Michael Richards biography
Born in California in 1949, actor and comedian Michael Richards appeared on a number of television shows before landing his career-defining role as Cosmo Kramer on the television series Seinfeld. Richards spent nine years starring on the show as Jerry Seinfeld's quirky next-door neighbor, during which time he won three Emmy awards.
Actor; comedian. Michael Richards was born July 24, 1949 in Culver City, California. He barely knew his father, William, an electrical engineer who died in a car crash when Michael Richards was only two years old. Richards' widowed mother, Phyllis, a medical records librarian, raised him as a single parent. Richards described his mother as a hilarious woman whose zany sense of humor sparked his own interest in comedy. "God, she was a crack-up," he recalled fondly. As a student at Thousand Oaks High School in Ventura, California, Richards embraced the role of class clown. "He couldn't come into class unless he fell over two or three desks," one classmate remembered. Growing out of his passion for making people laugh, Richards also developed an interest in theater as an adolescent. He later recalled an eighth grade drama class making him feel that he "suddenly had purpose."
After graduating from high school, Richards moved to Los Angeles, where he landed the occasional gig at the legendary Troubadour nightclub in West Hollywood and took classes at Ventura College and Los Angeles Valley College. Then, in 1970, Richards was drafted into the United States Army and stationed in Germany, where he was assigned with directing educational plays about race relations and drug use. After being discharged in 1972, he returned to school at the California Institute of the Arts but soon transferred to Evergreen State University in Olympia, Washington. There he studied philosophy, acting and fine arts, graduating in 1976. Around this time, Michael Richards married his wife Cathleen. They had one daughter, Sophie, before divorcing after 18 years of marriage.
After graduating from college, Richards moved to San Diego, where he appeared in several productions at the San Diego Repertory Theater. He also made frequent treks to Los Angeles, where he attempted to make a name for himself on the standup comedy circuit. "I would commute up to Los Angeles from San Diego, and get in line at 5 o'clock and wait until about 1 a.m. to do three minutes," Richards recalled. "I was very inspired. I did have the feeling that this was the route to go. I didn't question this course at all."
In 1980, after four years of scrambling to get noticed in L.A. comedy clubs, Richards landed a spot in the cast of the late night sketch comedy TV show Fridays. After two years on Fridays, and several guest appearances in TV shows and low-budget films, in 1984 he landed a recurring role on the medical drama St. Elsewhere. For the next several years, Richards' career continued to consist mostly of guest appearances on TV shows such as Cheers (1985), Hill Street Blues (1985) and Miami Vice (1986), along with a recurring role on Marblehead Manor (1987-88).
Big Braek: Seinfeld
In 1989, Richards auditioned for a new sitcom, Seinfeld, an offbeat new show headlined by popular standup comedian Jerry Seinfeld. Auditioning for the role of Seinfeld's quirky neighborhood Cosmo Kramer, Richards did a handstand in the middle of his performance and then continued on with his lines as if nothing had happened. Seinfeld decided to cast him on the spot. "My mind was made up," Seinfeld later remembered. Over the next nine years, from 1989-1998, Richards would make Kramer into one of the most iconic characters in television history – known for his hilariously dramatic entrances, unkempt hair and loveable goofball personality. He came so fully to inhabit the personality of Kramer that writer Larry David began reworking dialogue to fit Richards' conception of the character. "At this point, Larry writes with what I do," Richards told one interviewer at the peak of Seinfeld's run. "Four years ago, we had no idea what the character was all about." Richards won three Emmy Awards for Best Supporting Actor for his performance (1993, 1994, 1997).
Aftermath and Scandal
After Seinfeld finally completed its impressive nine-year run in 1998, Richards set out to star in his own show. The Michael Richards Show, starring Richards as Vic Nardozza, a disheveled private investigator, debuted on NBC in 2000. Unfortunately, the show received poor reviews and lackluster ratings and was canceled after only seven episodes. Perhaps because audiences so completely conflated Richards with his longtime character Cosmo Kramer, he was unable to land other roles after The Michael Richards Show flopped. Instead, Richards returned to his roots as a standup comedian and spent the next years touring nightclubs across the country.
Richards returned to national prominence in a rather unfortunate manner in 2006. Responding to a black audience member who had been heckling him during a comedy show, Richards unleashed an angry, racist tirade laced with racial slurs. A recording of the incident soon went viral on the Internet, and Richards became an infamous symbol of celebrity racism. Although Richards publicly apologized for the indefensible remarks, the ugly incident seemed to hammer the last nail into to the coffin of his already-stagnant career. Since then he has appeared only as a voice actor in the animated film Bee Movie (2007) and as himself in Curb Your Enthusiasm (2009).
Whether or not Michael Richards ever makes a career comeback, he has left an indelible mark on television history with the creation of Kramer – one of the most beloved characters on one of the most beloved TV shows of all time. However, his legacy also remains marred by his 2006 tirade. Richards hopes that one day people will be able to forgive his off-the-cuff racist comments and remember him for the good he brought to the world in the form of laughter. "What constitutes spirituality is heart," Richards said. "Making people laugh is something else – I did Seinfeld for 10 years – it lightens things up, helps people enjoy the world they live in more.
I've had people call me from hospital beds and tell me, 'That Kramer character got me through it. Thanks.' It's pretty simple, you know, the feeling of opening yourself up to others."