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Debbe Dunning: Face to watch

The actress will play the new ”Tool Time” assistant on ”Home Improvement”

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She may not know a lug wrench from a ball peen hammer, but Debbe Dunning, 27, is about to become the most famous hardware accessory on TV. This fall, she’ll take over the biggest little bit part on prime time — the ”Tool Time” Girl, Heidi, on ABC’s top-rated sitcom, Home Improvement.

”Basically, I’m like a magician’s assistant,” says the Miss Burbank of 1984. ”I come out on camera for a few minutes and bring Tim Allen his tools and props and stuff. Last week I brought him a statue of Al. This week I get to bring out a tombstone.”

Last season’s ”Tool Time” Girl, Pamela Denise Anderson, left the show to pursue a beefier part on the syndicated beachwear series Baywatch. But Dunning isn’t worried about filling her predecessor’s bombshell shoes.

”They’re giving me a more wholesome, girl-next-door, sexy-but-she- doesn’t-know-she’s-sexy image,” she explains. ”I’m not a jiggle girl. It’s not like I’m wearing a G-string on the show. I get to wear a pair of khaki shorts and a cut-off T-shirt — the sort of outfit you’d wear if you really were doing construction.”

Not that Dunning has much construction experience. She grew up in Burbank, Calif., where her parents still run a mom-and-pop pet store. She has spent most of the last three years munching on enchiladas while jumping up and down in the desert for Taco Bell TV ads. She has also done some modeling (covers of Shape, Triathlete, and Muscle & Fitness) and guest-starred on Married…With Children. And no, she isn’t married, although ”there is someone special in my life.”

Is she concerned about the image of women that the ”Tool Time” gal represents? ”Well, I’m not a feminist, if that’s what you mean. My big issue is animal abuse. There’s some terrible, terrible stuff going on with animal abuse in this country.” Brigitte Bardot will be thrilled; Naomi Wolf probably won’t.