Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark
Photo editor Jennifer Crandall
Michael Richards has just made his entrance in his first scene in the 149th episode of the top-rated sitcom in America, Seinfeld, and he's flubbed his lines terribly. While the other actors have been schmoozing around the set during taping - Jerry Seinfeld cuddling gal pal Shoshanna Lonstein, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Jason Alexander engaging in quiet conversation between themselves -the enigmatic Richards has kept his distance from the company, materializing only for the perfunctory opening bow and now this, a scene in which he must casually inform Jerry and Elaine that he was thrown out of the previous evening's Knicks game for scuffling with one of the players. Only, he can't get the player's name right and, when he does, garbles the words leading to and from it - five times. "I'm goin' home!" he finally announces, with such conviction that the audience seems genuinely surprised when he returns minutes later to deliver a letter-perfect reading. (In fact, it soon becomes apparent that these Moses-like forays into the nether regions of the NBC sound stages are habitual enough that Alexander has perfected a juggling routine using Jerry's kitchen fruit during the ensuing intervals.) But even after Richards has eased into his role with the effortless panache one would expect of a two-time Emmy winner, he never really melds with the company and, except for an extended conversation with Lonstein, keeps to himself.
"Oh, man, there's a look that crosses Michael's face, when things don't go his way, of complete self-loathing," says Louis-Dreyfus. "And we love him for that. It's part of his charm, to tell you the truth, and it's why he's so good."
In fact, the actor is such a perfectionist that even after he gets it right and performs the rest of the show flawlessly - improvising new, specialized shtick on the spot, like a modern-day Jacques Tati, to whom he has been compared - he doesn't let up on the self-scrutiny. After the show wraps, Seinfeld, Louis-Dreyfus and Alexander hang around the set to hobnob with the industry brass and pose for pictures, while Richards retreats to his dressing room - refusing even a prearranged introduction to this reporter-to go over his pickups (scenes that will be reshot with the cast after the audience has gone) and additional scenes he will insist on reshooting (in close-up) with a skeleton crew till 2 o'clock in the morning.
"He is completely committed to go to any length to make a comedic moment work," says Seinfeld later, "up to and including killing himself."
Adds Larry David, the co-creator of Seinfeld, who quit last year because of his own workaholic tendencies, "He's tortured at times. He makes a lot of demands on himself. He always feels he can do it better; and if he doesn't, he's annoyed with himself the rest of the day."
And then some. At the end of what turns into a marathon seven-hour interview the following day, Richards announces that he's treating the process of being a star with a new, more outgoing vigor, and apologizes for the previous evening's blowoff. "You know, I should've come out and met you," he says, "instead of lying there getting ready for my pickups. I should've said, 'Listen, I've got to do this tonight, and then I'll see you tomorrow."
Richards, 47, has been considering a lot of things lately. With the end in sight of the television series that has made him a pop-culture icon, he's been re-evaluating his career, future prospects and life. While he and cast mates Louis-Dreyfus and Alexander wait out their contract renegotiations they've asked for an unprecedented $1 million each, per episode, to do a ninth, and most likely final, season next year - he's considering, for the first time in a long time, life beyond Seinfeld and is finding it pretty, well, enticing.
The 20-year veteran of show business - he got his start on the stages of Hollywood's comedy clubs - has come a long way from the days of driving a school bus in Beverly Hills to support his wife, Cathleen, whom he divorced in 1990 after 18 years of marriage, and daughter, Sophia (now 22, an aspiring actress). While he has been too busy to do anything but one carefully selected feature film during each hiatus from shooting the TV series - last year's release was the intense family drama Unstrung Heroes, directed by Diane Keaton, and this summer's will be Trial and Error, a comedy with Jeff Daniels - the actor has big-screen stardom in view and hopes to make the leap that many before him have attempted but failed. In fact, when the name of best-actor Oscar nominee Woody Harrelson comes up in our conversation, Richards, in his typically unprepossessing style, thinks out loud, "I always wondered how they did it for him: helping him move from the dumb guy behind the bar into features. I haven't made that move. I suppose I'm kind of an off-the-wall guy-next-door, and I'm anxious to make that transition."
