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 to be one. He disdained telling jokes and engaging in comedy as it was traditionally understood, referring to himself instead as a "song-and-dance man." Pranks and elaborate ruses were major elements of his career. His body of work maintains a cult following and he continues to be respected for his original material, performance style, and unflinching commitment to character.
Kaufman was born on January 17, 1949 in New York City, 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 9. He attended the now defunct two-year Grahm Junior College in Boston; after graduating in 1971, he 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). As this character, Kaufman would appear on the stage of comedy clubs, play a recording of the theme from the Mighty Mouse cartoon show while standing perfectly still, and lip-sync only the line "Here I come to save the day" with great enthusiasm. He would proceed to tell a few jokes and perform a number of impersonations such as television character Archie Bunker or President Richard Nixon. Some variations of this performance were broadcast in the first season of Saturday Night Live; the Mighty Mouse number was featured in the October 11, 1975, premiere, while the joke-telling and Bunker impression were included in the November 8 broadcast that same year.
Foreign Man would often try to impersonate a whole series of different celebrities, with the comedy arising from the character's obvious ineptitude at impersonation. For example, in his fake accent Kaufman would say to the audience, "I would like to imitate Meester Carter, de president of de United States" and then, in the same voice, "Hello, I am Meester Carter, de president of de United States. T'ank you veddy much." At some point in the performance, usually when the audience was entirely used to Foreign Man's inability to perform a single convincing impression, 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 unexpectedly credible Elvis Presley impersonation, one that Presley himself described as his favorite. Like Presley, he would take off his leather jacket and throw it into the audience, but Kaufman would then immediately ask for it back again. After, he would take a simple bow and say in his Foreign Man voice, "T'ank you veddy much."
Kaufman first used his Foreign Man character in nightclubs in the early 1970s, often to tell jokes incorrectly and do weak imitations of famous people before bursting into his Elvis Presley imitation. The character was then changed into Latka Gravas for the ABC's Taxi sitcom, appearing in 79 of 114 episodes from 1978 to 1983.
Bob Zmuda confirms this: "They basically were buying Andy's Foreign Man character for the Taxi character Latka." Kaufman's long-time manager, George Shapiro, encouraged him 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 happy with the idea of being in one, but Shapiro convinced him that it would quickly lead to stardom, which would earn him money he could then put into his own act. Kaufman agreed to appear in 14 episodes per season, and initially wanted four for Tony Clifton. After Kaufman deliberately sabotaged Clifton's appearance on the show, however, this part of his contract was dropped.
His character was given multiple personality disorder, which allowed Kaufman to randomly portray other characters. In one episode of Taxi, Kaufman's character came down with a condition that 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.
Taxi was a show with a large audience, and Kaufman was widely recognized as Latka. In the fictionalized version of Kaufman's life, Man on the Moon, Kaufman would punish such audiences by reading the novel The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald to them. The film depicted audiences laughing at this, not realizing that he was serious, with Kaufman proceeding to read the entire book to them in passive-aggressive frustration, despite most of the audience members' departure. In reality, Kaufman's act was lighthearted and funny: he would read a few pages, after which 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. He never actually read (or played) the entirety of The Great Gatsby to an audience, but he sometimes liked to claim that he had.
Sam Simon, who early in his career was a writer and later showrunner for Taxi, stated in a 2013 interview with Marc Maron for the WTF podcast that the story of Kaufman having been generally disruptive on the show was "a complete fiction" largely created by Bob Zmuda. Simon maintained that Zmuda has a vested interest in promoting an out-of-control image of Kaufman. In the interview Simon stated that Kaufman was "completely professional" and that he "told you Tony Clifton was him", but he also conceded that Kaufman would have "loved" Zmuda's version of events.
Another well-known Kaufman character is Tony Clifton, an absurd, 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 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 become famous.
As a requirement for Kaufman's 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 from the studio lot by security guards. Much to Kaufman's delight, this incident was reported in the local newspapers.
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, "reviving" her.
The performance is most famous for Kaufman's ending the show by actually taking the entire audience, in 24 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 was a hallmark of Kaufman's career.
The Taxi deal with ABC included giving Kaufman a television special/pilot. 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 was also 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 1983 a very similar-looking show to Funhouse was filmed for the PBS's SoundStage program, called the The Andy Kaufman Show. It featured a peanut gallery like Funhouse, and opens in the middle of an interview Kaufman is doing in which he is laughing hysterically. He then proceeds to thank the audience for watching and the credits roll.
In 1981 Kaufman made three appearances on Fridays, a variety show on ABC that was similar to Saturday Night Live. In his first appearance, 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.
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 who 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 a commercial. It was later revealed that this incident was a staged practical joke that was known to Richards, associate producer Burns, and Kaufman but no one else on the cast or crew.
