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Michael Richards discusses ‘Seinfeld,' the ‘Curb' finale and the incident that changed his life

From Cosmo Kramer to cancel culture, the Emmy-winning actor has returned to the spotlight after an 18-year absence with the release of his new memoir "Entrances and Exits."

Michael Richards
Nathan Congleton/NBC via Getty Images

A door opens and Michael Richards makes his entrance.

Out of the public eye for much of the last two decades, he is moments from making his first live television appearance in years.

At 74 years old, his persona is far different from that of Kramer, his beloved character in “Seinfeld” whose words defied etiquette, whose movements defied physics and whose hair defied gravity.

Richards speaks carefully but openly, walks cautiously but purposefully. A three-time Emmy winner widely recognized for portraying one of television’s most iconic characters, he still carries part of the burden from a career-altering mistake that made him a recluse.  

He is now making his re-entry as he details his journey – from enduring a tumultuous childhood to entering the military to becoming a sitcom star to navigating cancel culture – in his newly-released memoir “Entrances and Exits.”

“I know the title sounds kind of theatrical, I took it from Shakespeare, ‘Entrances and Exits,’” Richards said. “But it’s bigger than that. It’s not just for the sake of performance. I’m constantly in a state of change, situations coming and going. So, there are a lot of entrances and a lot of exits throughout.”

Giddy up! Becoming Cosmo Kramer

Cosmo Kramer made many grand entrances and exits through the apartment door of his neighbor Jerry Seinfeld.

Walking in was too simplistic for a character and actor of such eccentricity.

“I used to play Kramer slow,” Richards said during a sit-down interview this week with NBC. “After 13 shows, I started playing him faster so that he’s ahead of everybody. So, I came in quickly! Like coming onto a freeway, you accelerate to get into the speed of the traffic.”

Some of his entrances — there were 291 of them over nine seasons, according to a YouTube compilation — were quicker and more animated than others.

Along with his hair style, his lobster-printed shirt and his “Giddy up!” phrase, one of Kramer’s trademarks became bursting through the door by sliding in.

“There was something deep down inside that just made me feel that this is the character, the way he comes into life, the way he comes into the situation,” Richards said. “He’s got something going, or he wants to catch up…He’s on the move. And that’s where I came up with ‘Giddy up!’ He is the giddy up.”

To help put the giddy in the giddy up during his slides, Richards made some modifications to the black Doc Martens shoes he hand-picked for the character to wear throughout the series.

“I did sand the soles down just a bit, sometimes I used a little silicone spray,” Richards said. “You know they say about magicians, you’re not supposed to give away any tricks. And I hope that that doesn’t disappoint people. That they just think that I had the magic to just slide in.”

He slid into the hearts of fans, his entrances drawing such lengthy ovations from the show’s studio audiences that they were eventually instructed to hold their applause.

Richards won over the crowd with his gift of physical comedy, often wearing padding beneath his clothing as “body armor” to cushion his many falls. He introduced the character’s physicality in the second season after “Seinfeld” co-creator Larry David wrote a wordy speech into a scene for Kramer to talk about how he got revenge on a laundromat by putting cement in their washing machine.

Richards suggested making it more visual by acting out what became the scene he is most proud of.

“Rather than saying funny, I wanted to do funny,” he explained. “I get to take falls and get the stuff in my eyes, and then at the end have a cover for it by saying, ‘I didn’t know it was a full box.’ And I’m standing there just covered in this crud. So, I could say funny, but I was doing funny, and the two connected. It just felt like a very whole performance.”

His performances were demanding, requiring extensive preparation and focus that prevented Richards from enjoying the experience as much as he would have liked.  

“It’s just the way I work, a lot of attention to details,” he said. “Kramer was built up from the shoes to the hair to the mannerisms, the ticks, the voice was also much different. It was a manufactured character. It was a study, it was a big study.”

The Cast of Seinfeld
David Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images
The cast of "Seinfeld": Michael Richards (left), Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jerry Seinfeld and Jason Alexander. (Getty)

Watching 'Seinfeld' for the first time

Richards refused to watch an episode of “Seinfeld” while filming because of his critical nature.