But like the freewheeling, idiosyncratic character that made him famous, Richards abounds in contradictions. You've got to love a guy who one minute boasts, "Television needs me. The entertainment industry needs me. That's how conceited I've become," and the next muses over the fact that while he has been ambushed by tabloid photographers outside his modest Studio City, Calif., home, he has never seen the pictures published. "What do you think that means?" he asks with all the inquisitive sincerity of an adolescent.
In fact, it was when he was 11 years old, or thereabouts, that the Los Angeles-born Richards first located his burning desire to perform. The only child of a working single mother - she had to toil long hours as a medical-records librarian after her husband was killed in an auto accident when Richards was 2 - the boy invented for himself a rich, solitary fantasy life, from which, one learns after spending time with him, he has barely emerged. In high school he discovered acting and debate, and won enough awards and accolades to earn him a seat with the honors students at graduation even though his grades were so bad in other subjects that he didn't receive a diploma. It didn't seem to bother his iconoclastic mom, whose quiet eccentricity he thinks he inherited. She would greet a failing report card with a simple, "Oh, well, looks like you're not going to Princeton," and return to her reading.
Richards went to a local junior college instead, before being drafted for the Vietnam War - a fate he met with characteristic aplomb. While many of his contemporaries in '70s Southern California fled or fought the call, Richards looked forward to the drama of combat. But his stint was relegated to one year in Germany as a medic and a troops entertainer after the Army decided to downsize. Returning to college, he took up theater with a renewed vengeance and eventually found himself in the middle of the exploding stand-up comedy scene that produced the likes of Robin Williams, Jay Leno and Richards' soon-to-be employer Jerry Seinfeld.
"He was so unpredictable," recalls Billy Crystal, who worked the same clubs. "Offstage he was soft-spoken and very sweet he was concerned about his career and his daughter - then he'd go onstage with this huge branch and play some weird guy who lived in a tree or something. I don't remember the details, but nobody wanted to follow him; he was just too crazy, and it was hard to get the audience back."
Crystal gave Richards his first paying TV gig on his HBO special; and from there the lanky standup barely stopped working, landing his first steady job soon after on the ill-fated Saturday Night Live rip-off Fridays (from 1980 to 1982). Countless television appearances (St. Elsewhere, Cheers) and movies (UHF, Transylvania 6-5000) followed, but it wasn't until Seinfeld remembered him from a spot on The Tonight Show that Richards was called in to audition for the part that would make him famous.
"I think he deserves a million bucks a day," says Seinfeld. "He's a classic comedian in the tradition of Laurel and Hardy, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton. There are very, very few people whose comedic gift is so classic that it can transcend time like that. You know, people will watch these shows a hundred years from now and they won't know what I'm talking about, but they'll be laughing at him."
For now, though, it's the serious side we see, as Richards, wearing a black baseball cap to tame the towering tresses and at least attempt disguise ("If I wear a hat and a big coat, I can move around people easier"), meets you at his house, drives you to lunch in Beverly Hills and returns home for an afternoon-into-evening conversation. The reclusive actor hasn't given an interview in two years because of his aversion to what he calls the press's "bewildering" compulsion to compare him to his character. "What's the point?" he asks, slightly disingenuously. "They just paint me as a maniac, a crazy person, wherever I go. So, I might as well just do the show, go home and have my own life."
How is 'Seinfeld' different this season without Larry David on board?
It's entirely different, but in a better way. We're happier, far more creative, because all the writers are participating. Before, they had to go through Larry, and poor Larry was carrying the show.
You've said Larry David burned out. How did the burnout manifest itself?
He would complain and feel like he just couldn't go on. He wanted to end the show, but we weren't ready to. Jerry wasn't ready. There was a lot more that could be done, and we were all quite inspired. And with this success, at the same time, I mean, my God, why do we want to stop now? I've been in television 19 years! Everyone in the cast is professional. We know what we're doing. We've all paid our dues. [Raising voice] We don't want to stop this now, Larry!
