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Character Building, TV-Style

A character may read like a winner on paper. But turning a scripted creation into an audience favorite requires an inspired melding of acting and writing.

March 02, 1997|Chuck Crisafulli | Chuck Crisafulli is a regular contributor to Calendar

For Michael Richards, bringing "Seinfeld's" Cosmo Kramer to life takes more than merely clowning around.

"It's hard work," the actor explains, in a low, smooth voice that bears little resemblance to the jittery breathlessness of his comedic alter ego. "Deep down I always enjoy the process, but I find you have to work very hard to get to the moments where you surprise yourself--spontaneous moments where something comes through that wasn't in the script, the table reading or any discussions. That's always exciting. It feels holy."

The two-time Emmy winner laughs and adds: "There's always been something like that going on with Kramer--I work to a certain point, and then the divine takes over."

Short of divine intervention, the key to a successful television comedy series may well be found in the sublime synthesis of writing and acting that Richards' embodiment of Kramer exemplifies. Story lines keep a show moving, punch lines get the laughs, but it's strong, well-constructed characters that keep an audience watching.

What does it take to build a character that audiences will want to watch, though? And who among a show's actors, writers and producers should get the credit--or the blame--for the "people" viewers love, hate or ignore week after week?

Those involved in such work say it's a collaborative process akin to a rocket launch: Get it right and you've got liftoff; get it wrong and the best you can hope for is to fizzle out fast.

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Series creators usually begin with a keen sense of the comic tone they want their show to deliver, as well as a definite sense of where and when the show's action takes place. But characters, and the relationships between them, are often more ephemeral constructions, and a pilot script's protagonists, villains, straight men and fall guys cannot be fully realized until actors inhabit them for a while.

"It's a very important process," says Steve Levitan, who has worked as a writer and executive producer on "Wings," "The Larry Sanders Show" and "Frasier" and has recently created "Just Shoot Me," a midseason replacement series for NBC. "When you sit down and come up with ideas for characters, it's really easy to say, 'He should be like this. She should be like that,' because they're strictly on the page and mostly one-dimensional. When you have an actor come in, it's very important to adapt the character toward the actor. If an actor finds a new way to make a character funny, it's silly to say, 'Funny, yes, but that's not the way I envisioned the character.' "

Levitan believes that the blend of a character's traits and an actor's talents is much more important in series television than in other dramatic forms: "In movies or plays, there are a finite number of lines and a definite character with a beginning and end for an actor to assume. But on television, an actor and a character may live together for five years--they can't help but start to grow closer to each other."

"Absolutely true," says George Segal, who will be returning to regular series work on Tuesday as the star of "Just Shoot Me." (In 1987, he starred in the short-lived "Take Five.") "You can see in long-running shows how rich the characters become in later episodes as opposed to how raw they seem in earlier episodes. The actor and character really have something close to a marriage, and we know there are all kinds of marriages. You just hope for a good one."

Kramer's kinetic presence in NBC's "Seinfeld" is a particularly hilarious example of what can happen when the right actor gets hold of a well-written character.

Richards was originally hired by Jerry Seinfeld and former executive producer Larry David with the idea that the actor would have freedom to find his way with the part. Once Richards got a handle on the character, the show's writers began writing to Richards' strengths. Richards says it took the better part of "Seinfeld's" first season to get to that point.

"The real key came about eight or nine shows in. I had been playing Kramer as if he were slow-witted--always one step behind what everyone else was saying. Then I learned to play Kramer as if he were blocks ahead of what everyone's saying, and I had him."

While Richards speaks proudly of his work developing Kramer, he is also quick to point out that the character is not simply the result of letting him cut loose on the "Seinfeld" set.

"A lot of the little physical things in each episode are improvised, but I always work with the material," he says. "As we build toward a show through a week of rehearsals, we find things we can play with, and I'm free to suggest that Kramer should say a line this way rather than that way. But for the most part we stay very close to the script. The words are there, and they're usually very good. It's my job to bring the character to the language."

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