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Master of This Domain

It's not that easy to go from beloved second banana to star, as Michael Richards is discovering.

September 17, 2000|PAUL BROWNFIELD | Paul Brownfield is a Times staff writer

"Why am I doing this--is that your question?" Michael Richards asks, sounding a tad prickly. The subject is "The Michael Richards Show," debuting on NBC Oct. 24 and airing Tuesday nights at 8 thereafter. But Richards is correct to detect a more probing topic, as in: Why weren't those nine seasons of genius and money, otherwise known as "Seinfeld," enough?

Richards is eating lunch in his office on the CBS-Radford lot in Studio City. He offers half of his sandwich, some napkins, and says of his career and his new sitcom: "I tried to run away from it. At first I didn't really want to work. There wasn't anything that was really exciting me. So I thought I was going to retire."

During his last season playing Kramer on "Seinfeld," Richards made around $13 million, according to published reports. When the show ended, he traveled and restored his Pacific Palisades home, an Italian Mediterranean house overlooking the ocean and built in the 1920s by the late architect Paul Williams. He read the classics (Melville, Thoreau, Washington Irving) and let go of his agents, he says. He took a role as Micawber in a TNT production of Charles Dickens' "David Copperfield," but Richards, 51, also says he turned down prominent roles on stage, in ongoing productions of "Art" and "Wait Until Dark."

Instead, he explored Arizona, New Mexico and California's Sierra range. "I was taking stock in American culture, just realizing what a great country this is," Richards says. He was also looking for land, to build a retreat of some kind. And he wrote stuff down--thoughts, moods, a kind of journal writing.

"I was fascinated with Whitman's 'Specimen Days,' " he says. "It's an account of his feelings each day. I liked the way he put his thoughts together. Very simple, straightforward."

On "The Michael Richards Show," Richards plays Vic Nardozza, a comically befuddled detective in the way of Inspector Clouseau. This is, he says, a part he's been wanting to play for some time. On the new show there is a boss and a sidekick and some office eccentrics. But it remains to be seen whether the cast will gel around Richards or how badly he will need them.

For months now, too, there have been mixed messages trickling out about the show, much of them centered on the pilot that Richards and his three executive producers (Spike Feresten, Andy Robin and Gregg Kavet, all former "Seinfeld" staffers) made and then trashed. Filmed on location as a single-camera prototype, the pilot was either terrible or lacked an ensemble cast or was too laborious to make, depending on whom you talk to, and was thrown out, at a cost of more than $1 million. In comedy development, pilots sometimes get scrapped. But in the shorthand way these situations get translated in the television industry, "The Michael Richards Show" officially became a "troubled" project, a sitcom with a big name attached but creatively adrift--a theme driven home by television writers denied a screening of the show when the networks convened in Pasadena over the summer to promote their fall lineups.

In a season when each of the big four networks has a name actor headlining a sitcom (of Richards, Bette Midler, Geena Davis and John Goodman, only Goodman didn't name his Fox show after himself), Richards may be wearing the biggest target on his back.

"We have been wallowing in the bad press," executive producer Feresten says jokingly, interviewed recently in his office. During the conversation, the phone rings; it's Jerry Seinfeld. Feresten leaves the room to take the call, leaving Kavet and Robin to deal with the "Are you in trouble?" questions. Both Harvard graduates and barely in their 30s, they don't seem overwhelmed by the pressures, even though this is the first time they've run a show and they've been made to feel that certain network executives' jobs are riding on their work. But the writers have earned a measure of relief after shooting the second pilot, with a more conventional sitcom look--a live audience, four cameras, and an ensemble cast that includes William Devane, Tim Meadows, Amy Farrington and Bill Cobbs.

"It's a new experience for all of us, for Michael included," Robin says. "All the attention is making that rough. We'd love to be tucked away and hidden for a couple years and let the show evolve, but we're not going to have that shot. So we're trying to rise to the occasion."

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