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Referred to by many as a dadaistic comedian, Andrew Geoffrey Kaufman took comedy and performance art to the edges of irrationality and blurred the dividing line between reality and imagination. Born in New York City on January 17, 1949, the first son of Stanley and Janice Kaufman, Andy grew up on Long Island, New York, in the town of Great Neck. He began performing for family and friends at the age of 7, and by the time he was 8, was being hired to entertain at children's parties. While attending a Boston-area junior college, Andy began performing his unique brand of stand-up comedy at coffee shops and nightclubs on the east coast. Andy quickly earned a reputation as a talented, yet eccentric performer. Impressed by his abilities, Lorne Michaels asked Kaufman to appear on the inaugural broadcast of "Saturday Night Live" (October 11, 1975). Best known for his work as Latka Gravas on the TV sitcom "Taxi" Andy appeared in several TV shows (see The Andy Kaufman Timeline) and movies, performed on Broadway, did a one-man show at Carnegie Hall, enjoyed a brief professional wrestling career and also performed in concerts nation-wide.
In 1999 a motion picture from Universal, "Man on the Moon" (Universal/Jersey Films) gave us Hollywood's version of the life of Andy Kaufman. Directed by Academy Award winner, Milos Forman and starring no less than, Jim Carrey, Danny DeVito and Courtney Love, the movie failed to live up to early media buzz and was not embraced by the public at large. It opened in theater's across the nation on December 22, 1999 and meekly closed several weeks later.
Photo courtesy of Wayne WilliamsWhat's the big deal about Andy Kaufman?
Decades after his "death" the world still talks about Andy Kaufman. His work on "Taxi", can be seen each weekday night on the Nickelodeon cable network. On March 29, 1995, a one-hour special, "A Comedy Salute to Andy Kaufman", was telecast on NBC. This retrospective of Andy's career was produced by his former managers and close friends. The broadcast picked up a 10.2 rating (watched by approximately 14,300,000 viewers) and was nominated for an Emmy as Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Special. Many of Andy's appearances on "Late Night with David Letterman" or "Saturday Night Live" can be enjoyed via the E! and Comedy Central cable networks.
Author Bill Zehme, a former senior writer for Esquire Magazine, Rolling Stone and co-author of Regis Philbin's book, "I'm Only One Man," Jay Leno's book, "Leading With My Chin," and an acclaimed Frank Sinatra tribute titled, "The Way You Wear Your Hat," is the authorized Andy Kaufman biographer. His book, "Lost in the Fun House - The Life and Mind of Andy Kaufman" is available in stores now. Easy to use links are available on our pages allowing you to purchase your copy today.
The memoirs of Andy's former colleague and "co-writer" Bob Zmuda were also published in late 1999. Mr. Zmuda's book, Andy Kaufman Revealed! is a humorous account of his ten years of collaboration with Andy.
To read a candid review of "Andy Kaufman Revealed" click here.
Discussions about Andy appear in Internet newsgroups quite frequently. His infamous brawl with wrestler Jerry Lawler continues to generate talk among members of many USENET newsgroups. The bizarre speculation that Andy faked his death and will someday reappear still remains. Some even thought he would make a surprise visit to Letterman's "Late Show" when Dave moved to CBS.
Andy always maintained he wasn't a comedian and that comedy was the most "unfunny" thing there was. Many times, Andy's performances left audiences shaking their heads and wondering what they had just witnessed. It was as if Andy was constantly provoking you to think: "What is funny? What is entertainment? How long will I tolerate this?" He looked to create reactions, not to make people laugh. "Andy did not explore the borderline between reality and imagination," wrote Steve Allen, "he lived there." Amongst all the controversy and speculation, Andy's family and friends could always attest to one thing: Andy Kaufman was a warm, loving, courageous man and his early death was not fair.
Didn't he imitate Elvis Presley?
Andy loved Elvis Presley. By the time he was attending Great Neck North High School, Andy's Elvis impression was already finely tuned. In fact, Andy imitated Elvis before imitating Elvis became a world-wide business. Andy once hitchhiked to Las Vegas to meet Presley. Although Andy's voice wasn't the best, he captured the legendary Elvis moves and mannerisms better than anyone. Elvis considered Andy's impersonation of him as by far his favorite. The death of Elvis Presley spawned a slew of Presley impersonators, and yet Andy imitated Elvis years before it became a cottage industry.
Did Andy Kaufman wrestle women?
