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Falling Up

Michael Richards pratfalls his way to fame and fortune as "Seinfeld's" Cosmo Kramer.
Alysse Minkoff
From the Print Edition:
Michael Richards, Sep/Oct 97

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Richards is openly grateful and effusive with his praise for the cigar in Kramer's evolution. Kramer is more than just the sum total of quirky entrances and polyester jackets and spiky hair. But all of these are elements that help the actor get in touch with the clown. The cigar makes it easier for Richards to find the character. "The way Kramer can hold a cigar and have it in his mouth and move about the room really highlights the character's heart," says Richards. "He's always present with the cigar in hand. The cigar is all a part of the dance, and the gesture is highlighted in a wonderful way through the use of a cigar. When I got the cigar in my hand, it felt really natural. It just felt right. Like the hair. The way he comes through the door. It just felt necessary for that character to have a cigar.

"With Kramer, I feel Kramer in my body, in my hands, in my feet, in my gut. I usually wear [his] clothing during the rehearsal, and the color will make Kramer feel more present. I use clothing, color, props. There really isn't any real psychological background as to why Kramer's hair is so frizzy on top. Kramer has a life of its own. It's a mystery, but it's a feeling. I know when the character is present. And he has an interest in his look, his dress, in his golf clubs, in the kind of cigar he smokes. The way he moves and talks and interacts. With Kramer I like to find an action that works counterpoint to the dialogue. It helps fill out the character, and Kramer may bring it about. There are times when I have a cigar in my hand when I'm rehearsing. Truly, Kramer feels the most comfortable with a cigar."

One senses that Michael Richards would be comfortable just about anywhere, as long as he isn't obliged to speak about Michael Richards. He will not, for example, discuss his wife of 18 years, Cathleen (they divorced in 1990), or their daughter, Sophia, now 22. Yet he is pragmatic; just as he understands the necessity of publicity, he also understands that the creative process cannot exist in a vacuum. He knows that although fame and success and money have potentially put a wall between him and the public, as an artist he must continually try to scale that wall. And as a mercurial artist--sometimes he will, and sometimes he won't.

"My goal is to just be a part of life and recognize my place in the boat with the rest of us. My first drama teacher, in eighth grade, was a tremendous inspiration and he brought me straight into the community, as much of the community that he could. He entered me in contests and suddenly I was known by everyone on campus. He taught me the significance of the actor and his relationship to performance, the respect that it was an art form and the discipline and the hard work that goes into doing the part. I could never live without the community, without the audience. I think in some sense it has to do with the nature of my life as an actor. I, ultimately, must stand before the community and be a part of the community. I can't do my work solitarily. The collective voice is you. A good artist has to listen to that voice and then he'll show the face of our collective time. He doesn't run away or hide in the woods. You need to be thrown back into the collective for your own sense of wisdom. I see too many people standing apart. They're alienated and dehumanized by the systems and machines that have forced them not to communicate. The artist's task is to accentuate the heart of the collective."

What does Michael Richards do to stay in touch with his own heart, thus making him a part of the collective? An avid mountain biker, Richards also does yoga for its physical as well as emotional stretch. The yoga also keeps his body tuned up for the blunt force trauma of the exhausting and incredibly well choreographed physical comedy that he does.

His real love, though, is walking. "I think the quickest way to get to your heart is to get out of the machine. I find the walk is the way to go. It's just walk. You'll find the mind turning. You can talk to yourself. The chatter stops and you'll just find yourself walking. When I have that fence around me, and I feel the fence really strongly, that's when I know that I really need to walk. To get out of the city. To go sit with the trees or sit in the hills. I need to go out there and live and I need to spend a couple of days away from the concrete, the jackhammer." Walking with Michael Richards is truly where he becomes a part of the "collective," talking and interacting with everyone. Poignantly, it is almost as if he comes alive when he gets around more than three people. It is an odd balancing act that he performs: a little bit on-stage, a little bit of relating to the world that surrounds him. He is warm and lovely to strangers, if not a bit wary of their motives. And in the public arena, the weighty emotional baggage of $13 million worth of success is somehow lightened by the perks of celebrity. His childlike enthusiasm is tempered with grownup angst. Michael Richards wants to play with the world, and knows that he cannot. And yet, for his craft to stay fresh, he must.

A broken window. His mountain bike. The menu at a Jamba Juice eatery. The mundane is fodder for his imagination. He is always thinking, and always looking for a punch line. The beat. The moment. And he usually finds it. To take a walk with Michael Richards is to forever look for comedy in the most ordinary street sign. Or bagel store. Or a cigar.

Alysse Minkoff is a freelance writer living in Malibu, California.

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