In continuation of the joke, 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 (Kaufman was Jewish). 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.
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 prize to any woman who could pin him. He employed performance artist Laurie Anderson, a friend of his, as a stooge in this act for a while.
Kaufman initially approached the head of the World Wrestling Federation, Vince McMahon Sr., about bringing his act to the New York wrestling territory. McMahon dismissed Kaufman's idea as the elder McMahon was not about to bring "show business" into his Pro Wrestling society. Kaufman had by then developed a friendship with Wrestling magazine reporter/photographer Bill Apter. After many discussions about Andy wanting to be in the Pro Wrestling business, Apter called Memphis wrestling icon Jerry "The King" Lawler and introduced him to Kaufman by telephone.
Later, Kaufman would finally step into the ring (in the Memphis wrestling circuit) with a man—Lawler himself. Kaufman taunted the residents of Memphis by playing "videos showing residents how to use soap" and proclaiming the city to be "the nation's redneck capital." The ongoing Lawler-Kaufman feud, which often featured Jimmy Hart and other heels in Kaufman's corner, included a number of staged works", such as 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 wearing a neck brace, insisting that his injuries were much worse than they really 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: that if he were pinned, the woman who pinned him would get to marry him and that Kaufman would also shave his head.
Eventually, the feud and wrestling matches were revealed to have been staged works, and the two to be friends. This 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. Jim Carrey, the one who revealed the secret, later went on to play Kaufman in the 1999 film Man on the Moon. In a 1997 interview with the Memphis Flyer, Lawler said 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 far more severe than it was. He also said that Kaufman's furious tirade and performance on Letterman was Kaufman's own idea, including when Lawler slapped Kaufman out of his chair. Promoter Jerry Jarrett would later recall that for two years, he would mail paychecks to Kaufman, with payments comparable to what other main-event wrestlers were getting at the time, but Kaufman never cashed any of them.
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 women 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.
Although Kaufman made a name for himself as a guest on NBC's Saturday Night Live, his first prime time appearances were several guest spots as the "Foreign Man" on the Dick Van Dyke variety slot in 1976. He also appeared four times on The Tonight Show from 1976 to 1978, and three times on The Midnight Special in 1972, 1977, and 1981. In the 1977 edition, Kaufman performed a song titled "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 a performance by Tony Clifton (although it was obvious Kaufman was not in the audience during the sketch).
His SNL appearances started with the inaugural opening edition on 11 October 1975; he made 16 SNL appearances in all. 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 made a pre-taped appearance (his 16th) on the show, where he asked the audience if he should ever appear on the show again, saying that he would honor the audience's decision and stay off the show if the vote was negative. SNL ran a phone vote, and 195,544 people voted to 'Dump Andy' and 169,186 people voted to 'Keep Andy' so Kaufman did not appear live, but Saturday Night Live did air a tape of him thanking the 169,186 people who had voted yes for him to appear again.
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. After Eddie Murphy read both numbers, he said, 'Now Andy Kaufman is a friend of mine. Keep that in mind when you call. I don't want to have to punch nobody in America in the face.' Mary Gross read the Dump Andy number at a rate so fast that audiences were unable to catch it. The final tally was read by Gary Kroeger to a cheering audience. As the credits rolled, announcer Don Pardo said, 'This is Don Pardo saying, "I voted for Andy Kaufman."'
He 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.[episode needed]
He appeared in his first theatrical film God Told Me To in 1976, in which he portrayed a murderous policeman. He appeared in two other theatrical films, including the 1980 film In God We Tru$t, in which he played a televangelist, and the 1981 film Heartbeeps, in which he played a robot.
Laurie Anderson worked alongside Kaufman for a time in the 1970s, acting as a sort of straight man 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 longtime friend Bill Karmia dressed as a police officer arresting Kaufman for inducing public nudity with a woman he had hypnotized.
Kaufman never married. He met his partner Lynne Margulies on the set of My Breakfast With Blassie in 1982, and they were together until Kaufman's death in 1984. Margulies is a film editor and producer who resides in Los Angeles. She wrote the introduction to Bob Zmuda's book, Dear Andy Kaufman, I Hate Your Guts!
He was survived by his father and a daughter, Maria Bellu-Colonna, who was born in 1969 out of wedlock to a high-school girlfriend and placed for adoption. Bellu-Colonna learned in 1992 that she was Kaufman's daughter when she traced her biological roots by winning a petition of the state of New York for her biological mother's surname. She soon reunited with her mother, grandfather, uncle, and aunt; later she married New York insurance salesman Joe Colonna.