Funny, then, that you'd choose now of all times to ask for a raise!
Oh, no, we've always been aware of what our worth is. We always knew that.
Who came up with the nice round figure of a million bucks? Was it you or your agents?
It's us knowing what the show is profiting. This show is not just a hit in America; it's a hit in the foreign market and in syndication. And for me, anyway, there is the danger that every year I do the Kramer character, more of my identity becomes associated with it. So, there's a price to be paid. I've also had some incredible offers to do motion pictures that I haven't been able to do because I'm not available.
Yet you turned down the big-buck offers to make a quirky little drama, 'Unstrung Heroes,' for comparatively little money. Why?
Because I was anxious to do some character work, and I wanted to work with a story that had heart and soul. This is the only thing I can do, and then I'm back on Seinfeld. And I just didn't want to play goofy. I was already doing goofy. I'm a star at that.
Has the mood on the set changed because of your contract demands? Any tension between suits and stars?
No. [Long pause] There hasn't been any tension. The reason I'm pausing is because I was told there was tension.
By the executive producers. They felt it was necessary for Jerry to let people know that we're OK. [Editors' note: Two days earlier, Seinfeld appeared on the front page of 'Variety' claiming that although the contract dispute was ongoing, everything was running smoothly at the show.] I've been told I'm not supposed to comment on any of this, and I won't; but it was dumb. I'll tell you we are tight. What are we bickering for? We have a very solid relationship with the show, both creatively and financially. That's all I can say to Hollywood and to the public. We've all decided to go a ninth year, and NBC is very, very happy. The ninth season is really to make everybody happy.
And that's going to be the last?
I think it will, because there's just too much action going on outside this show.
How would you like to see 'Seinfeld' end when the time finally comes?
Well, everyone's talking about killing the characters off. Like some crazy thing happens to the four of them. [But] I'm not for that. I would prefer to end my character just on the road. I'd like to see Kramer take off on a "Crocodile" Dundee walkabout. As a matter of fact, I think it would be a good format if they ever wanted to do a spinoff. It could be like Kung Fu, only with Kramer on the road.
Do you think you would have been happy without all this success, just toiling along as a character actor in TV and movies?
It's hypothetical. Up to the point of Seinfeld, I was not a miserable man. I wasn't frustrated or thinking I was a has-been or not a very good talent. I never thought that, because I always worked. Even if I went months without a job, I didn't worry, because I knew a job would come. I said, "Good, I have time to finish this reading." I had a home, just a small home, but I was happy in this home. I had a yard and books.
And a wife. But you divorced after 18 years of marriage. Was it an amicable divorce?
We both had to separate in order to grow up. We got married so young. I had just turned 24, and up to that point all I did was theater. I didn't have a life, nor did I have money. I didn't date ladies. I was barely able to keep gas in my car, and I was in productions all the time.
Why did you get married so young?
I was in love. I was at California Institute of the Arts, and [Cathleen] had graduated from the masters program. I had just finished my studies, and we traveled that summer and ended up in Santa Cruz with these friends we had met. We all decided to rent a house together. So, we lived in this huge home for about a year. The couples we were living with were all married; and they said, you guys should get married, too. And we said, yeah. So, we got married. We got along fine, and did for many, many years. You don't stay with somebody for 18 years if there isn't something going on. It broke both our hearts that we had to separate. But it was necessary. Contention was starting to develop, and we knew the reasons why.
What were they?
We needed to find our sense of independence. Both of us had never really lived on our own, and that was necessary for me to gain my manhood. So, when I came out of the marriage, I bought this [current] house, a little fixer-upper, and I put my money and time into that and created a real home for myself. And in the course of it, my wife did the same thing for herself.
Are you seeing anyone now?
I have friends I see or hang out with, but it's not like a date where you call a girl up and say, "Will you go out with me?"
When was the last time you went out romantically with a woman?
