Michael Richards | Murat Shrine


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Michael Richards (1949 - )

Actor, Comedian

"I don't play Kramer. He plays me. I just try to get out of his way. It's like I'm channeling him. I put on those shoes and the outfit and push my hair up a little, and he's there."

Will the web of eccentricities Michael Richards has spun so successfully to create Cosmo Kramer prove to be a sticky impediment to the actor's post-Seinfeld career?

While Kramer is surely destined to join the pantheon of classic TV characters that have left an indelible mark on American culture - like Gilligan, for instance - one worries whether Richards will be able to avoid fading away into obscurity like the Bob Denvers of television history. To hear the sitcom star talk, he is not concerned in the slightest: "Since the eighth grade, I've excelled. Whenever I went out for a part in school or Community Theater, I got the lead. I started doing stand-up comedy - no jokes, just goofing around - and within nine months, I had a TV show." Richards seems certain that his tried-and-true record of success will continue unbroken. "I've always been successful because work always led to more work. I'm a meat-and-potatoes actor."

Richards was born in Van Nuys, Calif., to William and Phyllis Richards, an electrical engineer and a medical-records librarian, respectively. His father died when he was just two years old, and Phyllis was left to raise her only child by herself in Culver City, a hub of television and movie production. Richards credits much of his sense of humor to his mother: "God, she was a crack-up. She had a strong comedic sensibility." As for other influences, Richards says he felt a kinship with comedy greats Laurel and Hardy as a child, because he recognized many of the locations featured in their films. But the thought of becoming an actor never occurred to him until he took an acting class in eighth grade. "After that, I never left it; it was all I lived for. Everything else in school was superfluous," he has related.

He began his studies with the intent of becoming a dramatic actor, but wound up cutting a comic swath through the theater program at Valley College. "He was brilliant," recalled fellow classmate Ed Begley, Jr. "It got to the point where everyone at Valley was doing Michael Richards."

After completing a forced two-year Army stint in Germany, Richards attended the California Institute of the Arts, where he met his wife, Cathleen. He eventually earned his degree at the Evergreen State College in Washington State, after which he headed back to Los Angeles to find work.

On a whim, Richards hit the L.A. comedy club circuit. "I never told jokes," Richards has remembered. "I was a cross between Robin Williams and Andy Kaufman. My opener was six minutes about a guy who couldn't remember his act. I stood there for minutes not knowing what to say. Just stood there acting as naturally as possible."

He had been doing stand-up for only nine months when an ABC executive plucked him off the stage and made him a cast member of the sketch comedy series Fridays. The show's run lasted only two years, but it provided Richards more than enough exposure to get his foot firmly in the television door. He also made a key acquaintance in the person of fellow Fridays cast member Larry David, the future co-creator of a show called Seinfeld.

In 1989, he received that fateful call from comedians Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, who were developing a comedy pilot, called The Seinfeld Chronicles.

The character Kramer, which was based on a real-life friend of David's, soon became a highlight of the show, which was re-named Seinfeld prior to its 1990 network debut. "The real key came about eight or nine shows in," Richards has explained. "I had been playing Kramer as if he were slow-witted — always one step behind. Then I learned to play Kramer as if he were blocks ahead of what everyone's saying, and I had him." Indeed he did — Richards went on to win several Emmys for Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series.

Not so successful was his first series stab post-Seinfeld, the critically reviled The Michael Richards Show, about the exploits of a private eye named Vic Nardozza (Richards) — NBC kicked it to the curb after only a handful of episodes.
Beyond television immortality and the incredibly generous salary, Seinfeld afforded Richards the opportunity to star in more respectable movies than some of his previous efforts. He won notice for his role in Diane Keaton's Unstrung Heroes (1995), and his starring role in the 1997 comedy Trial and Error hinted the transformation that will need to take place for Richards not to be permanently overshadowed by the specter of Kramer.

" Will I get past Kramer or will I be Gilligan?" Richards has asked. "Well, look at Charlton Heston. You never heard people saying, 'Do you think he'll be able to get past Moses?"

Michael Richards is a member of Al Malaikah Shrine in Los Angeles.