NEW YORK - The first call came from the Midwest. Before long, the phone was ringing, and ringing, and ringing again: Satellite radio. Fox News. Extra. Yada, yada, yada. For Kenny Kramer, role model for the "Seinfeld" character who shared his surname, each call was a reminder of the intersection between his real life and his sitcom doppelganger.
Actor Michael Richards - the on-air Cosmo Kramer - made headlines this week with a racist rant in a Los Angeles comedy club.
Suddenly, everybody wanted to know what Kramer - despite the degrees of separation - thought about the man who played the character based on his life.
Confused? So was Kramer.
"I did at least 15 to 20 interviews," said Kramer, talking to interviewee No. 16 or 21. "All hell broke loose. There were lots of e-mails. They were about 9-1 positive. A guy who wrote a story in the Daily News said, `I hope this doesn't hurt your business.'"
Ah, the business - where Kramer has enjoyed the merger of man and myth for nearly 11 years. Kramer, now 62, launched the "Kramer Reality Tour" in January 1996, taking Sein-fans on a tour of Manhattan locales featured in the Emmy-winning comedy series.
It remains a brilliant concept, bringing together New York real estate and Hollywood surreality. There was the real New York Health and Racquet Club, where the fake Kramer met a bogus Salman Rushdie. Or the midtown office building where the fake Kramer discovered a publisher for his coffee table book ... about coffee tables.
The real Kramer, who initially lobbied to play himself on the program, subsequently met with Richards on several occasions. His insight after the actor's meltdown during a stand-up comedy appearance: Richards had little in common with his off-kilter "Seinfeld" persona.
"I know the guy," the real Kramer said of the faux Kramer. "He's not this outgoing ball of fun that people would expect Kramer to be. They think he's be exciting, lovable, laughable. But he's quiet, introspective, even paranoid. He's a very wound-up guy. But I don't think he's a racist."
While Richards spent nine seasons playing the K-Man, Kramer spent 10 years in a Hell's Kitchen apartment across the hall from "Seinfeld" co-creator Larry David. His life became the framework for Richards' quirky, bumbling Seinfeld sidekick, right down to the location of Kramer's apartment.
There was even a slight physical resemblance.
But Richards' repeated use of a racial epithet in shouting down two hecklers had the genuine Kramer gently reminding folks of the difference between inspiration and imitation - even after the phony Kramer apologized during a television appearance with the real Jerry Seinfeld.
"The things that really annoys me is that The Drudge Report, Michael Savage, are saying Kramer's a racist,'" the real Kramer said on a real phone from a real location in Manhattan. "Kramer is a fictitious character. Michael Richards is an actor who played that character."
Kramer said he wasn't too worried that people would confuse Kramer, the character, with Kramer, the person.
Just in case, however, he issued a two-sentence statement drawing the distinction: "I know the public is smart enough to realize that Michael Richards' personal actions in no way reflect on the character he portrayed on television or me, Kenny Kramer, the real person that the character was based on."
Kramer, who starts his 11th year of the reality tour in January, managed to find a silver lining in the confusion.
"You know what the good news is?" he asked. "Judith Regan is now on a plane to California, trying to sign Michael Richards to a book deal: `If I Were a Racist, Here's What I Would Have Said.'"