Falling Up

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

"The cigar has been an outstanding prop in the making of comedy for years," actor Michael Richards says. "Milton Berle, Ernie Kovacs, George Burns, W.C. Fields and Groucho Marx--you expected to see them all with a cigar in their hand. I love it as a prop. The jester uses the cigar to elevate himself to the position of the king. He's in the court with the king, but he makes people laugh with the cigar. It's part of his staff. It's the jester's stick.

"I smoke a cigar the same way I play golf," Richards says somewhat earnestly. "Comedically. You see, the cigar is a great comedic prop. Now, the cigar, by itself, is not all that funny. It's not a cigarette, like Jackie Gleason, or a pipe, or a Tootsie Pop like Kojack's. But in the right hands, Kramer becomes the stogie master." As he takes another beat, from out of nowhere the character of Cosmo Kramer from NBC's smash hit, "Seinfeld," suddenly appears in his voice and edges his way into Michael Richards' body. Kramer is in the building. "I am the cigar. But remember, cigars can be dangerous in the hands of Kramer." Just as quickly, Kramer disappears.

And truly, there are moments when Cosmo Kramer channels across the actor's six-foot-two-inch frame. As zany and scattered as the Kramer character he portrays, Richards is a quiet, introspective and deeply intellectual man. Clearly he is passionate about his art. Jerry Seinfeld once said of Richards, "He is completely committed to go to any length to make a comedic moment work, up to and including killing himself."

Richards takes exception to that bit of hyperbole, while pointing out the inherent limitations in the medium that he has mastered. "I'm not a perfectionist in that I'm just some dysfunctional fool and I haven't had enough hugs from my mother or my father. That's not the basis of it. It is what is in me. And sometimes I feel shortchanged by the fast-paced process of television. It's the fastest medium around. You get two passes and you move on. There is nothing faster. And even to this day I'm not used to it. I'm very seldom happy with the way it goes, because we move so fast and I'm adjusting to new lines right up to camera, and I can feel under-rehearsed. And I'm plagued, when I leave the studio at the end of the evening and the show's in the can, with so many ideas of things I could have done."

Co-star John O'Hurley, who joined the cast in 1994 and portrays catalogue mogul J. Peterman, shares his first encounter with Richards: "It was my first day on the set, and I was unbelievably nervous about being a part of 'Seinfeld.' I was running my lines by myself in the darkened recesses of the set, and there, all alone in Jerry's [TV] apartment, Michael Richards was painstakingly rehearsing and re-rehearsing every single piece of business for the next scene. I was in awe. It was like watching Baryshnikov choreograph a ballet. Every move, take and line of dialogue--all the zaniness--was carefully constructed. And when the scene was finally shot, he moved effortlessly and brilliantly."

Richards understands the unique physical demands of the creation of Kramer in relation to the rest of the "verbal" cast, and the comedic necessity of it. And yet it feels as if he is never really satisfied with his work in spite of his meticulous preparation. "Jerry's a wit master, one of the best out," Richards says. "He's a master of the stand-up format. That's his world. I've created a lot of physical routines for what is primarily a 'talk' show. I feel that comedy is a process of giving. I want what I give to be good, really good for the audience. I feel the audience and I give to the audience and I'm very hard on myself in the process."

Whatever the possible toll on Richards' psyche, the results are indeed on the screen, and will continue to live on in syndication. The process has worked. Over the past eight seasons Cosmo Kramer has evolved from a one-dimensional, slow-witted neighbor to a legendary anti-everyman. He is amusingly and endearingly eccentric without becoming a caricature. For a geek with no visible means of support, Kramer has everything in his world wired: from being a Calvin Klein underwear model, to creating a coffee table book that turns into a miniature coffee table, playing backgammon in the nude with supermodel Elle MacPherson and punching Mickey Mantle in the mouth during a baseball fantasy camp. The public adores Kramer because he gets away with everything. He does things that all of us only dream about. And the women love him, in spite of a rather odd physicality, or perhaps, because of it. His childlike optimism to the modern world is a counterpoint to the cynicism of Jerry, Elaine and George. While they seem to struggle to get things accomplished in their lives, Kramer always makes it seem easy.

Kramer's cigar antics on "Seinfeld" are one-of-a-kind: the episode, for example, in which his cigar burned his friend's girlfriend's father's cabin to the ground, along with his Cuban cigars. Kramer simply trotted over to the Cuban consulate to try to purchase replacement contraband cigars. Once inside the consulate, he traded his favorite jacket for a box of Cubans. But that's all right; eventually, he got to go up to Westchester to play golf with three Cubans in plaid pants (one had a very snazzy jacket). Nice work--if you're Cosmo Kramer. But remember this--Michael Richards is not Cosmo Kramer, although, for a cool $600,000 an episode he will continue to portray the character, at least for one more season.

