|Born||Andrew Geoffrey Kaufman
January 17, 1949
New York City, New York, U.S.
|Died||May 16, 1984 (aged 35)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Andrew Geoffrey "Andy" Kaufman (January 17, 1949 – May 16, 1984) was an American entertainer, actor and performance artist. While often referred to as a comedian, Kaufman did not consider himself one. He disdained telling jokes and engaging in comedy as it was traditionally understood, referring to himself instead as a "song-and-dance man."
Kaufman was born in New York City, on January 17, 1949, the first son of Janice (née Bernstein) and Stanley Kaufman. He grew up in a middle-class Jewish family, in Great Neck, Long Island, New York, and began performing at age nine. He attended the now defunct two-year Grahm Junior College, in Boston, graduating in 1971. He then began performing stand-up comedy at various small clubs along the East Coast.
Kaufman first caught major attention with a character known as Foreign Man, who claimed to be from Caspiar (a fictional island in the Caspian Sea) and would appear on the stage of comedy clubs to play a recording of the theme from "Mighty Mouse," lip-synch one line—"Here I come to save the day." He would proceed to poorly tell a few jokes and perform a number of lackluster impersonations (Archie Bunker, Richard Nixon, et al.). Some variations of this performance were broadcast in the first season of Saturday Night Live; the Mighty Mouse number was featured on the premiere October 11, 1975, broadcast, while the joke-telling and Bunker impression were included in the November 8 broadcast that same fall.
He might speak in a fake accent and say, "I would like to imitate Meester Carter, de President of de United States." He would continue in the same voice: "Hello, I am Meester Carter, de President of de United States. T'ank you veddy much." The audience would be torn between outrage at seeing such a bad act and empathy for the hapless entertainer, who would cry onstage once heckled enough.
At that point, Foreign Man would announce, "And now I would like to imitate the Elvis Presley," turn around, take off his jacket, slick his hair back, and launch into an Elvis Presley impersonation so good that Presley himself described it as his favorite. After the wild applause that almost always came after his Elvis impression, he would take a simple bow and say in his Foreign Man voice, "T'ank you veddy much!" The audience would realize they had been tricked, which became a trademark of Kaufman's comedy.
Kaufman first used a version of the Foreign Man character as Andy the Robot in the pilot for the sitcom Stick Around in 1977. The character was then changed into Latka Gravas, for ABC's Taxi sitcom, appearing in 79 of 114 episodes from 1978 to 1983. The producers of Taxi had seen Andy's Foreign Man act and, according to producer Ed Weinberger, "We weren't considering Andy for the show before we saw him. Then we wrote a part for him." Bob Zmuda confirms this: "They basically were buying Andy's Foreign Man character for the Taxi character Latka." Andy's long-time manager George Shapiro encouraged Andy to take the gig. "My feeling was that it would be a nice boost for his career...and he would be playing a character that he knew very well, the Foreign Man—this particular character speaks poor English in Taxi and his name is Latka Gravas."
Kaufman disliked sitcoms and was not thrilled with the idea of being in one. In order to allow Kaufman to demonstrate some comedic range, his character was given multiple personality disorder, which allowed Kaufman to randomly portray other characters. In one episode, Kaufman's character came down with a condition which made him act like Alex Reiger, the main character played by Judd Hirsch. Another such recurring character played by Kaufman was the womanizing Vic Ferrari. Latka's wife in the series was named Simka, who was portrayed by comic actress Carol Kane. His role did lead to two Golden Globe nominations, in 1979 and 1980. His appearance on this show included a sketch of him supposedly rehearsing for a Taxi episode but ended up being a made-up gag sequence.
Taxi was an award-winning show with a large audience and Kaufman was widely recognized as Latka. On some occasions, audiences would show up to one of Kaufman's stage performances expecting to see him perform as Latka, and heckling him with demands when he did not. Kaufman would punish these audiences with the announcement that he was going to read The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald to them. The audience would laugh at this, not realizing that he was serious, and Kaufman would proceed to read the book to them, continuing despite audience members' departure. At a certain point, he would ask the audience if they wanted him to keep reading, or play a record. When the audience chose to hear the record, the record he cued up was a recording of him continuing to read The Great Gatsby from where he had left off.
Another well-known Kaufman character is Tony Clifton, an audience-abusing lounge singer who began opening for Kaufman at comedy clubs and eventually even performed concerts on his own around the country. Sometimes it was Kaufman performing as Clifton, sometimes it was his brother Michael or his friend Bob Zmuda. For a brief time, it was unclear to some that Clifton was not a real person. News programs interviewed Clifton as Kaufman's opening act, with the mood turning ugly whenever Kaufman's name came up. Kaufman, Clifton insisted, was attempting to ruin Clifton's "good name" in order to make money and get famous.