Maybe a month ago - no. Cut that. Cut that! There hasn't been a romance. I don't have a romance. I mean, I have girlfriends. But I don't have romance. And there's a distinction. I can be with women, but I don't have, like, an ongoing romance with candles or that whole thing.
Is there a physical thing?
[Brightens] I'm open to it, yeah!
But are they?
Well, you know, you have to draw a line at a certain point, because then a woman is vulnerable and open. I have to be respectful, because I know that right now I'm not really able to be in a relationship.
But do you want to be in one eventually?
Oh, yeah. I'm open, but I haven't found the right woman to get into a relationship with.
You probably need a woman who's as successful as you, and not too young.
Yeah, but you know, [Humphrey] Bogart came to life when he met Lauren Bacall. How old was she? Eighteen? Nineteen? He was 45. And he needed her. [Charlie] Chaplin found Oona [O'Neill] when she was 17 or 18 and he was 54. Sometimes a young woman can possess a certain insight, a certain bearing, that is useful to an older man, and an older man can bring something to a young woman. Who said, God moves in mysterious ways?
So, that's what's going on with Jerry and Shoshanna?
Oh, that relationship? [Laughs] I haven't been able to pull that one apart and take a real close look at what makes 'em tick. But those two are pretty much in love with each other.
They seemed inseparable at the taping last night.
Yeah, they don't get to see a lot of each other. Jerry's working so many hours on the show, and Shoshanna's finishing up her undergraduate work at UCLA. I think they're going to do a little traveling together. They need more time to see what keeps them together.
What is she like?
She's sweet, smart. They know how to play together. That's their secret. It's that playfulness between them -Jerry needs that, you know? He needs somebody that can keep things light, and they can get out and have fun and do that for each other. That's very, very important in a relationship, if two people are able to play with each other. When that goes - certainly, when the sex goes usually everything else is moving away, too. Freud said a man's relationship with a woman is a replication of the one he had with his mother.
What was your mother like?
I didn't have much of a relationship to my mother. I was brought up without a father. So, she worked all the time. I was left to myself.
No relationship? Really? Even though it was just the two of you?
Well, her ability to relate wasn't as deeply connected as it was for my daughter and her mother. I began to see, with my own daughter, that we were more into what each other was doing. And I understood my daughter emotionally. My own mother is very reclusive. She worked, but when she would come home, she'd spend maybe a little time with me. I can't recall having deep, meaningful conversations with her. I think that she was just so tired from working all day. It was very, very hard for her, and it was fine with me. I don't remember ever just sitting around crying or wishing I could be held or loved.
How is your relationship with your mom now? Is it different or the same?
We're very close. I've gotten to know her. That's what I liked about Albert Brooks' movie Mother - that whole notion of getting to know one's mother. I think that's very important for a man. During the last five years, I've really made a concerted effort to get to know my mother. I would go up to Big Sur and stay at the Post Ranch Inn and bring her along because I realized I'd never taken a long walk in the trees with my mother. So, I think it made up for a lot of the childhood time where she and I never really had quality time.
What trace of her is in you?
I think I carry a bit of the eccentric. My mother is very, very eccentric. Every year, she'd go to a Halloween function where she'd dress up in these funny costumes and always come home with the award. I mean, weird costumes, like a very elegant dress, but then she'd make a hat out of one of those shower-curtain things that had little butterflies on it. And she'd have real long eyelashes and green nails and funnylooking shoes and a very elegant cane. I remember I'd help her get dressed, and I'd be laughing and taking pictures; and then she'd always come home with this prize. My mother's never aspired to be in show business, but she carries the clown in her. She was the perfect woman for me to come through into this world, when I look back on it.
Well, it might have been all you knew; but in retrospect, don't you think your childhood was kind of lonely?
