Mention the name of actor Michael Richards and it immediately conjures up images of Cosmo Kramer, the wild-haired, well-meaning neighbor-from-hell on the long-running NBC sitcom Seinfeld. But though Kramer is the role for which Richards is best known, it would be unfair to categorize him as a one-note actor, for he had already established a solid career as a comic character actor before landing the role in 1989.
A native of Van Nuys, CA, Richards was raised by his mother Phyllis Richards, a medical records librarian. His father, William Richards, an electrical engineer, died when Richards was a toddler. His mother raised him in Culver City, one of L.A.'s centers for movie and television production. When Richards was in the eighth grade, he developed a passion for acting that blinded him to almost all other career options. After high school, he aspired to become a dramatic actor and enrolled in the theater program at Valley College in California. There, however, it quickly became apparent that Richards' genius lay not in drama, but in comedy (he credits his mother for his sense of humor). He did not graduate and was drafted by the Army. After serving two years in Germany, he returned to attend the California Institute of the Arts. He did not earn a degree, however, until he attended Washington State's alternative school, Evergreen State College. After graduating, he returned to Los Angeles and began performing in comedy clubs. In those days, he specialized in a blend of surrealist and zany comedy. He had worked the standup circuit for less than a year when he was tapped by the ABC network to appear in their new sketch series Fridays. Though derided as a direct rip-off of NBC's more successful Saturday Night Live, the show ran from 1980 to 1982.
The year the show was cancelled is the year Richards made his feature film debut, in Garry Marshall's comedy Young Doctors in Love (1982). Though Richards subsequently never lacked for work in features and television, he remained relatively obscure until fellow Fridays castmate Larry David called to offer him a part in The Seinfeld Chronicles, a show he had recently developed with comedian Jerry Seinfeld. After a rocky start, the show was renamed Seinfeld and given a regular timeslot. Richard's character Kramer was based on one of David's friends. It took the actor a few episodes to develop his kooky alter ego, but once he did the results were dazzling, garnering Richards a trio of Emmys for Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series. Playing Kramer was not always easy for him. In many ways a classic slapstick character, the role's physical demands often exhausted Richards, who also suffered the underlying stress of becoming typecast. Fortunately, the fame accorded him for his television work provided him the opportunity to stretch out on the big screen, as he did in Diane Keaton's Unstrung Heroes (1995). In 1997, Richards received top billing for the first time in Trial and Error, which co-starred Jeff Daniels. In November of 2006, a high profile, on stage meltdown at The Laugh Factory in Los Angeles found Richards labeled a racist for repeatedly screaming "the 'N' word" at a pair of hecklers, and despite a quick apology on Late Night With David Letterman and discussions with leaders in the black community, it appeared Richards had irreparably damaged his reputation. In 2007 Richards retired from stand-up comedy, though his old friend David gave him a shot at a small screen comeback with a brief recurring role on his hit HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm.