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For some actors, creating a timeless character who ends up so universally beloved; so undeniably unique, that no one can imagine another actor in that part, would be a dream realized. For other actors, becoming too connected in the public conscience with said character and having that formidable shadow loom over every future project, could be a frustrating battle with the past and the fans who simply can not let it go. Few television actors - save Carroll O'Connor, Lucille Ball, Henry Winkler, et al - have experienced this type of blessing-turned-curse career arc more than comedian Michael Richards. As Cosmo Kramer, the gangly, perpetually amped, mooch of a neighbor to stand-up Jerry Seinfeld on the legendary sitcom, "Seinfeld" (NBC, 1990-98), Richards so inhabited his loony alter-ego, that when the show famously wrapped, he - more than any of his co-stars - found it the most difficult to start anew. After adding fuel to the fire of a supposed "Seinfeld" curse, following the cancellation of his post-"Seinfeld" sitcom, "The Michael Richards Show" (NBC, 2000-01), a resigned Richards quietly left the scene to focus on his stand-up and other pursuits. Unfortunately, he was suddenly and shockingly thrust...
For some actors, creating a timeless character who ends up so universally beloved; so undeniably unique, that no one can imagine another actor in that part, would be a dream realized. For other actors, becoming too connected in the public conscience with said character and having that formidable shadow loom over every future project, could be a frustrating battle with the past and the fans who simply can not let it go. Few television actors - save Carroll O'Connor, Lucille Ball, Henry Winkler, et al - have experienced this type of blessing-turned-curse career arc more than comedian Michael Richards. As Cosmo Kramer, the gangly, perpetually amped, mooch of a neighbor to stand-up Jerry Seinfeld on the legendary sitcom, "Seinfeld" (NBC, 1990-98), Richards so inhabited his loony alter-ego, that when the show famously wrapped, he - more than any of his co-stars - found it the most difficult to start anew. After adding fuel to the fire of a supposed "Seinfeld" curse, following the cancellation of his post-"Seinfeld" sitcom, "The Michael Richards Show" (NBC, 2000-01), a resigned Richards quietly left the scene to focus on his stand-up and other pursuits. Unfortunately, he was suddenly and shockingly thrust back into the spotlight after letting fly a stream of racial slurs during a 2006 comedy club appearance, resulting in charges of racism after the meltdown was leaked onto the internet.
Michael Anthony Richards was born on July 24, 1949 in Culver City, CA to parents William, an electrical engineer, and Phyllis, a medical records librarian. He attended the California Institute of the Arts but later received a BA degree in drama from Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA in 1975. He enrolled at Los Angeles Valley College, where he continued to dominate student productions. An introspective, quiet person few would have pegged for a cut-up in his younger days, Richards was drafted by the U.S. Army during Vietnam, serving two years stationed in Germany as co-director of the V Corps Training Road Show, during which time he directed shows dealing with race relations and drug abuse. Post-Vietnam, the future star spent a couple more years "finding himself" at a commune in the Santa Clara Mountains of California before beginning to seriously develop his stand-up comedy act on the L.A. club circuit in 1979.
Taking a run at Los Angeles theater, the multi-talent appeared in such pieces as Arthur Miller's "The American Clock" and "Wild Oats" before catching the attention of comic Billy Crystal, who, only nine months after Richards dove into the comedy scene, offered the newcomer the role of an aged Chevy Chase in Crystal's first cable TV special, "The Billy Crystal Show." This gig led to Richards landing his first big break - as part of an ensemble of sketch comics on the "Saturday Night Live"-inspired knock-off, "Fridays" (ABC, 1980-82). While hardly a memorable show, "Fridays" did inspire two important moments - meeting fellow cast member Larry David, who would figure prominently in Richard's future career plans, and a classic bit between Richards and guest host Andy Kauffman, in which the latter famously threw water on Richards for delivering cue cards onstage after the shock-comic had refused to read his scripted lines (Richards later admitted being in on the confrontational joke). After the sketch show wrapped, Richards made the requisite TV guest appearances on such shows as "Miami Vice" (NBC, 1984-89) in which he played a slimy bookie; "Cheers" (NBC, 1984-1993), in which he tried to collect a bet from Ted Danson's Sam Malone; and on old stand-up buddy Ed Begley, Jr.'s show, "St. Elsewhere" (NBC, 1982-88), during which he made 5 appearances during the 1984-85 season as Bill Wolfe.
Ironically, the man who found the most consistent work on the small screen, made another noteworthy appearance - but this time, on the big screen in the quirky comedy "UHF" (1989). Richards starred as Stanley Spadowski, the strange janitor who saves Weird Al Yankovic's local UHF station from going under after filling in during a children's show and inspires a new programming slate, including such eclectic shows as "Wheel of Fish" and "Raul's Wild Kingdom." While not an initial hit at the box-office, "UHF" became a cult classic after success in the home entertainment market - a large part of the success owing to Richard's wacky improvisational skills which were on full display - including the scene in which Spadowski plays with a toy man found in a box of cornflakes. That same year, Richards was signed by former "Fridays" castmate Larry David and fellow stand-up Jerry Seinfeld to play the part of the whirling dervish neighbor of Seinfeld's character on a new sitcom they were developing. The rest would soon be television history.
