A comic genius well ahead of his time, Andy Kaufman pushed the envelope in a series of performance pieces that challenged the very idea of the entertainer-audience relationship, while also confounding a public unsure whether or not his gags were reality or fiction. In fact, Kaufman possessed a rare courage and discipline to stay completely in character, regardless of the outcry elicited by his seemingly erratic behavior. Meanwhile, he made a name for himself on the comedy circuits of New York and Los Angeles, eliciting nervous laughter as the high-talking Foreign Man who often transformed into a dead-on impression of Elvis Presley, or singing the theme to "Mighty Mouse" after standing around in nervous silence, or reading from The Great Gatsby until audience members stormed out. Having first entered America's living rooms via "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ), Kaufman's Foreign Man was transformed into Latka Gravas on the hit sitcom "Taxi" (ABC/NBC, 1978-1983), where he emerged as one of the show's most beloved stars. Subsequent antics ensued, most notably his famed Carnegie Hall performance after which he took the entire audience out for milk and cookies. He also starred on "The Andy Kaufman Show" (1980), while marking numerous appearances on late night programs, including multiple stops on "Late Night with David Letterman" (NBC, 1982-1993). Though he incurred the wrath of feminists by wrestling women while hurling misogynist invective, Kaufman nonetheless maintained his strange ability to keep audiences guessing as to where the performer ended and the real Andy Kaufman began. Though some believed he was pulling yet another prank when he revealed he had cancer, Kaufman was finally being real with his fans. Although he died young, the comic left behind an indelible legacy as a bold and provocative performer the likes of which the world would probably not see again.
Born on Jan. 17, 1949 in New York City, Kaufman was raised in the affluent Long Island suburb of Great Neck by his father, Stanley, a costume jeweler, and his mother, Janice. He began performing at nine years old, doing jokes and magic tricks for family and friends while entertaining kids at parties. At 13, Kaufman auditioned at Budd Friedman's IMPROVisation Comedy Club in New York City and bombed. But after attending Grahm Junior College in Boston, where he hosted "Uncle Andy's Fun House" on the school's closed-circuit television station, Kaufman reconnected with Friedman while working at a Long Island rock club. He began doing stand-up for Friedman's clubs in both New York and Los Angeles, where an introduction to Carl Reiner and Dick Van Dyke led to their manager, George Shapiro, representing him. It was during this time that Kaufman cultivated his most famous acts, including the so-called Foreign Man, a shy thin-voiced immigrant from the fictional island of Caspiar, who ineptly imitated various personalities with his own voice, only to deliver a dead-on impersonation of Elvis Presley, complete with slicked-back hair and glittering jacket, which he threw into the audience and closed with his catchphrase, "T'ank you veddy much."
Also in the early stages, Kaufman formed another of his most famous acts, where he would play a recording of the "Mighty Mouse" theme on record and wait to lipsync the line "Here I come to save the day," before lapsing into inaction until the line played again. Because of these acts and his penchant for making audiences extremely uncomfortable during performances - a hallmark throughout his career - Kaufman garnered considerable attention, eventually attracting NBC executive Dick Ebersol to his nightclub act in Los Angeles, who asked the comedian to audition for what would become "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ). He made the first of his 14 appearances on "SNL" during its inaugural broadcast, where he famously did his "Mighty Mouse" bit. Meanwhile, Kaufman's association with Van Dyke led to work as a regular cast member on "Van Dyke and Company" (NBC, 1976), where his "unscheduled" appearances in the middle of Van Dyk's sketches became an instant favorite on the otherwise short-lived show. He also unveiled his Foreign Man-to-Elvis transformation to the surprise and delight of studio and TV audiences.
After making his feature debut as a possessed cop who goes on a crazy rampage in the rather forgettable horror flick "God Told Me to Kill " (1976), Kaufman continued to receive exposure on "Saturday Night Live," "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson" (NBC, 1962-1992), "The Mike Douglas Show" (syndicated, 1961-1982), "Late Night with David Letterman" (NBC, 1982-1993) and even "The Dating Game" (ABC/syndicated, 1965-1980), where he appeared as Foreign Man much to the delight of the audience and host Chuck Lange, and the confusion of the bachelorette asking questions. Already well on the rise, he was propelled into superstardom after adapting his Foreign Man character to become the auto mechanic Latka Gravas on the hit sitcom "Taxi" (ABC/NBC, 1978-1983). Initially resistant to appearing on a sitcom, Kaufman agreed to do the show on the condition that executive producers James L. Brooks and Ed Weinberger hire the gruff and verbally abusive lounge singer, Tony Clifton - another fictitious character created by Kaufman - as a guest star, even though he was not a real person. But because of Clifton's unprofessional behavior, he was summarily fired from the show. Throughout Kaufman's career, Clifton would often show up in his act, though sometimes the character was played with longtime writing partner and fellow prankster Bob Zmuda. Meanwhile, Kaufman's Latka was given multiple personality disorder in order for Kaufman to play a wide variety of characters on the show in its later seasons, including an impersonation of Judd Hirsh's Alex Reiger.