As a requirement for Kaufman accepting the offer to star on Taxi, he insisted that Clifton be hired for a guest role on the show as if he were a real person, not a character. After throwing a tantrum on the set, Clifton was fired and escorted off of the studio lot by security guards. Much to Kaufman's delight, this incident was reported in the local newspapers. Paramount TV and producers James L. Brooks and Stan Daniels later released a statement that said that although Clifton was "no longer welcome on the set," his friend Andy Kaufman would continue in his role as Latka, which he did until the show ended its run in 1983.
At the beginning of an April 1979 performance at New York's Carnegie Hall, Kaufman invited his "grandmother" to watch the show from a chair he had placed at the side of the stage. At the end of the show, she stood up, took her mask off and revealed to the audience that she was actually comedian Robin Williams in disguise. Kaufman also had an elderly woman (named Eleanor Cody Gould) appear to have a heart attack and die on stage, at which point he reappeared on stage wearing a Native American headdress and performed a dance over her body, seeming to revive her.
The performance is most famous for Kaufman ending the show by actually taking the entire audience, in 20 buses, out for milk and cookies. He invited anyone interested to meet him on the Staten Island Ferry the next morning, where the show continued. This kind of performance art is a hallmark of Kaufman's career. This was depicted in the bio-pic Man on the Moon; however, in the movie, it takes place after Kaufman was diagnosed with cancer, when in reality, it took place nearly four years earlier.
The Taxi deal with ABC included giving Kaufman a television "special." He came up with Andy's Funhouse, based on an old routine he had developed while in junior college. The special was taped in 1977 but did not air until August 1979, on ABC. It featured most of Andy's famous gags, including Foreign Man/Latka and his Elvis Presley impersonation, as well as a host of unique segments (including a special appearance by children's television character Howdy Doody and the "Has-been Corner"). There also was a segment that included fake television screen static as part of the gag, which ABC executives were not comfortable with, fearing that viewers would mistake the static for broadcast problems and would change the channel - which was the comic element Kaufman wanted to present.
Andy's Funhouse was written by Kaufman, Zmuda, and Mel Sherer, with music by Kaufman.
In 1981, Kaufman made three appearances on Fridays, a variety show on ABC that was similar to Saturday Night Live. Kaufman's first appearance on the show proved to be memorable. During a sketch about four people out on a dinner date who excuse themselves to the restroom to smoke marijuana, Kaufman broke character and refused to say his lines.
The other comedians were embarrassed by the position that Kaufman had put them in on a live television show. In response, cast member Michael Richards walked off camera and returned with a set of cue cards and dumped them on the table in front of Kaufman. Andy responded by splashing Richards with water. Co-producer Jack Burns stormed onto the stage, leading to a brawl on camera before the show abruptly cut away to commercial. It was later revealed that this incident was a practical joke, though most of the actors were kept unaware.
Regardless, Kaufman appeared the following week in a videotaped apology to the home viewers. Later that year, Kaufman returned to host Fridays. At one point in the show, he invited a Lawrence Welk Show gospel and standards singer, Kathie Sullivan, on stage to sing a few gospel songs with him and announced that the two were engaged to be married, then talked to the audience about his newfound faith in Jesus. That was also a hoax. Later, following a sketch about a drug abusing pharmacist, Kaufman was supposed to introduce the band The Pretenders. Instead of introducing the band, he delivered a nervous speech about the harmfulness of drugs while the band stood behind him ready to play. After his speech, he informed the audience that he had talked for too long and had to go to a commercial.
Kaufman grew up admiring professional wrestlers and the world in which they perform. Inspired by the theatricality of kayfabe, the staged nature of the sport, and his own tendency to form elaborate hoaxes, Kaufman began wrestling women during his act and was the self-proclaimed "Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion of the World," taking on an aggressive and ridiculous personality based upon the characters invented by professional wrestlers. He offered a $1,000 reward to any woman who could pin him.
Kaufman initially approached then-WWF (now WWE) owner Vince McMahon, Sr. about bringing his act to the New York territory. McMahon found Kaufman's act too gimmicky and suggested to the comedian that he try his luck in the Southern wrestling territories, where Kaufman's gimmick might have more appeal.
