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Andrew Geoffrey 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 self-identify as one. He disdained telling jokes and engaging in comedy as it was traditionally understood. He referred to himself 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 Great Neck, Long Island, New York, and began performing at the age of 9. He attended the now defunct two-year Grahm Junior College in Boston, graduating in 1971. After leaving college he began performing stand-up comedy at various small clubs along the East coast. Read Full Bio >>
Kaufman first caught major attention with a character known as "Foreign Man". Foreign Man, who claimed to be from "Caspiar" (a fictional island in the Caspian Sea), would appear on the stage of comedy clubs and lip-synch one line — "Here I come to save the day" — while playing a recording with the theme from "Mighty Mouse," tell a few jokes (poorly), and perform a number of lackluster impersonations (Archie Bunker, Richard Nixon, etc.). Some variations of this performance were broadcast in the first season of Saturday Night Live; the "Mighty Mouse" number was featured on the October 11, 1975 broadcast, while the joke-telling and Bunker impression were included in the October 25 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 sympathy for the hapless entertainer, who would cry on stage 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 Elvis Presley himself described it as his favorite. When Kaufman visited Graceland after Presley's death, it was discovered that the singer had several VHS tapes of Kaufman in his home. 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 never aired pilot for the sitcom Stick Around in 1976. The character was then morphed into Latka Gravas, for ABC's Taxi sitcom, appearing in 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 hated sitcoms and was not thrilled with the idea of being on 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 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 abusive 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—not stand-up comedy—is a hallmark of Kaufman's career.
(In the bio-pic Man on the Moon, this event was shown to be planned and performed after Kaufman was diagnosed with cancer, when in fact it took place almost 4 years before.)
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 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 due to the fear that viewers would mistake the static with 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. Andy considered this perhaps his greatest work.
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. It was also a hoax.
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.
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 an apparent 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 real. 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 was pinned, the woman who pinned him would get to marry him and that he (Kaufman) would shave his head bald as well.
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 it being a work was kept secret for more than 10 years after Kaufman's death, until the Emmy nominated documentary, A Comedy Salute to Andy Kaufman, aired on NBC in 1995. Coincidentally, Jim Carrey (who also shares Kaufman's birthday) 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. He also said that Kaufman's explosion on Letterman was the comedian's own idea.
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.
In 2008 Jakks Pacific produced an action figure 2-pack of Kaufman and Lawler in their WWE Classic Superstars toy line.
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 or not 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 African American 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), where in the 1981 episode 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), also on the 1977 episode he performs a rendition of his classic song "I Trusted You". 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 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 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 diagnosis 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. 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 health 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. Rumors that Kaufman was still alive go as far back as May 17, 1984 (the day after he died), when a caller phoned the Howard Stern radio show on WNBC in New York to announce that Kaufman's death was a hoax. Friends and family said that Andy almost never smoked, did not drink regularly, and was also a vegetarian. At the time, lung cancer was considered very rare for non-smokers to contract, and it is also rare in people under the age of 50. Kaufman himself even said that if he were to fake his death, he would return 20 years later. On May 16, 2004, his surviving friends threw a 'Welcome Home Andy' party for him, which he did not attend.
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. A screenplay Kaufman was working on at the time of his death was about a character who claimed to have lung cancer and faked his death.
Andy lost his hair around the time of his death, and was supposedly seen around Los Angeles in a wheelchair. Some claim his hair loss was due to cancer treatment; however, and according to the website AndykaufmanLives.com, Andy's girlfriend at the time later claimed to have shaved his head with a razor. Andy's sister also commented after his death that she found it odd that the doctor who diagnosed Andy with cancer had been wearing tennis shoes, sparking debate among fans as to whether Andy had paid off an actor friend to pose as a doctor.
There are many such rumors involving Andy's "hoax" death. 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 Andy and he had discussed faking his death at times and that Andy seemed "obsessed with the idea," but he maintains the opinion that Andy truly did die and his death was not faked. Zmuda claims he does not think Andy would be cruel enough to go this long without making contact with his family if he were still alive. But he also acknowledged the idea that Kaufman could have faked his death in 1984 and died later of some other cause.
During the 1990s, Tony Clifton has reportedly made several appearances at LA nightclubs since Kaufman's death, prompting speculation that perhaps Kaufman was still alive and working under the makeup. While many assume Zmuda portrayed the character, he has been evasive as to the truth, so the legend persists — fueled partially by an ad in Daily Variety promoting an appearance by Clifton at the Comedy Store in the late 1990s.
Regardless of the rumors regarding Andy Kaufman's death, it is almost certain that he did indeed die on May 16, 1984. His 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.
Andy Kaufman (right) in the film God Told Me To << Less Bio