was always mad I was never home. Hence the divorce.

Any examples?

When I had to [co-host] the [1994] Emmys, it was the worst day of my life. I was terrified. I was so stupid! In theater school, nobody ever talked to us about having to sell yourself. So I really backed off to a great extent, and I essentially killed my career.

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Why did you go back to series TV with Lifetime’s Strong Medicine in 2002?

They gave me a four-day-week, three-year contract, so I knew I wouldn’t have to commit for a long time. At that point I had my kids four days a week, [Ray] had them three days, so there was only one day when I was working and had them. I did that show for three years, but then we changed the custody agreement and it got rough, so I left.

What drew you back to TV to guest star on The West Wing?

I was only supposed to appear in a couple of episodes, but it turned into two years and many episodes. I was leaving at six in the morning and never had live-in help, so that got really hard. After West Wing, I decided to leave the business for four years until my kids got out of high school to be with them. Then when my last one went to college, I had been out of the business for so many years, it was very hard to get back in.

Any regrets on things you’ve missed?

Every once in a while I’ll laugh, but when I’m laying on my deathbed, will I be sorry that I wasn’t on that show that won 30 Emmys, but I have a good relationship with my three children and see them all the time? No. Granted, I’ve been far from the perfect parent, but I didn’t have perfect modeling and kind of had to relearn parenting to a great extent.

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Tell us a bit about your kids.

My oldest son is married to a wonderful girl I adore, and they live in Brooklyn. My second son is a really talented stand-up comic, actor, and writer. And my daughter [recently] started a job at an ad agency. I think I’ve done my best and, while I’m sure they have their complaints, they know whatever happens, I’m here for them. Mom is always at their beck and call!

What has been your proudest personal accomplishment?

Getting through Home Improvement when I was flying to the East Coast, and along with my sisters, taking care of parents who were incredibly ill for 10 years. Each of them was having surgery after surgery, and my dad had a terrible brain disease, which is why I’m a national spokesperson for the National Organization for Rare Disorders.

My mother passed away during Strong Medicine and my dad passed away during West Wing. I was so burned out by the time West Wing was over. I had three teenagers and menopause. Even if it hadn’t been for the kids, I needed to quit. But I’m proud of somehow getting through it all!

For more on Patricia Richardson, pick up the latest issue of Closer Weekly, on newsstands now — and be sure to sign up for our newsletter for more exclusive news!