Well, not loneliness like a state of depression. It was really a wonderful, comforting solitude. I used to ride my bike for great distances - just going through different neighborhoods, just to do it. I always had an adventurous spirit, which got a lot of kids in my neighborhood in trouble because I would lead them into areas that I'd already explored. I'd get them to leave the neighborhood, and they would always come home late. And you know, my mother certainly wanted to know where I was; but if I walked in at night - and I didn't have a dinner time - my mother would say, "Where were ya?” and I would say, I was riding my bike, and she'd say, "You hungry?" And she'd make me something, and that would be the end of it. But these other kids had to be home at 5: "I gotta be home for dinner; my dad's gonna kill me!" I'd say, "Why? Why would he want to do that? Just tell him we went riding and we caught a gopher snake."
So, what's your life like away from work? What will you do tonight when I leave?
I have some good books I want to get to. I have a couple days off. I'm going to take a long walk tonight. I love to take my walks.
Still wandering, are you? In the dark?
Oh, it's the best time, because it's cool, the air is fresh, we just had a rain. I was thinking just the other day that we don't walk enough. I was thinking, what's the farthest I've ever walked? And I thought, gee, you know, I haven't even walked a hundred miles. And I was looking at these old pictures, maps from the Bible, and I said, gee, Jesus and those boys really did some walking, didn't they? And I thought to myself, it would be good for the spirit to take a walk, because the whole idea of self-sufficiency really arises out of being able to get from one place to the next on your own, without a car, a bike, just walking from here to there.
So, you're going to take a hundred-mile walk?
I've been thinking of taking a long, long walk.
Over the course of a number of days?
The course of a number of months.
Like Forrest Gump? Oh, no, he ran.
Well, he had that idea, but I'm not running from anything, and I'm not walking away from anything.
Too bad you don't live in New York. Everyone walks there.
It's funny, because on the set last night, they had a huge backdrop photograph of Central Park, and I was just standing there thinking how I really wanted to walk in that park. I could sense the romance to be found in and around that natural setting. It made me want to move to New York.
That's so ironic, because millions of non-New Yorkers look at you as the quintessential New Yorker, and yet you've never even lived there.
I've been trying to get Jerry to do the show in New York for the last couple of years, and he would love to, too, but we can't because Julia and Jason have their families here. I always wanted to live in New York, and I'm probably one of the only people in Los Angeles who talks to the movies. When I was in New York, everyone was doing that.
You talk back to the screen?
I'll be sitting there and I'll go [shouts], "Why is he getting on the bus?! He knows he's going to just get held up! " Or I start analyzing the picture: "I don't buy it!"
Well, in some New York neighborhoods, you'd get shot for less; but it sounds like another story line for your show. By the way, do you have a favorite episode?
My favorite was the first one where I really did some physical comedy, many, many years ago. I was pouring dry cement into a washing machine. It's just a couple of minutes, no dialogue, just activity. That's the kind of comedy I want. Where you're involved in the activity of doing funny rather than talking funny. That's what I think was the key success to Lucille Ball's show. She got animated, physical. Those are the comedies I watched as a kid.
Did you ever meet her?
No, but I met Liza Minnelli. That's about as close as I guess I could get.
I'm confused. What does Liza Minnelli have to do with Lucille Ball?
[Shocked} They were very close! You didn't know this? You're from New York and you don't know that? Well, unless [Liza] is lying to me. [Pauses] She's a wild woman. She kept calling, wanting to get together and "just be friends." Go out and "have some fun." It was at a time when the Seinfeld show really hadn't kicked off. So, I was intimidated.
How did you and Liza meet?
I was at the Monkey Bar [in L.A.] listening to Harry Dean Stanton, and Liza came in with this other woman. So, they joined us. We were going over to Carrie Fisher's. So, they came along. We hung out and then went to Sean Penn's friend's house. But I was hanging around with Liza! I mean, I was, like, with Liza Minnelli! This was about three and a half years ago, and I was just opening up to this world, because I haven't really socialized with superstar talent. I don't do this.
I didn't know you hung with Hollywood's fast set, both past and present.
I don't! But I know how to get to these circles. I make a phone call and I'm there. [Proudly] Over the holidays, I was at Sharon Stone's, hangin' out with Shirley MacLaine.
Now wait, I want to get to Liza Minnelli; but first, bow does one just end up at Sharon Stone's house?