Later, after a challenge from professional wrestler Jerry "The King" Lawler, Kaufman would step into the ring (in the Memphis wrestling circuit) with a man—Lawler himself. Their ongoing feud, often featuring Jimmy Hart and other heels in Kaufman's corner, included a broken neck for Kaufman as a result of Lawler's piledriver and a famous on-air fight on a 1982 episode of Late Night with David Letterman. For some time after that, Kaufman appeared everywhere wearing a neck brace, insisting that his injuries were worse than they were. Kaufman would continue to defend the Inter-Gender Championship in the Mid-South Coliseum, and offered an extra prize, other than the $1,000.00: that if he were pinned, the woman who pinned him would get to marry him and that he (Kaufman) would also shave his head.
Kaufman and Lawler's famous feud and wrestling matches were later revealed to have been staged, or a "work," as the two were actually friends. The truth about its being a "work" was not disclosed until more than 10 years after Kaufman's death, when the Emmy-nominated documentary, A Comedy Salute to Andy Kaufman, aired on NBC in 1995. Coincidentally, Jim Carrey is the one who reveals the secret, and would later go on to play Kaufman in the 1999 film Man on the Moon. In a 1997 interview with the Memphis Flyer, Lawler claimed he had improvised during their first match and the Letterman incident. Although officials at St. Francis Hospital stated that Kaufman's neck injuries were real, in his 2002 biography It's Good to Be the King...Sometimes, Lawler detailed how they came up with the angle and kept it quiet. Even though Kaufman's injury was legitimate, the pair pretended that the injury was more severe than it was. He also said that Kaufman's explosion on Letterman was the comedian's own idea, including when Lawler slapped Kaufman out of his chair.
Lawler also revealed in his autobiography that after Kaufman's death, family members discovered numerous uncashed checks from his wrestling tenure, suggesting that Kaufman participated in wrestling purely for the love of the sport, and not for money.
Kaufman also appeared in the 1983 film My Breakfast with Blassie with professional wrestling personality "Classy" Freddie Blassie, a parody of the art film My Dinner With Andre. The film was directed by Johnny Legend, who employed his sister Lynne Margulies as one of the girls who appears in the film. Margulies met Kaufman for the first time on camera, and they later became a couple, living together until Kaufman's death.
In 2008 Jakks Pacific produced an action figure 2-pack of Kaufman and Lawler in their WWE Classic Superstars toy line, to be followed by a singles figure release in Jakks Pacific's Classic Superstars series 22.
Kaufman made a name for himself as a guest on NBC's Saturday Night Live, starting with the inaugural October 11, 1975 show, and making 16 appearances in all, although his last two appearances were simply aired video-tapes and not live. He would do routines from his comedy act, such as the Mighty Mouse sing-along, Foreign Man character, the Elvis impersonation, etc. After he angered the audience with his female wrestling routine, in January 1983 Kaufman did make a pre-taped appearance (his "16th") on the show, where he asked the audience if he should ever appear on the show again, and said that he would honor the audience's decision and stay off the show if the vote was negative. SNL ran a phone vote, and close to 195,544 people voted to "Dump Andy" and approximately 169,186 people voted to "Keep Andy", so Kaufman did not appear "live" but SNL did air a tape of him thanking the 169,186 people who had voted "yes" for him to appear again, which could be considered a "17th" appearance.
Though it was never made clear whether this was a gag, Kaufman did not appear on the show again. During the SNL episode with the Keep Andy/Dump Andy phone poll, many of the cast stated their admiration for Andy's work and read the "Keep Andy" number more clearly than the "Dump Andy" number. Eddie Murphy read the "Keep Andy" number at a much faster rate than the "Dump Andy" number, while Mary Gross read the "Dump Andy" number at a rate so fast that audiences were unable to catch it. The final tally was read triumphantly by Gary Kroeger to a cheering audience.
Kaufman made a number of appearances on the daytime The David Letterman Show in 1980, and eleven appearances on Late Night with David Letterman in 1982-1983, including one where he claimed to be homeless and begged the audience for money and one where he talked about his adopted children, who turned out to be three fully-grown black men.
His first prime time appearances were several guest spots as the 'Foreign Man' on the "Dick Van Dyke Variety" Show in 1976. He also appeared four times on The Tonight Show from 1976–1978, three times on The Midnight Special in 1972, 1977 and 1981. In the 1977 episode, Kaufman performed a song called "I Trusted You" (which features only those three words, repeated over and over, as lyrics), while in 1981 he is shown sitting in the audience during Tony Clifton's act (although it was obvious Kaufman was not in the audience during the sketch). He appeared twice on The Merv Griffin Show (1979–1980), and once, in 1978 as a participant, on The Dating Game under a presumed name and as a supposedly real contestant. He also made numerous guest spots on other television programs hosted by or starring celebrities like Johnny Cash (1979 Christmas special), Dick Van Dyke, Dinah Shore, Rodney Dangerfield, Cher, Dean Martin, Redd Foxx, Mike Douglas, Dick Clark, and Joe Franklin. He appeared in his first theatrical film God Told Me To in 1976, where he portrayed a murderous policeman. He also appeared in several others, including as a televangelist in the 1980 film In God We Tru$t.
