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Still a Classic Character

Hoping to shake memories of Kramer on 'Seinfeld,' Michael Richards tackles Dickens.

April 11, 1999|DAVID GRITTEN | David Gritten is a London-based writer and frequent Calendar contributor

DUBLIN, Ireland — Michael Richards is delivering a monologue on a film set, an accurate replica of an oak-paneled English Victorian living room. And everyone watching tries not even to think of the K-word. It's Richards as you've never seen him before: head shaved smooth as a bowling ball, gold-rimmed glasses perched halfway down his nose. His style of dress is both shabby and genteel; he wears a Victorian frock coat over a patterned waistcoat that hides a large prosthetic paunch.

And when he opens his mouth, it's Richards as you've never heard him. He speaks with a fruity English accent, in the tones of an old-style actor-manager ensuring his every word reaches the last row of the balcony.

"The jewels were stolen," he proclaims, voice rising to a climax, "by the transcendent and immortal hypocrite and perjurer Heep in Wickfield's house!"

He pronounces each of the words lovingly, rolling them around his tongue, and managing to elongate the word "jewels" to four syllables. (Try it yourself sometime; it's a neat trick.)

Richards is playing Mr. Micawber in a TV miniseries adaptation of Charles Dickens' 1849 novel "David Copperfield." Micawber, of course, is one of Dickens' immortal characters--full of high-flown talk but desperately impoverished, he is still a kind, gracious soul who befriends the young David. But at one point in the story his irresponsible ways with money land him in a debtors' jail.

If playing Micawber marks a sharp left turn for Richards, it's a deliberate one. Put simply, he is feeling typecast. And who wouldn't, after having played one character for 9 1/2 years on "Seinfeld," American TV's most popular sitcom of the decade?

That character, of course, was the hyperactive oddball Cosmo Kramer--the K-word everyone on set tries not to mention. Richards, who is nearing 50, has decided he wants to distance himself from Kramer and take on a variety of acting roles. He started out as a stage actor and still recalls what attracted him to the profession in the first place--the lure of substantial, classic roles.

"I got so identified with Kramer," said Richards in his trailer, after completing his monologue to director Peter Medak's satisfaction. "He became a pop culture character. I really have to shed that whole 'Seinfeld' experience. I don't regret having done it, it's just that I'm so in need of stepping away from it. It was a long time.

"You become the character. That's how people see you. At one time, everywhere I'd go, people would say, 'Look, there's Kramer.' And I'd think, well, when people see Ben Kingsley they don't go, 'Look, there's Gandhi.' "

He paused to reflect on this.

"Of course, if he'd been playing Gandhi on network TV every week. . . ."

After "Seinfeld" finally wound up last spring, Richards spent six or seven months doing virtually nothing: "I'd been cool about work after the show shut down. I'd seen other material, but nothing really took hold. And I needed to be inspired. Why work at something unless I feel like I have something worth going to?"

He planned to spend this year traveling, mostly in Europe. But then he was approached by TNT with the "David Copperfield" script and felt unable to refuse it.

"This is a fine character, and it gets me back into acting," he said. "I haven't been on stage for so long. Having spent so much time on 'Seinfeld,' I thought this way at least I could take on a new character, get into a Victorian English accent, make preparations to transform myself."

He paused to consider.

"And after this I really do plan to take a few months traveling round Europe."

*

The role of Micawber ironically poses problems quite different from being typecast. Richards must do his best to eradicate in the minds of viewers the memory of W.C. Fields, who made the role his own in the classic 1935 George Cukor film of "David Copperfield."

"It's a tough one," he mused. "Fields was the last time I saw this character in a movie. I knew that movie. I had it at home. After I was cast, I took a bit of a glance at it, then shut it down. I wanted to approach the role as I see it.

"I guess I was afraid of being influenced. Everyone knows those cadences Fields used." He broke into an accurate, booming Fields impression: "David Copperfield! My dear boy!"

Then he paused to reflect.

"I see more of an emotional range with this character."

Though Richards had several big-screen offers, it's intriguing that it took a cable TV miniseries to give him the range and depth he was looking for in a role.

"It's two episodes of two hours each," said producer Greg Smith, "so in four hours you're able to explore characters and scenes much better. Dickens went into huge detail, but in this form you're able to flesh out the story more. Dickens was a great writer about the time he lived in, and he wrote about the issues of that time--poverty, cruelty to children--as well as telling great stories."

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