With an actor's customary bravado firmly intact, Richards feels more than a little bit responsible for starting the whole cigar renaissance. "After Kramer started smoking a cigar, the whole cigar thing became more 'in.' Everybody was smoking cigars, and I think Kramer had a lot to do with men getting into cigars." Don't worry, Michael. We won't tell Schwarzenegger. Or DeVito. Or Rush. In fact, the only reason why Richards started smoking cigars was because people were continually slipping him one, usually with an invitation to play golf. The assumption was that if Kramer smoked cigars and played golf, Richards must smoke cigars and play golf. But Richards doesn't play golf. Still, who could blame him for enjoying the experience of a fine cigar now and then? After all, a cigar is more than just a mere comedic prop. "Personally, I like to have a cigar to commemorate an event," he says. "I like the taste of Port with my cigar. And I like a mild cigar, very mild. I don't like one that chokes me or lingers at all in my mouth." He pauses, ponders, takes another beat. "And I don't like them too big."

Born on July 14, 1950, and raised in Los Angeles, the only child of a single working mother (his father died in an accident when he was two), Richards attended Los Angeles Valley College with fellow actor Ed Begley Jr. and eventually graduated from the California Institute of the Arts. After a stint as a medic in the Army stationed in West Germany in 1970, he moved to San Diego and performed with the San Diego Repertory Company. In 1979 he switched to performing stand-up comedy, which he found to be a bewildering, if not fortunate, experience.

"I had about 22 plays under my belt, so when I came into that environment the whole thing looked a little bit ridiculous to me, people sitting there drinking and smoking and talking while you're up there performing. I'm used to the theater where people get dressed up, they come, they sit down, they behave themselves. Nobody's talking, certainly not smoking or burping while you're up there. But I was a clown. I've always had that side to me. It was a time where Robin Williams and Andy Kaufman and Billy Crystal and Letterman and Leno were all working for free. When I began, no one was getting paid. And I worked every night for nine months. I knew that if the light was bright enough, every moth in town would appear, so I just went into the clubs and worked, and sure enough all the cards would show up. I just played along with it and poured myself into the experience."

Billy Crystal gave him his first paying job on the "Billy Crystal Special" on HBO in 1979. Richards then met Larry David, who eventually became one of the creative forces behind "Seinfeld," when he joined the short-lived ABC comedy series "Fridays." Many of the characters that Richards played in "Fridays" were born on the stages of the comedy clubs in Los Angeles.

After "Fridays" was canceled in 1982, Richards found himself at a creative, and personal, crossroads. "When I came off of 'Fridays' I found myself going back to stand-up, thinking that in order to stay funny I had to stay in that environment. That was making me a little nuts. I would get up on stage and try to start something and I just didn't want to be there. I was going dark inside and I was acting dark on stage and I was starting to get laughs by being dark and it scared me. I pulled completely out of going in that direction. I always had a love for Red Skelton and the traditionalists and classic comedy and the actor in me. I went over to the Mark Taper Forum and played the villain in Wild Oats and then I did the world premiere of Arthur Miller's American Clock. So I was back in my element, theater. And I wanted to get better as an actor, so I studied with Stella Adler. I had seen a lot of stand-up comics have projects built around a persona that they had been holding onto for years. These comics couldn't adjust to written material. They weren't actors. I found myself through the theater and developed there." So his creative path, which started in the theater and then moved to the comedy clubs, eventually found its way back to the stage. In addition to classes with Adler, Richards studied directing with Joanne Linville.

Because "Seinfeld" has become such a cultural icon, it is easy to forget that Michael Richards has a film résumé as well. He played the much-operated-on would-be assassin in Young Doctors In Love in 1982; a wonderfully broad, comedic villain in 1990's Problem Child; and the gentle, if mentally unstable, uncle in 1995's Unstrung Heroes, directed by Diane Keaton. His latest comedy, Trial and Error costarring Jeff Daniels, was released this summer.

So far, the only big surprise in Michael Richards' life is the overwhelming success of "Seinfeld." "If you look at my body of work, you'll see 18 years in television. Three television shows, six television pilots and 30 guest starring roles. And nine movies. So you see, it's just that 31 million people have been tuning in every week to a project that I have been in for eight years. And it's not only about the Kramer character. It's also about George and Julia and Jerry and Peterman and Newman. They are all elements of the reason that 31 million people watch the show. The whole 'Seinfeld' experience has been one huge surprise to me. And I'm grateful that the audience has come to enjoy the work that I do. I was always the most pessimistic of the group. Jerry was the most optimistic. He was always convinced that what we were all doing was brilliant. He was always sure that we were going to be the number one show. He was always sure that we were going to be picked up. He always said, 'You're going to have so much money that you're not going to know what to do with it.' He anticipated it all. The better time slot, everything. He was probably shaking inside the entire time, but he did it all with his persistency. I've hit the jackpot with the 'Seinfeld' show; I'm financially very secure now, and it allows me the opportunity to think about returning to the stage. It will be really nice to not worry about the money and just do theater. Roles that make me climb down into the depths of the human being. O'Neill, Williams."