Laurie Anderson worked alongside Andy Kaufman for a time in the 1970s, acting as a sort of straight woman in a number of his Manhattan and Coney Island performances. One of these performances included getting on a ride that people stand in and get spun around. After everyone was strapped in Kaufman would start saying how he did not want to be on the ride in a panicked tone and eventually cry. Anderson later described these performances in her 1995 album The Ugly One with the Jewels.
At Park West Theatre in Chicago on March 26, 1982 Kaufman performed stage hypnosis where he induced local DJ Steve Dahl to urinate while sitting in a large box. Other staged inductions included Bob Zmuda's childhood friend Joe Troiani mimicking the behavior of a pig and long time friend Bill Karmia dressed as a police officer arresting Kaufman for inducing public nudity with a woman he had hypnotized.
Kaufman was survived by his daughter, Maria Colonna, who was born in 1969 out of wedlock with a high school girlfriend of Andy's, but later placed for adoption. Colonna learned in 1992 that she was the daughter of Andy Kaufman, when she traced her biological parentage.
In college, Kaufman learned Transcendental Meditation (TM). According to a BBC article, Kaufman used TM to build confidence and take his act to comedy clubs. For the rest of his life Kaufman meditated and performed yoga for three hours a day. Andy trained as a teacher of Transcendental Meditation in Majorca, Spain from February to June, 1971.
Friends and family said that Andy almost never smoked, did not drink regularly, and was also a vegetarian.
At Thanksgiving dinner in 1983, several family members grew concerned over Kaufman's persistent coughing for the past month. Kaufman consulted a physician and was initially diagnosed with a rare type of lung cancer in December 1983. Despite his doctor's prognosis that there was no hope for recovery, he was committed to fighting the disease until his death. After audiences were shocked by his gaunt appearance during his performances in January 1984, Kaufman acknowledged having an unspecified illness, which he hoped to cure with "natural medicine" including an all-fruit and vegetables diet, among other measures. Kaufman received palliative radiotherapy, but by then the cancer had rapidly spread from his lungs to his brain. His last resort, a search for successful medical therapy, was "psychic surgery," performed in Baguio, Philippines, in March 1984. Kaufman died in Los Angeles on May 16, 1984 of kidney failure, caused by metastasized large cell carcinoma, and was interred in the Beth David Cemetery in Elmont, New York (Long Island). He was 35 years old.
Because he kept the true nature of his illness a secret—almost until the day he died—fans have, over the years, doubted Kaufman's death, thinking that he staged it as the ultimate Andy Kaufman stunt. At the time, lung cancer was considered rare for non-smokers to contract, and it is also rare in people under the age of 40.
Andy Kaufman allegedly told many people—including Bob Zmuda — that he wished to fake his own death prior to his actual death. This has caused some fans to believe Kaufman is still alive. Kaufman himself purportedly claimed that if he were to fake his death, he would return 10 years later.
The 1999 Jim Carrey film Man on the Moon leaves the question open-ended. "Tony Clifton" performed a year after Kaufman's death at The Comedy Store benefit in Kaufman's honor, with members of his entourage in attendance. Bob Zmuda has acknowledged "death hoax" rumors over the years quite tongue-in-cheek, admitting that Kaufman and he had discussed faking his death at times and that he seemed "obsessed with the idea," but he maintains the opinion that Kaufman truly did die and his death was not faked. Bob Zmuda claims he does not think he would be cruel enough to go this long without making contact with his family if he were still alive.
During the 1990s, "Tony Clifton" made several appearances at LA nightclubs, prompting speculation that perhaps Kaufman was still alive and working under the makeup. Jim Carrey stated on the NBC special 'Comedy Salute to Andy Kaufman' that the Clifton character had been passed off by Kaufman to Bob Zmuda while he was still alive. Kaufman's death certificate is on file with the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services and is also available on the popular website The Smoking Gun.
"I am not a comic, I have never told a joke...The comedian's promise is that he will go out there and make you laugh with him...My only promise is that I will try to entertain you as best I can. I can manipulate people's reactions. There are different kinds of laughter. Gut laughter is where you don't have a choice, you've got to laugh. Gut laughter doesn't come from the intellect. And it's much harder for me to evoke now, because I'm known. They say, 'Oh wow, Andy Kaufman, he's a really funny guy.' But I'm not trying to be funny. I just want to play with their heads."