"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
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
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.