Premiering in the summer of 1989, "Seinfeld" started off slowly, due to its odd subject matter - that of four incredibly self-delusional, self-involved New Yorkers who happen to be friends and who do nothing but make everyone around them as miserable as they themselves are. Not the typical sitcom content, the show - based largely on Seinfeld's stand-up act which relied on the comic's hilarious inspection of life's daily minutia - eventually caught on before exploding into the stratosphere by the mid-nineties. As the show's true breakout character, Cosmo Kramer - loosely based on a pesky former neighbor of co-creator David's - Richards took the role and ran with it like no other. Not content to simply open Jerry's door and enter, Kramer stumbled in violently and usually unannounced. It was hard for viewers to pick their most beloved Kramer trait - his pratfall entrances; his upright hair, which was described as "like the Bride of Frankenstein;" his one-size-too-big "hipster doofus" wardrobe; or his penchant for nonsensical, percussive bursts of noise to indicate a variety emotions. Of the series four leads - which included Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Elaine; Jason Alexander as George and Seinfeld as an embellished version of himself - Kramer was the only one who appeared not to work for a living but who offered up the most outrageous life experience stories which, along with his endless stream of idiotic ideas (a coffee table book that is a coffee table; perfume that smells like the beach; etc.) made him endlessly amusing. Upon hearing that Kramer had gone to a baseball fantasy camp, George said it best when he noted that Kramer's whole life was a fantasy camp: "People should plunk down two thousand dollars to live like him for a week: Do nothing, fall ass-backwards into money, mooch food off your neighbors, and have sex without dating! That's a fantasy camp!"
After nine years of incomparable popularity - during which time Richards won three Emmy awards as Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series (1993, '94 and '97) - Seinfeld decided to end "Seinfeld" before the comedy went stale. He even turned down $5 million an episode - the biggest paycheck at that time - to go out on top. Fans - to say nothing of NBC - were heartbroken, but Seinfeld would not be dissuaded. Ending its run at #1 in the Nielsen ratings, the show famously "about nothing" saw its final episode draw 76 million viewers - many of whom staged "Seinfeld" goodbye parties across the nation. With that, the show passed into television legend, leading the celebrated foursome - once called "the Beatles of comedy" - to ponder their futures.
Taking two years off to decompress, Richards pursued his personal interests such as the preservation of Masonic research, before taking a stab at headlining his own sitcom, the doomed comedy/mystery series, "The Michael Richards Show." Long a fan of detective roles, Richards put his heart and soul into his namesake show, but the series failed to catch on, ending after only a few weeks of critical drubbing. This cancellation, along with the failure of sitcoms starring Alexander and Louis-Dreyfus in years past led to the infamous "Seinfeld curse" pronouncement whenever a cast member tried to strike TV gold twice - the feeling then being that nothing any of them would ever do could compare to "Seinfeld." Even after his humbling failure, Richards' streak of bad luck continued when he passed over the title role in the quirky USA Network series, "Monk" (2002- ), which would go on to make a star and Emmy winner out of actor Tony Shalhoub.
Although the world heard very little from Richards after his sitcom tanked, he was never out of sight - thanks in large part to the constant syndicated re-airings of "Seinfeld" as well as the DVD issues - insuring Kramer would never be forgotten. Perhaps knowing that fact, helped lead the tightly wound comic to act out in a very public and embarrassing way when, in November of 2006, the formerly beloved star went ballistic while performing his stand-up onstage at the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles. Shocking all Kramer fans worldwide, Richards unleashed an ugly litany of racial epithets at African-American audience members who happened to be heckling him during his act. His explosive rant, which went on for over two minutes and was peppered with liberal doses of the "N"-word, was recorded by cell phone and downloaded promptly to the internet, stirring up a publicity nightmare for Richards and, really, anyone associated with the previously infallible sitcom. First to leap publicly to Richard's defense was the show's star - Jerry Seinfeld - who after speaking to a shaken Richards the day the story broke, convinced his former co-star to publicly apologize via satellite during his (Seinfeld's) appearance on "The Late Show with David Letterman" (CBS, 1993- ). A visibly rattled Richards insisted to the audience at large that he was not a racist; had simply lost his temper on stage and did not really know where that anger had sprung from, but apologized for it profusely. Many theorized that this was a career-breaker. Others, felt that, unlike the mea culpa from actor Mel Gibson earlier in the year after a similar meltdown, Richard's seemed free from spin and genuine in its sincerity. Unfortunately how this would affect the way fans viewed the character of Cosmo Kramer - let alone the classic sitcom itself - remained to be seen.
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"I can get broad, I can get big, but it's all got to be based in truth. Otherwise it's an empty box." --Richards on his performance as Kramer in "Seinfeld" (US, November 1993).
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