Serious about comedy Zany drama: The actor who plays Kramer on 'Seinfeld' brings his comic style to his role in Diane Keaton's dramatic 'Unstrung Heroes'

September 24, 1995|By Barry Koltnow | Barry Koltnow,ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

The man with the most memorable on-camera entrances in show business lives up to his billing in the film "Unstrung Heroes," a touching drama directed by Diane Keaton.

Michael Richards, who has turned the offbeat Kramer on TV's "Seinfeld" into a national cult figure, makes his grand entrance in the film through a window. It is one of many hysterical moments in a film that is not what one would consider a comedy.

Being light among the dark was of serious concern to Mr. Richards, who says he turned down considerably more lucrative offers to do film comedies so that he could appear in this relatively low-budget drama.

"Every time I did something on the set that elicited a laugh from the crew, I turned to Diane and asked her if we can get away with that," the actor said. "Surprisingly, she left most of it in the final picture."

Mr. Richards, 45, plays a troubled young boy's funny uncle, who also happens to be a delusional paranoid. The boy, whose mother (Andie MacDowell) is stricken with a serious illness, turns to his father's (John Turturro) oddball brothers (Mr. Richards and Maury Chaykin) for comfort.

"When I read the script I cried," Mr. Richards said. "Then I put the script down for two days and reread it. I cried again.

"I was really moved by this story and wanted to do the film very much. I knew it wasn't going to be a big commercial hit, but it is a dandy picture and I'm glad I did it.

"Of course, the people around me wanted me to do some other things that probably would have made more money, but I was in the mood to do some real acting. I started as an actor, and I really don't get to do much acting on half-hour television."

Mr. Richards emphasized that he was not snubbing comedy but simply could not find a comedy script he liked enough to do during his 10-week hiatus from "Seinfeld."

"Frankly, I was offered everything during the last two years," said the two-time Emmy winner, "but the scripts were all stupid. I was offered seven times what I made on 'Unstrung Heroes,' but I feel I already have enough money. I'm not in this for the money.

"But I'm not saying that the money wasn't tempting," he added with a smile. "I've turned down so much money in the last two years, in many cases more money than I expected to see in a lifetime, that I sometimes wonder if I'm playing the game correctly.

"I guess I'm just holding out for the craft; I just have to hold on to my heart."

Not surprisingly, Mr. Richards was always the class clown while growing up, and he and close friend Ed Begley Jr. used to crack up their friends at Los Angeles Valley College. They even appeared in public, most notably at the Troubadour in West Los Angeles, where they actually got paid for their comedy.

Mr. Richards took time off from his budding entertainment career to serve in the Army, but after his discharge he did not see comedy in his future. He headed south to San Diego, where he appeared in stage productions at the San Diego Repertory Theater.

Eventually, he figured comedy might help his acting, so he developed a 35-minute routine and began working in L.A. comedy clubs.

Within nine months, he gave birth to a television career.

A producer saw his act and offered him one of the prized cast slots on the late-night sketch-comedy show "Fridays." It was a blatant rip-off of "Saturday Night Live," but it had its moments, most of which were created by Mr. Richards.

He has described his 2 1/2 years on the show as difficult but admits that it gave him important national exposure. He used the program to showcase his now-recognizable brand of physical comedy and the uncanny ability to invent wacky, unforgettable characters, like Battle Boy and Dick the bumbling lover.

After "Fridays" was euthanized, Mr. Richards continued to work steadily, but the promise was not fulfilled until "Seinfeld."

Mr. Richards is quick to point out that Kramer was not magically created on Day One. It took hard work to find the wild-mopped eccentric that audiences love.

"The reason I played Uncle Danny in 'Unstrung Heroes' is that I love well-rounded characters," he explained. "I hate two-dimensional characters where there is nothing going on inside the character's head.

"Kramer is a well-rounded character now, but he wasn't well-rounded when the series began. The well-roundedness came from me exploring the edges of the character."

Mr. Richards, who quashed rumors to the contrary and announced that there definitely will be another season of "Seinfeld" after this one, said he is continually stunned by Kramer's incredible popularity.

"I have never had to grapple with celebrityhood until Kramer," he said. "I am a Valley guy who is used to going anywhere he likes, and this sudden turn of events, where I can't go anywhere, is unnerving at times.

"I go places now and people shove videocams in my face and call me Kramer. They never call me Michael, and that's weird.

"But I don't want you to think I regret playing the character or that I feel like a prisoner of the character," he added. "I know that Robin Williams had some problems making people forget Mork, but I'm not worried about that.

"There will come a time when people will forget about Kramer and remember that I am an actor named Michael Richards. I feel it in my being that I am destined to move on."

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