A perfectionist notices perfection’s imperfections. Overanalyzing a performance he could no longer change would have detracted from the performance he was about to give.  

He watched the series for the first time recently with his then nine-year-son Antonio, saying he was finally able to watch with great objectivity because he was no longer so close to Kramer.

“It was just delightful,” said an emotional Richards, tears in his eyes. “I just felt so proud to be a part of such a damn good show, and all of the people and the family, the making of art, of comedy. We were all so tuned into each other. It was just divine.”

They watched the show in its entirety, from the pilot to the finale — the only two episodes where Richards said he didn’t feel fully engaged in Kramer. He found parts of his performance in the finale to be over the top - like when Kramer jumps up and down while on an airplane to get water out of his ear - and the fanfare surrounding the filming of the episode to be distracting.

"I don’t work that way," he said. "I’m alone. I do visual work in how I see the scene is going to be. I was taken out of myself. [The finale] is the only show since the pilot that I didn’t feel connected. So, the performance, I think, suffers a bit when I look at it."

He writes in the book that he wondered at the time if the show’s divisive finale would satisfy fans, and he even offers his preferred ending.

Richards was open to a cast reunion with Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer on the other finale in the “Seinfeld” universe, in which Larry David recreated the widely-criticized plot of the show’s last episode on the “Curb Your Enthusiasm” series finale in April.

“I didn’t see it, I heard about it,” he said. “When I first heard about it, I said, ‘Oh! We should all be in there. We’re back in the cell.’ You know, my mind was going, ‘Let’s do an escape! Let’s do something!’…But it was just Larry and Jerry. They started together, they need to end together.”

‘I canceled myself out’

When Richards departed the Laugh Factory comedy club in 2006, he exited the stage, show business and the public eye.

Richards had been struggling to find work after “Seinfeld” and the short-lived “The Michael Richards Show” — where he played a private detective in a 2000 sitcom that was canceled after just eight episodes.  

His confidence shattered, and sensing he had been typecast as an actor, he returned to his roots as a stand-up comedian.

While performing at the Laugh Factory, a heckler shouted “You’re not funny!” and Richards responded with racial slurs. The incident was captured on cell phone video and became a national story.

“I canceled myself out,” Richards said.  

“To be so possessed by anger, that was so horrible, so embarrassing.I certainly regret that I couldn’t make people laugh. Broke my heart to get so taken up. Someone heckled me, so what?... I said, ‘I can’t, I need to go away and figure myself out. Why the hell am I getting so angry like this? Because it’s more than just being heckled. And then to grab words like that, what the hell? Come on.”

Seeking to find and eliminate the source of his anger, Richards exited the spotlight for 18 years.

“It felt right,” he said. “I welcomed the personal work. I went into analysis. I was ready for it. I think I was having a kind of midlife crisis.”

Other than appearances on “Curb Your Enthusiasm” in 2006 and Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee in 2012,” he lived a private life. Until now.

Richards, in 2018, was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Facing the thought of death and the reflection it causes, Richards felt it was time to share his story.  

“The cancer certainly set me up for some big reveal work,” he said. “And I wanted to leave something for the fans of ‘Seinfeld.’ I wanted to share the process of how I made the K-Man. How I brought Kramer to life.”

It helped bring Richards back to the life he once knew — and perhaps, one day, back to acting.

“It’s possible,” he said. “Yeah, it’s possible.”

Just before Richards was preparing to leave the studio after his television interview, he was told a story about the impact “Seinfeld” had on a fan of the show.

“All the time that I was doing ‘Seinfeld,’ I didn’t have enough feeling to know how the show was landing with an audience, the connection,” Richards said. “That story you just told me — just the effect of comedy, being a part of it — I wish I could have enjoyed it more then.

"Now, I do indeed enjoy it. But, it just took a while to come into my heart," he added. "Part of the catalyst from the Laugh Factory, I can have a lot of talent, I can have a lot of fame, but if I don’t have my heart in place, and I can’t feel and have empathy to be touched by your story, see, I’ve got work to do.”  

A door opens and Michael Richards makes his exit.

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