There’s nothing very Krameresque about a surprisingly sedate Michael Richards except his wildly out-of-control hairdo, and he apologizes for that.
Self-consciously running his fingers through it, he says, “The studio asked me to ‘Kramer up’ a little to plug my movie. My hair only looks like this when I let it grow it out.”
Richards, clad in an orange ultra-suede jacket that might have come out of Kramer’s closet, is draped over a chair in a Hollywood hotel suite talking about “Trial and Error,” which opened Friday, in which he delivers a broadly comic performance as an actor who impersonates a lawyer.
The character isn’t exactly a carbon copy of Jerry’s oddball neighbor on the perennial prime-time hit “Seinfeld,” and Richards wouldn’t mind distancing his big-screen appearance from the Kramermania which surrounds him. On the other hand, he also wouldn’t mind if a few million of his television fans buy tickets.
“After you’ve done a character for eight years, it’s hard not to be identified with it,” Richards says. “I try to separate myself from Kramer on a film set. I’m not him, any more than Robin Williams was a professor in ‘Dead Poets Society,’ but people who are looking for Kramer will probably see him in my performance. At least I kept my hair plastered down so I wouldn’t look like him.”
In “Trial and Error,” Richards has his share of Kramerian pratfalls as a slightly goofy, unemployed actor who has to stand in for his attorney buddy (Jeff Daniels), who’s accidentally overmedicated while recovering from a raucous bachelor party.
In one hilarious scene, he auditions for an acting job by playing all the parts in a scene in which a small-time thug is beaten up by Mafia henchmen.
“That routine came from my stand-up days,” the actor says. “I used to play a drunk who was getting beaten, and audiences loved it. I love falling-down comedy. You just have to be careful. The first time I did a TV comedy, I broke a couple of ribs. From that day on, I started using pads.”
While Richards gets plenty of chances to fall down in “Trial and Error,” he also gets romantic with the prosecutor, played by Jessica Steen.
“That’s a first for me,” he says. “I’ve been in love, so I knew I could handle it, but it was my first chance on the screen.”
As for his offscreen love-life, Richards remains evasive. He has a 21-year-old daughter, Sophia, from a 19-year marriage which ended in 1990. Since then, he’s had girlfriends but no long-lasting relationship.
Richards laughs at the thought that playing an actor playing a lawyer in “Trial and Error” would ever encourage him to use that talent in a real courtroom.
“I’m sure there are lawyers who could win an Academy Award,” he says, “but I don’t think I could ever win over a jury.”
He has played a cop in real life, however.
“I pulled up to my house one day,” he recalls, “and I saw a guy coming out of my garage carrying my bicycle. I jumped out of the car and yelled that I was a police officer and told him to get his (posterior) on the ground.
“I guess I must have been convincing,” the actor says, “because he followed orders. In the meantime, I was frantically gesturing to my daughter to call 911.
“When the real cops came,” he adds with a shrug, “they told me that I should never try to play that role again.”
Richards will be playing Kramer again next season, after he, Jason Alexander and Julia Louis-Dreyfus ended 11th-hour contract negotiations by accepting a reported $600,000 per episode.
“The series was making far more than any of us anticipated when we signed our contracts two years ago,” he says. “The amount of income is huge, and we decided we needed to get our fair share of it if we were going to continue for a ninth year.
“I’d love to just act and not have to worry about the business part of show business,” he adds. “But I realize you can’t separate the two.
“We had to take care of business with NBC but, creatively, we all love what we’re doing,” Richards says. “I love playing Kramer. My motivation is not the size of my paycheck - I’m still driven to go on the set and be funny.”
Richards says that he was driven to make Kramer unique from the moment he auditioned for the part with Jerry Seinfeld.
“I just wanted him to be spontaneous, just to make him up,” he recalls. “I was reading lines with Jerry, and I didn’t think they were particularly funny. So I did a headstand on top of the table and continued my lines that way.
“Then I fell over, bounced off a chair and ended up on the floor,” he says. “Everyone was roaring and I said, ‘This is what I want to bring to Kramer on the show.’
“When I first started the series,” he adds, “I was really obsessed. Every week was a struggle. I would analyze my performance as Kramer - just pick it apart mercilessly.
“Now, I’ve tried to relax a little more,” he says. “I never watch the show, and I try to have a little more objectivity. I just want to amuse people.”
Not that amusement is the extent of Richards’ abilities. He earned critical praise for his performance in Diane Keaton’s “Unstrung Heroes” (1995), which utilized serious acting skills developed at the California Institute of the Arts.
“I think I did 23 plays,” he says. “I did university theater, regional theater, wherever I could get a job.”
Richards was appearing on stage in San Diego when a visit from an old college buddy, Ed Begley Jr., convinced him he should try stand-up comedy.
“Ed and I used to do a routine at local clubs when we were in school,” he says. “He told me I should come to L.A. and give stand-up a try. I wasn’t making any money, so I thought, ‘Why not?”’
A few weeks after he arrived, Richards was a regular at clubs such as the Improv and the Comedy Store, sharing the stage with other young comics who would go on to become stars.
“God, there was everybody from Jay Leno and Paul Reiser to Garry Shandling,” he says, “all struggling along on $25 a night. I thought they were all remarkable. They were witmasters. I didn’t have that ability to just be funny with a line.
“That’s when I started to develop my physical comedy,” he recalls. “I’ve always admired the silent-film comedians who could always get a laugh and they didn’t need to say a thing. I got laughs by doing funny rather than saying funny.”
Or by being funny. Richards doesn’t think he’s unusual in taking a thoughtful approach to playing a wild man on television.
“I haven’t met a comic who isn’t serious,” he says. “I’ve been around them all. We all see comedy as serious business.”
And that business will continue after “Seinfeld,” which has won him two Emmys and a legion of fans. Though two more years of the show are likely, Richards is already looking ahead.
“I have a comedy series I want to do,” he says, “in which I’ll play a detective.”
But there’s one thing that Richards is certain he won’t do.
“When ‘Seinfeld’ is over, I’m finished with Kramer,” he says emphatically. “There will be no ‘Kramer’ spin-off.”