Man Overboard!

updated 03/08/1993 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/08/1993 AT 01:00 AM EST

ED BEGLEY JR. WOULD LIKE US ALL TO know that his old pal Michael Richards, who plays Seinfeld's manic Manhattan neighbor Kramer, "is harking mad." What's more, deadpans the former St. Elsewhere M.D., a '60s classmate at Los Angeles Valley College, "Michael is living proof that there is intelligent life on other worlds—because he's clearly not of this world."

Ah. Well, that would explain a few things—such as Richards's unearthly ability to slide, skid and stagger at warp speed into comedian Jerry Seinfeld's apartment. Each time he flings open the door on the NBC sitcom, Kramer (first name unrevealed) upstages Seinfeld and costars Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Elaine) and Jason Alexander (George). "Kramer is a catalyst for chaos," says Richards, 43.

He has certainly made Richards's own life a bit more chaotic. Fans go right up to the gangly 6'2" actor, yelling "Hey, Kramer!" and demanding to know what his vaguely entrepreneurial character really does for a living (also unrevealed). "I get that question at least three, four limes a week at the markets, the movies, on the street," says Richards. He laughs. "Everyone feels like they know me, but they don't know who Michael Richards is."

He has a point. Soft-spoken and usually mellow, Richards is an ex-apartment dweller who pedals his mountain bike two miles to work from the three-bedroom ranch-style house he shares with his daughter, Sophia, 17, in California's San Fernando Valley. He is recently divorced from his wife of 18 years, Cathleen, 46, a family therapist, who lives nearby. "We did everything we could to try to stay together," says Richards, "but we saw that we needed to separate for our own personal growth." He's now dating actress Ann Talman, whom he met when she guest-starred on Seinfeld last season as a girlfriend of George's.

Still, like Kramer, Richards can be a man apart. "They're both in their own little worlds," says Louis-Dreyfus. Richards demurs. "I'm in my own world," he says, "but it's not too little." Among other advantages, it includes a backyard swimming pool where, sitting on the bottom in a lawn chair and clad in scuba gear, Richards does some of his deepest thinking.

His zaniness first surfaced in childhood. Raised in Van Nuys, Calif., he was the only child of William Richards, an electrical engineer who died when Michael was 2, and his wife, Phyllis, a medical-records librarian who never remarried and raised her son alone. "God, she was a crack-up," he says. "She used to throw these Halloween parties and dress up in outrageous outfits. She'd black out a tooth, wear a green wig and go as a pistol-packin' mama. She had a strong comedic sensibility."

It rubbed off on her son. Voted Most Humorous his senior year at Thousand Oaks High School in Ventura, he once went to a party as the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Even as a college theater-arts major, Richards would break up his classmates with his comic characters. "He was brilliant," says Begley. "It got to the point where everyone at Valley was doing Michael Richards."

Yet Richards set out to be a serious actor. Following a 1970-72 hitch in Germany as an Army draftee, he enrolled in the theater program at California Institute of the Arts. In 1974 he married Cathleen, a fellow student. Six years later, though, having earned a B.A. from Evergreen Stale College in Olympia, Wash., he shelved his stage ambitions for a more lucrative stint on L.A.'s comedy-club circuit, from which he was plucked to costar in Fridays, an ABC clone of NBC's Saturday Night Live that sputtered out in 1982 after two seasons. Guest spots on series like Cheers and Hill Street Blues followed, but Richards had even less luck with his second series, 1987's short-lived syndicated sitcom Marblehead Manor.

In 1989 he heard about the part of crazy Kramer—and auditioned for it standing on his head. The headstand, it turns out, was unnecessary. "I had been a fan of Michael's for a long time," says Seinfeld, the show's producer. "When I heard he was available, my mind was made up."

Richards himself sounds less enthusiastic these days. As a fourth banana, he says, "I'm not able to do as much as I would like to." But whoa! as Kramer would say. That may change. Lately, Richards says he has heard "a little talk" about a possible spin-off for his character. For now, though, he may have to stay put in Seinfeld's apartment. Sophia Richards is due to start college this fall, and—whoa! again—the way her father figures it, "That's going to cost me $100,000 for four years. I better be on a TV show."

MICHAEL A. LIPTON
TOM CUNNEFF in the San Fernando Valley

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