‘It's Little People, You Got That?’: Danny Woodburn on Playing Mickey Abbott, the Most Explosive Character on ‘Seinfeld’
Mickey Abbott was always ready for a fight. Usually it was with Kramer — like when they couldn’t decide which girl they wanted on their double date, or when Kramer began spouting communist propaganda while playing Santa — but other Seinfeld characters felt Mickey’s wrath as well. In his very first scene, Mickey was ready to tangle with George when he suggested that Mickey “switch with another midget” as a stand-in on All My Children. Mickey immediately got in George’s face, telling him, “It’s little people, you got that?”
That moment, according to actor Danny Woodburn, was the defining scene for Mickey. “That was the launch point for who Mickey was. He’s this volatile guy who’s ready to throw down at any minute over even the smallest infraction by friends and strangers alike,” Woodburn tells me when reflecting on the role that he says made his career — “75 to 90 percent of the opportunities I’ve had have come as a result of Seinfeld.” Even now, 25 years since he last played Mickey, Woodburn says, “When I’m in Manhattan, people always shout ‘Mickey!’ at me on the street.”
Mickey appeared on Seinfeld six times. Beginning with Season Five’s “The Stand-In,” he showed up once per season, then twice in the last season (including his cameo in the finale). For a show with a lot of one-and-done characters, Mickey’s multiple guest spots put him in a class with recurring characters like Tim Whatley, David Puddy and Kenny Bania. Below, Woodburn provides a blow-by-blow breakdown of each of his pugilistic Seinfeld appearances and all the fighting words that led to his numerous tussles with Kramer in particular.
Season Five: ‘The Stand-In’
I had one beef with the script — the “M-word” in that first episode. When they said it, I didn’t want it to go unacknowledged. Originally, it was a casual mention by George, and there was no beat of Mickey going, “Listen pal!” That was something I asked them to put in. At first, I improvised a speech that was maybe a little too preachy for them. They told me, “We never do any kind of ‘very special’ episode.” But I told them, “I have a big problem with that word, and I need to have a reaction.” So they said, “Okay, we’ll do something.”
It was in rehearsal that we got to the beat that you see now — where Mickey says, “It’s little people, you got that?” I came to George, and then Michael Richards improvised the line, “Easy, Mickey, easy.” I like to believe that my desire to change that moment led to me coming back on a regular basis, because he was more than just a little guy. Mickey was a scrapper who could stand his ground opposite Kramer.
Michael was always so welcoming. You don’t always find that on a show with main cast members and guest cast members. Usually, you rehearse your scene and then go wait in your dressing room, but Michael would always say, “Danny, let’s go over here and rehearse this bit.” We’d rehearse the fights or other sequences, and that was all via his initiation, which helped build our rapport. It offered me tremendous insight into his process, and it made sure that we both got the most out of the scene.
Originally, our first fight — the one where I call him a “big ape” — was different from what you see in the episode. I was hanging on his back, and he was swinging me around. It was very animalistic. There have been many times where I’ve been asked to bite people, and I don’t like that because it makes little people very animalistic. I was always against that kind of portrayal. So, for this, I said, “Can’t we go at this mano-a-mano — with the difference in our sizes being funny enough, and the joke being that you don’t know who has the upper hand?”
Which is what we did. Michael grabbed my jacket, I grabbed him by his collar and we threw each other back and forth. That was born out of my desire to have us be equal combatants.
Season Six: ‘The Race’
In this one, Kramer plays Santa, and I’m the elf. I was very cautious about how I presented myself in these costumes, and I was very self-conscious about the elf outfit. I didn’t want to fall into that trap. Because of that, I made the request to wear my outside coat on top of the suit. Larry David was very kind about my sensitivities around this at the time.
I’ve since adapted my philosophy a bit. Now, I find that if there’s humanity and depth to the character, I’m open to it.
Part of the reason for my change too was that average-sized people were taking these roles from little people. Back in 1999, the casting breakdown came down for The Lord of the Rings, and it specifically said, “No little people.” I wrote a handwritten letter to Peter Jackson explaining that this was akin to blackface. While I don’t think it had the same detrimental quality that blackface had, I thought they were basically saying, “We don’t want to see a bunch of midgets on screen playing these roles. We want people who are ‘magically’ reduced in size.”
Peter Jackson wrote me back arguing his point, and I wrote him again countering his points. It ended there, but thanks to my protest, I got three actors auditions for those roles.
Season Seven: ‘The Wait Out’
I loved doing “The Wait Out” because there’s such great overlap in the stories. Kramer ruins my life twice, because he ruins my audition at the Actor’s Studio, then he ruins my date because I have to come help him out. I’m in the bed, standing in for the kid who’s run away from Kramer while he was babysitting. When the mother says, “Good night,” I say “good night” back in this gruff voice. I do these Cameos now, and I often get requests to say “good night” like I do in the episode.
Season Eight: ‘The Yada Yada’
There’s this continuous back-and-forth in the episode between Kramer and I about who is going to date which girl: “You pick,” “No, you pick,” “Oh, I’m not falling for that!” All that builds to us fighting over which chair we’re going to sit in.
Another funny part of the episode is when Kramer and I are about to fight in Jerry's apartment, and Jerry and Elaine have to hold me back. I love that I’m the one they have to worry about in that scene. Not Kramer.
In that one, Robert Wagner and Jill St. John were playing my parents. I didn’t get to talk to her, but I did knock on Robert Wagner’s door and talk to him for a while. He talked to me about The Pink Panther and the actress Capucine. It was one of those great Hollywood experiences where I got to talk to one of these people who had been in the business for a hundred years.
In that episode is also Jerry Maren and his wife. Jerry was in The Wizard of Oz in the Lollipop Guild sequence. He was the one onset with the longest career of anybody. He just recently passed away — these munchkins live a long friggin’ time, I’ll tell you that.
Season Nine: ‘The Burning’
During the medical school diseases, when I have cirrhosis of the liver, I do this jerky performance where I say, “Why did I drink for all those years? Why did I look for love in a bottle?” During that, I was doing an impression of William Shatner as Captain Kirk. I was doing that for Jason Alexander’s benefit because he’s a huge Star Trek fan. I did that just to get him to laugh.
Season Nine: ‘The Finale’
When Larry David was writing the finale, I had an audition at the Castle Rock building in Beverly Hills. I forget what it was for, but I didn’t get it. Anyway, I was eating lunch in the cafeteria and in walks Larry David. He said, “Hey Danny!” And I said, “Oh hey, Larry, what are you doing here?” He told me, “I’m writing the final episode.” Then he paused and went, “Um, you know what, you’re in it!” After he left, I thought to myself, “I wasn’t in it before, but after he saw me, the guilt just washed over his face — that’s just so typical of Larry that he had to write me in it.”
I got to do a bit of fun stuff in the finale. I was playing pool with John O’Hurley, Keith Hernandez and Steve Hytner. One of the major highlights from the show for me was getting to meet and work with the guest cast — as well as my friendship with Michael Richards.
He and I talk from time to time. He’s asked me to work with him, too. He had an offer to do Arsenic and Old Lace, and he asked me to play opposite with us being the two killers. He always talks about wanting to work with me again. Michael’s a very insular actor. He’s very detail-oriented and very specific. I was lucky that he shared that process with me. I think that rapport between us is why I was asked back so many times.