On December 5, 1969, Kaufman learned Transcendental Meditation at college. According to a BBC article, Kaufman used transcendental meditation 'to build confidence and take his act to comedy clubs'. For the rest of his life, Kaufman meditated and performed yoga three hours a day. He trained as a teacher of transcendental meditation in Majorca, Spain, from February to June 1971.
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At Thanksgiving dinner on Long Island, New York, in November 1983, several family members openly expressed worry about Kaufman's persistent coughing. He claimed that he had been coughing for nearly a month, visited his doctor, and been told that nothing was wrong. When he returned to Los Angeles, he consulted a physician, then checked himself into Cedars-Sinai Medical Center for a series of medical tests. A few days later, he was diagnosed with an extremely rare type of lung cancer.
After audiences were shocked by his gaunt appearance during January 1984 performances, Kaufman acknowledged that he had an unspecified illness which he hoped to cure with "natural medicine" including a diet of all fruits and vegetables, among other measures. Kaufman received palliative radiotherapy, but by then the cancer had spread from his lungs to his brain. His last resort was "psychic surgery", a New Age "procedure" bearing no scientific merit, in Baguio, Philippines, within March 1984. Kaufman died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles on May 16, 1984 of kidney failure caused by metastasized large-cell lung carcinoma, and his body was interred in the Beth David Cemetery in Elmont, New York, (Long Island). He was 35 years old.
Kaufman allegedly told many people that he wished to fake his own death, leading some fans to believe that Kaufman's death in 1984 was staged. Kaufman himself reputedly claimed that if he were to fake his death, he would return 20 years later, which would have been in 2004.
The biographical film Man on the Moon (1999), directed by Miloš Forman, 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 as being quite tongue in cheek, admitting that he and Kaufman had discussed faking his death at times and that he seemed 'obsessed with the idea', but adding that Kaufman truly did die and his death was not faked; he does not think Kaufman would be cruel enough to go this long without making contact with his family if he were still alive. His official website states that his death was not a hoax. However, in 2014 Zmuda and Lynne Margulies, Kaufman's girlfriend at the time of his death, co-authored a book entitled Andy Kaufman: The Truth, Finally, which states that Kaufman's death was indeed a prank. Zmuda says that Kaufman is still alive and that Kaufman would soon be revealing himself as his upper limit on the "prank" was thirty years. Zmuda now states that Kaufman offered to leave him money since Zmuda's career was largely dependent on Kaufman performing but he turned it down because he believed it would implicate him in a crime. The terms of the book deal were not disclosed. Margulies, however, claims that Kaufman was bisexual and that Kaufman might have actually died from AIDS some years later.
During the 1990s, "Tony Clifton" made several appearances at L.A. nightclubs, prompting speculation that perhaps Kaufman was still alive and working under the makeup. Jim Carrey (who portrayed Kaufman in Man On The Moon) stated on the NBC special Comedy Salute to Andy Kaufman that the person doing the Clifton character was in fact Bob Zmuda (who claims that the character had been passed on to him by Kaufman 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 website The Smoking Gun.
In November 2013 at the 9th Annual Andy Kaufman Awards at the Gotham Comedy Club in New York, a woman came forward claiming to be Andy Kaufman's daughter. She said that he is alive and wanted to live a quiet life and raise a family. However, The Smoking Gun reported that the woman is an unrelated actress who was recruited by Kaufman's brother Michael to play the role of Andy's daughter. Michael Kaufman later agreed it seemed like a hoax, though he claimed he had been duped and not involved in planning it.
A feature-length documentary, Kaufman Lives, is in production. It covers the legend that Kaufman faked his own death. The film is directed by the English artist John Lundberg and Roland Denning.
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Comedian Richard Lewis in A Comedy Salute to Andy Kaufman said of him: "No one has ever done what Andy did, and did it as well, and no one will ever. Because he did it first. So did Buster Keaton, so did Andy." Carl Reiner recalled his distinction in the comedy world:
Did Andy influence comedy? No. Because nobody's doing what he did. Jim Carrey was influenced—not to do what Andy did, but to follow his own drummer. I think Andy did that for a lot of people. Follow your own drumbeat. You didn't have to go up there and say 'take my wife, please.' You could do anything that struck you as entertaining. It gave people freedom to be themselves." Reiner also said of Kaufman: "Nobody can see past the edges, where the character begins and he ends.
Jim Carrey portrayed Kaufman in the 1999 biopic film Man on the Moon, directed by Miloš Forman. The film took its title from the band R.E.M.'s song of the same name, which also mentions Kaufman's name.
Many wrestling fans have started a grass roots movement through social media to persuade the World Wrestling Entertainment to induct Kaufman into the WWE Hall of Fame. These fans of Kaufman are called "Andy's Army."
Russian Horror-Punk band "Король и шут" ("King and Jester") has a song called "Энди Кауфман" ("Andy Kaufman") about him.