Andy Kaufman as Latka Gravas
|Born||Andrew Geoffrey Kaufman
January 17, 1949
New York City, New York, U.S.
|Died||May 16, 1984 (aged 35)
West Hollywood, California, U.S.
|Resting place||Beth David Cemetery, Elmont, New York
|Occupation||Actor, performance artist|
|Television||As Latka Gravas in Taxi (1978–1983)|
Andrew Geoffrey “Andy” Kaufman (January 17, 1949–May 16, 1984) was an American entertainer, actor and performance artist. While often referred to as acomedian, 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.” Elaborate ruses and pranks 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 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 9. 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 the Mighty Mouse cartoon show and lip-sync only the chorus. 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 fall.
Foreign Man would often try to impersonate a whole series of different celebrities, with the comedy arising from Foreign Man’s obvious ineptitude at impersonation. For example, in his fake accent Kaufman would say to the audience, “I would like to imitateMeester 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 were 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 expert Elvis Presley imitation. The character was then changed into Latka Gravas for theAmerican Broadcasting Company (ABC)’s Taxi sitcom, appearing in 79 of 114 episodes from 1978 to 1983. The producers of Taxihad 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.” Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels said of the announcement: “When he agreed to a situation comedy, we were stunned. We couldn’t understand why in the world. Because he was Andy Kaufman. Going from being that far out of the mainstream to being ground zero of it. Not that Taxi isn’t a good show. But in the pure world of status, he was regarded as a genius. So for a genius to be the fourth lead in a situation comedy was not, at the time, seen to be an act of genius.”
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 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. His role led to twoGolden Globe nominations, in 1979 and 1981.
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 novel 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.
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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 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. Paramount Television 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 headdressand performed a dance over her body, seeming to revive 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. This was depicted in the biopic 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/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 ’oody 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 1983 a very similar looking show to Funhouse would be filmed for Public Broadcasting Service (PBS)’s SoundStage program, called the The Andy Kaufman Show. It would feature a peanut gallery like Funhouse and is often confused with Andy’s Funhouse. The show opens right in the middle of an interview Kaufman is doing in which he is laughing hysterically, and then he proceeds to thank the audience for watching and the credits roll. After this, opening credits do come on and the show has its “proper” beginning. This show is easy to confuse with Andy’s Funhouse as they both feature “The Has-Been Corner” and Kaufman wears his “I Love Grandma” shirt in both shows among other similarities.
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.
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 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’s iconic Jerry “The King” Lawlerand introduced him to Kaufman by telephone from Apter’s apartment in Queens, New York. The battles between Kaufman and Lawler became legend and were really the first “sports entertainment” angle that became known worldwide and is being seen even today on TV stations such as Comedy Central.
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. Kaufman taunted the whole city of Memphis, sending “videos showing residents how to use soap” and proclaiming it to be “the nation’s redneck capital.” Their ongoing feud, often featuring Jimmy Hart and otherheels 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 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 Coliseumand 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.
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, 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 claimed he had improvised during their first match and the Letterman incident. Although officials at St. Francis Hospital[disambiguation needed] 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 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 Dick Van Dyke’s variety show in 1976. He also appeared four times on The Tonight Show from 1976 to 1978, three times on The Midnight Special in 1972, 1977, and 1981. In the 1977 episode, 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 Tony Clifton’s act (although it was obvious Kaufman was not in the audience during the sketch).
His SNL appearances started with the inaugural October 11, 1975, show; he made 16 SNL appearances in all, although his last two appearances were pre-taped. 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, butSaturday 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.’”
Kaufman made a number of appearances on the daytime The David Letterman Show in 1980, and 11 appearances on Late Night With David Letterman in 1982 and 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.
He appeared twice on The Merv Griffin Show (1979–80), and once, in 1978 as a participant, on The Dating Game under an assumed name 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, in which 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 Kaufman for a time in the 1970s, acting as a sort of straight man in a number of his Manhattanand 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 was never married. He was survived by his father and daughter, Maria Bellu-Colonna, who was born in 1969 out of wedlock to a high-school girlfriend of Kaufman’s, but later placed for adoption. Bellu-Colonna learned in 1992 that she was the daughter of Andy Kaufman when she traced her biological roots by winning a petition of the state of New York for her biological mother’s surname. She soon had a reunion with her mother, grandfather, uncle, and aunt, and married New York insurance salesman Joe Colonna.
On December 5, 1969, while in college, Kaufman learned Transcendental Meditation. 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.
At Thanksgiving dinner with his family on Long Island, New York, in November 1983, several family members grew concerned over Kaufman's persistent coughing during the dinner and openly expressed worry about it. Kaufman claimed to them that he had the cough for nearly a month and that an initial visit to his doctor had told him that nothing was wrong. After returning to Los Angeles, Kaufman consulted a physician, after which he checked himself into Cedars-Sinai Hospital for a series of medical tests. A few days later, he was diagnosed with a rare type of lung cancer.
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 a diet of all fruits and vegetables, among other measures. Kaufman received palliative radiotherapy, but by then the cancer had rapidly spread from his lungs to his brain. His last resort was “psychic surgery,” a New Age procedure performed in Baguio, Philippines, in March 1984. Kaufman died in a hospital inWest Hollywood 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—including Bob Zmuda—that he wished to fake his own death. This had caused some fans to believe Kaufman was still alive. 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 1999 Miloš Forman 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 Kaufmans’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 Kaufman would be cruel enough to go this long without making contact with his family if he were still alive. His official web site states that his death was not a hoax.
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 stated on the NBC special Comedy Salute to Andy Kaufman that the person doing the Clifton character was in fact Bob Zmuda and 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 web site The Smoking Gun.
Some fans believe that Kaufman faked his death. There is a website related to this claim, and, recently “a grainy video has surfaced that purports to show Kaufman living under an assumed name in Albuquerque, N.M.” The website is registered to a Stephen Maddox of Greenwood, Indiana. Maddox claims to be Kaufman”s son and that Kaufman and his stepfather exchanged identities, so Kaufman could be relieved of his fame.
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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. 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."