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'Seinfeld's' Kramer: That Character for the '90s : Television: Michael Richard's entrances on the hit NBC series have endeared him to fans. In real life he is also an experience not to be missed.

September 06, 1993|NANCY MILLS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Here, take the keys to my car," Michael Richards says, handing over his 1993 white Lexus to a virtual stranger. "Meet me back here in an hour and a half and we'll talk some more."

An interview with Richards, who plays the splay-brained, scatter-footed Kramer on NBC's "Seinfeld," is an experience not to be missed--even if it requires a whole afternoon to fit in 60 minutes of gab.

This particular experience was supposed to start at Book Star on Ventura Boulevard, not far from where the 44-year-old actor lives, and progress to a coffee shop for lunch.

The appointed hour came . . . and 40 minutes later, a tall, gangly, frantic man in bicycle shorts and zip-up jacket burst through the front door. It was an entrance worthy of Kramer, minus applause.

Apologizing not only for being so behind schedule but also for having no time left in his schedule, Richards proposed a novel scheme: drive with him to Westwood, 10 miles away, where he had a 90-minute meeting, and he would do the interview en route. The bonus: "You can take my car, go get something to eat and come back and pick me up."

Unlike his eccentric, flipped-lid character Kramer, Richards is capable of being sane, thoughtful, accommodating. He has never let anyone drive this car, yet "I felt so badly making you wait," he explains, sliding behind the wheel. "I'm very intuitive, and I trust you."

Despite the mad rush, Richards is a calm driver, negotiating the crowded freeways smoothly while conversing nonstop. He details the route that brought him adoration from 24 million fans and his first Emmy nomination, starting at the beginning.

"I drove my teachers nuts," he recalls. "I loved classrooms or any situations where rigidity was involved and I could upstage the teacher. I was punished a lot, and my grades reflected my behavior. But I was voted the most humorous continually through high school."

Richards' comic abilities apparently come from his mother, a single parent whom he describes as "comical, but not intentionally. She makes me laugh. She collects hats. She has a den with 50 hats on the wall. When I was growing up, she liked to dress up at Halloween parties. She once played a pistol-packing mama, and I remember looking forward to getting the holster set."

An only child, Richards recalls a particular instance in fourth grade at his Los Angeles parochial school that likely changed his destiny. "We were playing tetherball, and a nun came out and told us to stop," he says. "I didn't hear her and it was my turn to serve, so I let the ball go. It hit her in the head, and she dropped all her papers.

"I felt so bad because she accused me of doing it on purpose. I agreed to pay for her glasses, so every day I stood in front of the class and put a dime in a glass and she chewed me out. I was humiliated. The glasses cost $2.30, but after about 10 days I stopped going to school. Every morning my mother would drop me off on her way to work, and I'd walk home and watch comedies on TV.

"It was one of the best times of my life. There was a certain solitude that I loved. I'd circle all the good movies in TV Guide, I'd take walks and I'd swim in the pool. Eventually the school contacted my mother, and I broke down crying and told her the nuns were making me miserable. So she took me out and put me in public school."

Richards thrived in his new environment, got involved with plays, placed fourth in California in a Forensic League competition and eventually graduated with honors. "My mother wanted me to be a doctor," he says. "She was a medical records librarian at a local hospital, and she knew doctors made the most money. So I was an orderly at the hospital, and I worked on an ambulance in the summer."

We interrupt this interview for a joy ride while Richards takes his meeting in Westwood. Afterward, he's sitting on the curb, waiting, probably muttering to himself, "Lexus come home."

Back in the car, he tells of his Army days. He was trained as a medic, but then his commanding officer recognized his thespian skills and asked him to put on plays for his fellow servicemen. After his discharge, he went to college on the GI bill, getting a theater degree from the California Institute of the Arts.

Theater work led to roles in "Transylvania 6-5000," "Young Doctors in Love," "UHF" and such TV shows as "St. Elsewhere," "Miami Vice," "Cheers" and "Night Court." "I've always found work somewhere as an actor," Richards says, "but none of it brought me notoriety."

In 1989, "Seinfeld" came along.

"I don't play Kramer," Richards insists. "He plays me. I just try to get out of his way. It's like I'm channeling him. I put on those shoes and the outfit and push my hair up a little, and he's there. The cast think I'm closer to my character than anyone else, but that's not correct. They play themselves. They dress that way and talk that way. I push a look.

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