Yes. Andy wrestled women from 1979 until 1983. As the world's first Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion, Kaufman set the standard all future inter-gender wrestlers aspire to. Having wrestled over 400 women, Andy retired undefeated. However, he did run into problems when he wrestled his first male opponent Jerry Lawler. In 1982 Lawler was the reigning Southern Heavyweight Wrestling Champion. During one of Andy's inter-gender matches, Lawler interfered and almost cost Andy the match. A feud developed between the two, culminating in a main-event match on April 5, 1982. At the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis, Tennessee, Kaufman and Lawler finally wrestled, and in six short minutes Lawler "knocked Andy out" with a vicious pile-driver. The fall sent Andy to the hospital with "seriously injured cervical vertebrae." He spent three days in traction before being released. His subsequent attempts at revenge against Lawler are featured in the movie, I'm From Hollywood. "When I do the wrestling act," Andy admits, "I'm playing a role of a villain. It's just like any actor that plays the role of a villain in any movie or TV show. I'm playing the villain and what I'm trying to do is get the people to dislike me just like they would any villain. So that they'll root for the woman I'm wrestling - so that they'll really dislike me and hope that I lose and get really excited. Whenever I play a role, whether it's good or bad, an evil person or nice person, I believe in being a purist and going all the way with the role. If I'm going to be a villainous wrestler, I believe in going all the way with it and not breaking character and not giving away to the audience that I'm playing a role. I believe in playing it straight to the hilt."
Listen to audio clips of Andy and Jerry Lawler's infamous confrontation on live television at Uncle Andy's Audio Funhouse.
Who was Tony Clifton?
As "Foreign Man," Andy Kaufman adopted a theme of absolute incompetence by portraying a pseudo Eastern-European stand-up comic whose inept comedy reached uneasy and awkward moments of nonpareil proportions. Audiences watched with a muddled blend of horror, anger and pity as Foreign Man's disorientation, humiliation and panic suddenly transformed into an incredibly accurate impersonation of Elvis Presley. At this point the audience would realize they were part of an elaborate hoax - Foreign Man and Andy Kaufman were not who they originally seemed to be.
With the evolution of Foreign Man to the "Latka Gravas" character on the hit television series, "Taxi" the Foreign Man/Elvis character became common knowledge to the general public and the routine lost its impact. This left Kaufman searching to create a new angle in which to exploit the vulnerability of the audience's understanding of his intentions.
As Tony Clifton, the crass, abusive, small-time Las Vegas lounge singer, Andy Kaufman found the next level for his unique comic styling. Kaufman claimed to have met the conceited and insensitive nightclub singer in the early 1970's, and had initially impersonated him as part of his own act but began hiring Clifton when he could afford to do so. When Clifton appeared in concert (sometimes opening for Kaufman, other times opening for Rodney Dangerfield, his incompetence and foul behavior angered the crowd to the point where they would pelt him with garbage and threaten physical violence. Despite (or more accurately: "to spite") the violence directed his way, Clifton would continue his act dressed in riot gear or protected by a nylon net. This would enrage the crowd even more and many wanted to harm or kill Clifton!
Kaufman helped Clifton negotiate a contract with the producers of Taxi guaranteeing Clifton work in one episode of the show with an option for two additional episodes. The episodes were never filmed because Clifton's boorish behavior on the set prompted the producers to fire him. As studio guards dragged Clifton off the set he screamed, "I'll sue all your fucking asses!! You'll never work in Vegas again!!" Returning the following week, Andy acted as if nothing had happened. Rumors floated about that Andy's friend and co-conspirator, Bob Zmuda often times played the role of Tony Clifton, while others claimed it was Andy all along. But who's to say for sure? Kaufman insisted that Clifton was a real person, not the one he once imitated, and Clifton would become livid when reporters accused him of really being Andy Kaufman. "He's been using my name to get places!" an outraged and visibly upset Clifton would shout. "Everyone thinks he's me," responded Kaufman, "It's really destroying his career."
Although many feared the Clifton character represented a darker side of Kaufman, it was perhaps his most brilliant concept. Tony Clifton was the absolute opposite of Andy's Foreign Man or Latka Gravas creations, and Andy didn't even have to be there to do him!
Or did he?
Visit the only true Internet site dedicated to the world's greatest entertainer, Tony Clifton! Click here, to visit The Tony Clifton Home Page.
Listen to audio clips of Tony Clifton at Uncle Andy's Audio Funhouse.
Did R.E.M. do a song about Andy?
On their 1992 album, Automatic For The People (Warner Brothers Records, Inc.) the band pays homage to Andy in the song, Man on the Moon . Michael Stipe considers this song, "a funny, sad eulogy to a very great man." Using Kaufman as a backdrop, R.E.M. explores our perceptions of illusion and reality. This beautiful, elegiac ballad examines how beliefs become reality, whether they are about men walking on the moon, Moses leading the Jews, Newton using an apple to understand gravity, or Andy Kaufman "goofing on Elvis" - what you believe becomes your reality.
Where can I purchase recordings of Andy's classic performances?
The Andy Kaufman Home Page does not sell or trade copies of Andy's performances, but can direct you to known and reliable vendors and/or collectors via the hypertext links contained below.