I know somebody who knows her, and they say, "Listen, we're going over to Sharon Stone's for a Christmas-tree-hanging event. Want to join us?" So I say, "Sure," and I think, oh, gee, I'm going to Sharon Stone's what's this going to be like? Then I go, because I'm in the mood to get out.
And what do you do when you get there?
I just kind of walk in and - there's a part of me that doesn't want to do this because I can feel a bit shy, but I make a point of talking to every single person at the party.
Who did you meet at this one?
I met all kinds of people. People that aren't even in the business but have fascinating lives. I met a nuclear physicist. I met somebody who was traveling through Africa and just got back, and they were telling me about their experiences with a tribe there and how they discovered certain spiritual values inherent in all of our lives and so forth; and that was interesting.
And could you have a substantial conversation with the hostess?
We said hello and talked, but she was moving around. So, I sort of left her at that. She told me to make myself at home, enjoy the food and [cheerfully], "Great to see ya!"
How '50s. Did you snoop?
Oh, I go everywhere. I make a point of seeing every single thing. I learned that from a drummer in [a '70s rock band whose name he forgets]. I was at a big star's party, and he and his wife and I made a point of walking around the house looking at every single object. [Jumps up to demonstrate by circling his own living room, picking up things and peering closely at their underside, etc.]
Whose house was it?
It was the first time I went to a party at Carrie Fisher's. I'll never forget that event. I was standing outside, and there's a swimming pool right in the front yard. Talk about insecurity. I am standing in the midst of gigantic superstars who are at the top of the motion-picture industry. These are the people commanding the box office! So, I'm standing around and I find myself saying over and over again, "It's OK to be here. It's fine. I feel comfortable." So, just to make myself truly feel comfortable, I decided to go swimming, because nobody was swimming. So, I peeled my clothes off. I found a pair of shorts somewhere - in a bathhouse - and put 'em on. So, now I'm the only one walking around in my bathing suit. I jump in this pool, and I'm swimmin' around, and everyone's talkin' around me, and I'm goin' underwater, and then I'm just lying on the bottom. Holding my breath. And then I'm thinking, I shouldn't do this! They may think that I've drowned, not that I'm just interested in lying down here and holding my breath. It was nice and quiet. [Remembering, whispers] Nice. And then I came up, and sure enough there were people looking at me, saying, "You all right?" And I said, "Fine, fine. Just swimming." Then I got out, and I'm drying myself and thinking, I know I'm skinny and I might look geeky, but I don't care 'cause I'm me and I'm here just like they are and we're all here together and this is what it is.
What it is indeed. That's some image, you lying on the bottom of the pool.
I think it comes out of the experiences I have at home when I put on a tank of air and get down on the bottom of the pool and sit on a piece of patio furniture.
This is actually something you do for recreation? What do you do down there, meditate?
I just sit there. I don't know what "meditate" is. I just basically let myself be. I could be thinking about the show, a person, or I can have an internal dialogue with someone I've met.
Like Liza. Does she still call?
She just called a couple of times [after we first met] and wanted to know if we could get together. Go out and have some fun.
Did you go out with her again?
No. I was too intimidated at the time. I said, I can't go out with Liza Minnelli, you know? I'm just on the TV. But it's something I had to overcome - a certain bashfulness.
And have you overcome it?
Well, I feel equal now. For the first time, people are acknowledging my work. When you get an Emmy or a SAG Award, the world is at hand. It's more than just glad-handing, too; there's a respect, because these people have won, too. It's not like they just want to be around me because I won an Emmy. My work has gotten to a certain point where I can sit in a room with people who've had their honors, and I respect their work; but we can get that out of the way, in a sense, and just relate to one another. That was always difficult for me. I just didn't feel equal to the occasion. But I'm feeling like this year [it's different]. I want to make a real concerted effort to meet the world, to travel, do things.
Maybe Liza should give you another go.
[Smiles] I think if she called again, I'd probably go out and have some fun.
Tom O'Neill interviewed Alec Baldwin for the February issue of 'US.'