Even though Richards is about to enter his ninth season on the show, with two Emmys and two Screen Actor Guild awards gracing his mantelpiece, he is still able to see creative hurdles ahead. He is looking forward to creating new acting challenges on "Seinfeld," he says, "as long as I feel alive and creative in this character each week in the scripts I get, and there is still room for all kinds of routines I pull. I am developing a kind of comedic styling from working with the Kramer character. It is a vehicle for the kind of comedy I do. I don't just play one character. The body of work has shown that. But I have devoted eight years to building Kramer. I have succeeded in bringing that character into the American psyche and that comes from craft and know-how." Even though Kramer has become his signature piece, he is not worried about being typecast. "Robin Williams was Mork until he got Garp. Popeye didn't help him break out of Mork and neither did Moscow on the Hudson. Now we don't think of him as Mork, or even as Mrs. Doubtfire--we think of him as an actor who can play a lot of different characters. Right now, I'm in the groove of doing this and everyone thinks I'm Kramer."

Comedy has always come naturally to Richards. "I can get to the comedic impulse a little faster than in drama. That's where I usually want to know why I'm angry or toting a gun or why I'm at odds with life. So I think there's a lot more mental work involved when I do the drama. When I do comedy, I'm more physical. It's a way in which you come through the door, it's a way in which you slip off of a couch, it's a way in which you can pick up an item and make it funny. There's a way you can make a gesture funny. And that is what I'm always after, and when I don't get it I feel like I have disappointed my audience." He takes his role of the clown quite seriously. "The clown is to help people get along with their own personal plots in life. The clown is there to lighten the load. I felt the clown, quite organically, when I was in the Army. And my clown always comes up under those dire circumstances. The clowns that have the greatest impact on me have been the most sensitive to the human predicament, like Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harpo Marx, Red Skelton. These were clowns that possessed great sensitivity and a great heart. There's comedy. That is what comedy is here to tell you, that there's always a tear in the eye."

Traces of Keaton, Chaplin and Marx are present in all of Richards' work, and his respect and knowledge of the comedic greats is apparent. He is also well acquainted with the possible comedic implications of a cigar. Pulling out old books on classic comedians, taking videotapes out of his library, Richards uses both words and pictures to illustrate his point. "Chaplin has influenced me not so much for his skits and antics, but because he was using comedy to find the heart," Richards notes. "City Lights is a masterpiece to open up the eyes and the soul to the heart. I'm not sure how conscious Chaplin was about what he was doing, but in City Lights Chaplin used a cigar delicately, to enhance himself as a gentleman and to give his tramp character more importance. The way Chaplin would smoke a cigar was just downright funny. The way he would stick those little butts in his mouth, and his eyes would move, and he'd get that little gait going. The cigar was ultimately to compensate for being so down and out as the tramp. When he is smoking his cigar, the tramp becomes the man of means. He would smoke a little stub with dignity and light his little cigar by striking a match on the bottom of his shoe, and in that moment he was a rich man."

Shuffling through his videotapes, Richards shows episodes where Ernie Kovacs, talking to the audience with a cigar in his hand, was using the cigar to punctuate his timing, and where George Burns puffed on his El Productos while waiting for the laugh. Of course, one must eventually turn to the classic comedy films of the Marx brothers. "Groucho Marx used the cigar as a primary fixture for the making of a laugh," Richards notes. "His character had that cigar and he would work with the cigar and move his eyebrows and move around the room and you'd see a trail of smoke behind him. The cigar was not there to promote elegance; it was used as the jester's rod. The Marx brothers would knock down just about everything that they thought was sacred. They were just total anarchists, and the cigar was in the midst of all that anarchy."

Like the great clowns before him, Michael Richards loves to use a cigar. "I like to use the cigar as a device, as a prop to get to the 'Ha Ha!' It's the way I puff on it, the way that I pull the smoke on it. It's the way that I hold it. It's the way my eyes get when I've got my cigar going. I believe it's there to orchestrate the tempo of delivery. Or to help make the audience feel more comfortable. Comedians will use anything they have gotten their hands on to make their comedy. A golf club. Automobile. A hammer. A roller skate. These are all devices that the comedian can get involved with."

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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