Richards began his career as a stand-up comedian, first entering the national spotlight when he was featured on Billy Crystal's first cable TV special. He went on to become a series regular on ABC's Fridays. Prior to Seinfeld, he made numerous guest appearances on a variety of television shows, such as "Cheers". His film credits include So I Married an Axe Murderer, Airheads, Young Doctors in Love, Problem Child, Coneheads, UHF, and Trial and Error, one of his few starring roles. During the run of Seinfeld, he made a guest appearance in Mad About You. After Seinfeld, Richards starred in his own sitcom, The Michael Richards Show, which lasted less than one full season.
In 2013, Richards returned to television when he played the role of Frank in the sitcom Kirstie, co-starring Kirstie Alley and Rhea Perlman.
Richards was born in Culver City, California, the son of Phyllis (née Nardozzi), a medical records librarian, and William Richards, an electrical engineer. His father died in a car crash when Michael was two and his mother never remarried.
Richards graduated from Thousand Oaks High School. He was drafted into the United States Army in 1970. He trained as a medic and was stationed in West Germany. After being honorably discharged he used the benefits of the G.I. Bill to enroll in the California Institute of the Arts, and received a BA degree in drama from The Evergreen State College in 1975. He also had a short-lived improv act with Ed Begley, Jr.. During this period, he enrolled at Los Angeles Valley College and continued to appear in student productions.
Richards got his big TV break in 1979, appearing in Billy Crystal's first cable TV special. In 1980, he began as one of the cast members on ABC's Fridays television show, where Larry David was a writer. This included a famous instance in which guest Andy Kaufman refused to deliver his scripted lines, leading Richards to bring the cue cards on screen to Kaufman, causing him to throw his drink into Richards's face before a small riot ensued (Richards later claimed he was in on the joke). The film Man on the Moon featured a re-enactment of the Andy Kaufman incident in which Richards was portrayed by actor Norm Macdonald (although he is never referred to by name so he could be seen as a composite character taking the place of Richards).
In 1989, Richards had a supporting role in "Weird Al" Yankovic's comedy film UHF as janitor Stanley Spadowski. On television, Richards also appeared in Miami Vice (as an unscrupulous bookie), Cheers (as a character trying to collect on an old bet with Sam Malone), and made several guest appearances with Jay Leno as an accident-prone fitness expert.
According to an interview with executive producer David Hoberman, ABC first conceived the series Monk as a procedural police comedy with an Inspector Clouseau-like character suffering from obsessive–compulsive disorder. Hoberman said that ABC wanted Richards to play Adrian Monk, but he turned it down.
In 1989, he was cast as Cosmo Kramer in the NBC television series Seinfeld, which was created by fellow Fridays cast member Larry David and comedian Jerry Seinfeld. Although it got off to a slow start, by the mid-1990s, the show had become one of the most popular sitcoms in television history. The series ended its nine-year run in 1998 at #1 in the Nielsen ratings. In the setting of Seinfeld, Kramer is usually referred to by his last name only and is the neighbor of the show's eponymous character. Kramer's first name, Cosmo, was revealed in the sixth-season episode "The Switch".
Richards won more Emmys than any other cast member on Seinfeld. He took home the award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series in 1993, 1994 and 1997.
Starting in 2004, he and his fellow Seinfeld cast members provided interviews and audio commentaries for the Seinfeld DVDs, but Richards stopped providing audio commentary after Season 5 though he continued to provide interviews.
In 2000, after the end of Seinfeld, Richards began work on a new series for NBC, his first major project since Seinfeld's finale. The Michael Richards Show, for which the actor received co-writer and co-executive producer credits, was originally conceived as a comedy/mystery starring Richards as a bumbling private investigator. However, after the first pilot failed with test audiences, NBC ordered that the show be retooled into a more conventional, office-based sitcom before its premiere. After a few weeks of poor ratings and negative reviews, it was cancelled.
During a performance on November 17, 2006 at the Laugh Factory in West Hollywood, California, Richards shouted a racially charged response to noise from black audience members, shouting "He's a nigger!" several times, and referring to lynching, and the Jim Crow era. Kyle Doss, a member of the group Richards addressed, said that the group had arrived in the middle of the performance, explaining:
[H]ere's what happened. As we walked in, we sat down and started ordering drinks. And, as we ordered drinks, I guess we're being a little loud, because there was 20 of us ordering drinks. And he said, "Look at the stupid Mexicans and blacks being loud up there." That's the first thing he said. And then he kept on with his bit. And, then, after a while, I told him, "My friend doesn't think you're funny." And then when I told him that, that's when he flipped me off and said, "F-you N-word." And that's how it all started.
Richards made a public apology on the Late Show with David Letterman, when Jerry Seinfeld was the guest, saying, "For me to be at a comedy club and to flip out and say this crap, I'm deeply, deeply sorry. I'm not a racist, that's what's so insane about this." The audience initially laughed at Richards saying the term "Afromerican/Afro americans" and during uncomfortable pauses in Richards' explanation and apology, unable to decide if the interview was a bit; at one point Seinfeld chided the audience, "Stop laughing, it's not funny." Richards said that he had been trying to defuse heckling by being even more outrageous, but that it had backfired. He later called civil rights leaders Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson to apologize. He also appeared as a guest on Jackson's syndicated radio show. However both Doss and Sharpton have refused to accept Richards' apology, with the former saying "...if he wanted to apologize, he could have contacted somebody to one of us from the group...but he didn't. He apologized on camera just because the tape got out."
The incident was later parodied on several TV shows, including MadTV, Family Guy, South Park, and Extras. In an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Richards appeared as himself and poked fun at the incident. In a 2012 episode of Seinfeld's web series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, Richards admitted that the outburst still haunted him, and was a major reason for his withdrawal from performing stand-up.
Richards played himself in Episode 2 of Season 1 "The Flirt Episode" (1992) of the HBO series, The Larry Sanders Show. Richards also played a cameo role in So I Married an Axe Murderer where he was an "insensitive man". Richards played radio station employee Doug Beech in Airheads and co-starred with Jeff Daniels as an actor pretending to be a lawyer in 1997's Trial and Error. He also made guest appearances on Miami Vice, Night Court and Cheers. In 2007, Richards voiced character Bud Ditchwater in the animated film Bee Movie, which starred, and was produced by, Jerry Seinfeld. In 2009, Richards and the other main Seinfeld cast members appeared in the seventh season of Curb Your Enthusiasm. In 2012, Richards appeared in comedy web series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, hosted by Jerry Seinfeld. In 2014, Richards appeared as the president of Crackle in a trailer for Season 5. Seinfeld has said that the storyline of the trailer will be expanded upon in one of the episodes.
Richards played the role of Frank in the sitcom Kirstie, costarring Kirstie Alley and Rhea Perlman, premiering on TV Land on December 4, 2013. The show was canceled after airing one season.
Richards was married for 18 years to Cathleen Lyons, a family therapist. They have one daughter, Sophia (b. 1975). Richards and Lyons separated in 1992 and officially divorced a year later. In 2010, Richards married longtime girlfriend Beth Skipp. They have been together since 2002. They have a son, Antonio Baz (b. 2011), who was born when he was 62.