In April 1979, Kaufman further cemented his legacy as a comedic genius with a notable performance at Carnegie Hall, where he invited his grandmother to appear onstage, only to be revealed as Robin Williams at the end of the show. He also invited little known Hollywood actress Eleanor Cody Gould up on stage to tell stories and perform a musical number that ended with her suffering an apparent heart attack. Kaufman went off stage, returned wearing a Native American headdress and revived her with a dance. But the show became legendary when at the end, Kaufman invited the entire audience to have milk and cookies, taking everyone outside where they found 20 buses waiting for them. Also that year, Kaufman's TV special, "Andy's Funhouse" (ABC, 1979), which featured some of his more famous skits, finally aired after filming two years prior. On the big screen again, Kaufman starred with Marty Feldman, Richard Pryor and Peter Boyle in the comedy "In God We Tru$t" (1980), playing fire and brimstone televangelist Armageddon T. Thunderbird in this failed comedy written and directed by Feldman.
On Feb. 20, 1981, Kaufman engaged in his most notorious gag while appearing as the guest host for the "Saturday Night Live" knockoff, "Fridays" (ABC, 1980-82), which only added to his reputation for unpredictability. During the live broadcast, Kaufman was part of a skit where two couples having dinner at a restaurant individually sneak away to the bathroom to smoke a joint, not knowing that anyone else at the table toked up. Kaufman went completely off script when his character returned to the table, stating rather plainly that he felt awkward "playing stoned." Unable or unwilling to say his lines, Michael Richards - who later to went on to fame as Kramer on "Seinfeld" (NBC, 1989-1998) - got up from the table, went off screen and returned with the cue cards, which he dropped in front of Kaufman, much to the delight of the audience. From there, the scene completely broke down, with Kaufman tossing water onto Richards and getting into a physical confrontation with one of the producers before being led off camera by various crewmembers. While Kaufman later insisted that the incident was a terrible misunderstanding, it became apparent that some of the show's regulars were in on the joke, including Richards. The next week's show aired a video-taped apology from the apparently remorseful comic.
Kaufman later returned as guest host of "Fridays" for the first show of its second season and was duly on his best behavior; he brought out his gospel singer fiancée to perform Christian songs and talked to the audience about his newly found faith in Jesus Christ, despite being Jewish. Of course, he left audiences wondering whether his conversion was another hoax. During this time, he generated the most controversy in his career as the self-proclaimed undefeated World Inter-gender Wrestling Champion, announcing at his concerts, "Ladies and Gentleman, I am here to wrestle tonight. This is not a comedy routine. This is not a skit." Enamored with the wrestling world since childhood, Kaufman adopted the villain role and stirred audiences into a frenzy of hatred with misogynist comments and steadfastly refusing to drop the ruse. Kaufman's act aroused the anger of wrestler Jerry Lawlor, who took exception to the send-up of his profession. The two eventually met in a match at the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis, TN in April 1982, with Lawlor pile-driving the comic who was rushed to the hospital with injured cervical vertebrae. Three months later, Lawlor slapped Kaufman - who was wearing a neck brace - out of his chair on "The David Letterman Show" (NBC, 1980), prompting the comic to shout curses and toss coffee on Lawlor before running out of the studio. Though Kaufman and Lawlor put up a good front in public, it was later revealed that the two were indeed good friends and had planned their famous stunts.
After "Taxi" was canceled in 1983, Kaufman engaged in what some considered his ultimate performance, reporting night after night at Jerry's Famous Deli in Los Angeles, where he earned minimum wage for a six-hour shift bussing dirty dishes despite having made $30,000 a week on the show. Meanwhile, during Thanksgiving dinner with family that year, Kaufman began coughing persistently enough to cause alarm. He revealed that he had the cough for over a month and went to doctors who told him nothing was wrong. Upon returning to Los Angeles, he checked into Cedars-Sinai Hospital, where he discovered that he had a rare form of lung cancer. Though his prognosis was poor, Kaufman was determined to fight the disease with radiation therapy. When that failed to stop the spread of tumors, he traveled to the Philippines, where he underwent psychic surgery, a long-debunked procedure that he attempted as a last resort. Kaufman lost his battle on May 16, 1984 in Los Angeles after suffering kidney failure from metastasized cells. He was 35. But because he had kept his illness out of public view - not to mention allegedly telling many people that he wanted to fake his own death - fans widely felt that his death was yet another stunt. Even decades later, particularly around the release of the biopic "Man on the Moon" (1999), which starred Jim Carrey as Kaufman, many felt that the comedian would emerge and pull the covers off his greatest hoax. While Tony Clifton - played by Bob Zmuda - made several appearances at that time, Kaufman never did.