June 07, 1999 12:00 PM

Ryan Stiles is, more or less, a fearless man. At 17, he dropped out of high school to work as a stand-up comic for 20 bucks an hour. Since then he has had little trouble holding his own on The Drew Carey Show, and he has no qualms about working without a net—or a script—on his other TV gig, the improvfest Whose Line Is It Anyway? Put him on a plane, though, and being hysterical takes on its original meaning. “Once, I had a stewardess hold my hand during the turbulence,” says Stiles. “Yeah, planes are safe, but what’s to say the pilot’s wife didn’t just leave him two days ago?”

Though Stiles himself prefers to remain on terra firma, he’s thrilled that his career has taken flight. As Carey’s hapless janitor Lewis, the comedian has become a prime-time player. Indeed, ABC just renewed Whose Line for a second season (reruns of both shows begin airing June 2). Even more time for Stiles, 40, to engage in improv sketches such as devolving from an old man to a sperm cell in seconds. “His face is made of rubber,” says Carey executive producer Bruce Helford. “When he’s onstage, he’ll do virtually anything.”

Except leave it, it seems. Juggling two hit shows means seven-day workweeks with Whose Line shooting on weekends. While taping a Drew Carey episode last October, says costar Diedrich Bader, “Ryan turned to me and said, ‘When we’re done tonight, I’ll have shot six episodes of prime time in a week!’ ”

Rare quality time is spent at the four-bedroom L.A. home (once owned by Liberace) Stiles shares with his wife, Pat, and their children—son Sam, 3, and daughter Mackenzie, 6. “Celebrities in L.A. are always trying to exploit their kids to give themselves a homey image,” says Bader. “But Ryan is a real family man. That’s what he’s most proud of.” So when the rest of the sitcom cast headed to New Orleans last year for some R&R, Stiles recalls, “I said, ‘Drew, you don’t understand. I can’t go. I promised the kids I’d take them to Toys “R” Us.’ ”

His own upbringing was far less luxe. The youngest of five children, Stiles and his family moved to Vancouver from Seattle when he was 10. His father, Sonny, now 87, was a supervisor at a local fishing plant and insisted that his boys work at the factory when they were teens. Ever the class clown, Stiles dropped out of high school in 1976 to pursue comedy. After a day of gutting fish he would make the stand-up rounds at local Vancouver venues including comedy clubs and strip joints. “I’d still have scales stuck to my skin,” he says, “and I’d stink of fish during my act.”

None of the strippers caught his eye (“It was out of a bad movie. They were old burlesque dancers!”), but Stiles did develop a crush on Pat McDonald, a waitress at one of his comedy club haunts. “She made 30 cents in tips one night and was depressed, so we had a drink,” Stiles says of their first meeting in 1978. “He gave me flowers, which I found quite rare at 19,” says Pat, now 37. But Stiles fumbled at other aspects of romance. “We were sitting in the car,” she says, “and he said, I’ve never asked a woman out on a date!’ So I said, ‘Oh, then I guess I have to ask you!’ And that’s how it started.”

The couple lived together for 10 years before marrying in 1989. Around this time, Stiles began working with the famed improv troupe Second City, first in Toronto and later in L.A., where he and Pat moved in 1992. A year earlier, Stiles appeared in a small role as a doomed pilot in the Top Gun spoof Hot Shots! His beaming mother hung Stiles’s film publicity still next to military photos of his three brothers, all of whom had been in the Air Force. “She didn’t really know the difference, like, ‘Oh, well, Ryan, you were in there for a short time, too!’ ” says Stiles. ” ‘It was a film, Ma!’ ”

In 1990 the comic landed a spot on the original British version of Whose Line Is It Anyway?, and for nine years he became the world’s most nervous frequent flyer, popping off to London to tape the shows. That led to guest shots on Murphy Brown and Mad About You and a 1995 audition for Drew Carey. Last year, Stiles and Carey decided to team up as executive producers and stars on the American version of Whose Line.

And yet he sometimes misses those cross-Atlantic excursions. “There are no fat people in Hollywood,” says Stiles. “I enjoyed working in England, because some of the ugliest people I’ve ever seen are on TV. I’m considered handsome there, because I have all my own teeth!”

Jason Lynch

Paula Yoo in Los Angeles

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