Try the following sources for videos/books on Andy:
Search Amazon.com for videos and books about Andy Kaufman. Amazon.com is the safest, least expensive and quickest way to purchase books and videos over the Internet! Use the easy search form below:
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SPECIAL MESSAGE: As America's hottest dead "comedian," the sale of Andy Kaufman memorabilia has increased dramatically. Several Internet auction sites like e-Bay have recently been filled with questionable Andy Kaufman merchandise. DON'T GET E-SCREWED!! Please be cautious when considering a bid on alleged "rare" Kaufman items. Many of these items (e.g., "rare" Tony Clifton desk clocks, Andy Kaufman desk clocks (with photo stolen from the AK Home Page no less), cheap stickers, cheap mouse pads, worthless "Andy Lives!" posters, "rare" videos that you can easily purchase elsewhere, t-shirts, fake Andy Kaufman autographs, bizarre fan club memberships, unauthorized and/or stolen screenplays and galleys, etc.) are often not what they appear to be.
Did Andy enjoy working on Taxi?
For many reasons Andy did not like working on Taxi. Once Andy agreed to appear on Taxi as the immigrant auto-mechanic, Latka Gravas, the character of "Foreign Man" would no longer be his. Not only would Andy lose one of his most beloved characters, but he feared playing Latka Gravas in a television sitcom would pigeonhole his career and cause him to be typecast in a singular persona. As Bill Zehme writes in Lost in the Funhouse: The Life and Mind of Andy Kaufman "...this was to be his legacy-in-shorthand... He (Andy) sensed/feared the imminent cultural shackling of it from the get-go."
The limitations of playing one role notwithstanding, Andy was also hesitant to commit to the time-consuming effort of doing a television series. His special agreement with the producers to show up only on Tuesday's (for the script read-through), and Friday night (for the actual taping of the show), made many of his fellow cast members unhappy. And for a time Judd Hirsch, Tony Danza and Jeff Conaway disliked Andy tremendously. Andy kept to himself, did not participate in many after-hours functions with the cast and crew, and was considered aloof and arrogant. Despite public posturing to the contrary, Andy did not like Taxi and Taxi did not like him. Ironically, after Andy's passing, most Taxi alumni sang the praises of Andy's talent, and claimed that Andy was a part of "the Taxi family." Despite outspoken disenchantment with him as a co-worker, Judd Hirsch penned a most heartfelt tribute to Andy for Rolling Stone magazine.
Just where was Latka from?
From the debut of Taxi on ABC, September 12, 1978, to the final broadcast on NBC, July 27, 1983, viewers were treated to Andy Kaufman's portrayal of the innocently complex immigrant, Latka Gravas. For five seasons we learned the meaning of words like, "nik-nik," "brefnish" and "ibeda." We were treated to a majestic rendition of the national anthem of Latka's native country and delighted in the silly beauty of his wedding vows with Simka Dahblitz. So, just where were Latka and Simka from?? No one knows. The name of Latka and Simka's native country was never revealed...
What about "Foreign Man," where was he from?
"Foreign Man," was from an island in the Caspian Sea named Caspier. "Foreign Man," came to America after the island sank into the ocean.
Did Andy work with Laurie Anderson?
In 1978, Andy met the musician/performance artist Laurie Anderson in New York City. Laurie worked as a "straight man" for Andy in comedy clubs, at Coney Island, or wherever the inspiration arose. Laurie recounts her experiences with Andy in her Stories from the Nerve Bible available at book and record stores everywhere.
What does the "G." in Andrew G. Kaufman, stand for?
I just watched the Andy Kaufman bio-pic, "Man on the Moon", starring Jim Carrey. I didn't understand the ending. If it was a year after Andy died, how could Tony Clifton be singing on stage with Bob Zmuda standing in the back of the crowd watching? How could this have happened?
While this picture is based upon a true story, some characters were composited or invented, and a number of events fictionalized. The final scene of the movie was one of those somewhat fictionalized scenes.
In real life, almost one year after Andy's death, Bob Zmuda dressed up as Tony Clifton and hosted a show at The Comedy Store. The show raised money for cancer research in Andy's memory and became the catalyst for Zmuda's "Comic Relief" charity fundraisers.
Was Andy ever married, and does he have any children?
No, Andy never married. Many believe he was once engaged to Gospel singer, Kathy Sullivan (he never was) because of their appearance together on Fridays. Many also think he was was married to Lynne Margulies (Andy's last girlfriend before he died), but although he loved Lynne very much and wanted to marry her, they never did.
Andy and a high school girlfriend had a baby out of wedlock. The child was put up for adoption. Out of respect for the child's privacy, The Andy Kaufman Home Page chooses not to provide further information.
Is Andy dead?
In the early evening hours of May 16, 1984, Andy Kaufman succumbed to a rare form of lung cancer. He had been sick less than one year and died at the age of 35. The reports of Andy's passing were thought by many to be another cleverly crafted Kaufman performance piece. Several friends and associates remained unconvinced until they viewed his body in the casket. Andy Kaufman is buried at Beth David Cemetery in the Long Island town of Elmont, New York.
The Andy Kaufman Timeline
The Night Andy Hosted "Fridays"
Andy's Last Days
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Copyright October 3, 1995 - B.K. Momchilov
A sincere, "Dank you veddy much" to BoB Kerman and all the folks at JVLNET for graciously hosting The Andy Kaufman Home Page.