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Believe it or not, comedian Andy Kaufman was banned from Saturday Night Live, but beloved for his portrayal of Latka Gravas on the sitcom Taxi.
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Kaufman parlayed this concept into a series of performances and stirred up a good deal of controversy, especially among female viewers, who were outraged by the character's misogynist nature. In 1982, he suffered major neck and back injuries in a bout with pro wrestler Jerry Lawlor,
with whom he later got into a heated argument on The Late Show with David Letterman. Many eventually suspected the conflict on Letterman had been staged with Lawlor's participation.
Kaufman also made memorable TV appearances on Van Dyke and Company, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, The Mike Douglas Show, The Dating Game, and the comedy show Fridays, during which he got into a scuffle with fellow cast members and stormed out of the live broadcast. In 1979, Kaufman made a now-famous appearance in a show at Carnegie Hall, after which he arranged for the entire audience of 2,800 people to be bussed to a Manhattan café for milk and cookies. He appeared in two poorly received movies: In God We Trust (1980), also featuring Richard Pryor, and Heartbeeps (1981), in which he starred with Bernadette Peters as a pair of robots.
Kaufman's reputation for being completely unpredictable had been well-established by the time he won the role for which he became most well-known: as Latka Gravas, an auto mechanic of indeterminate nationality, on the hit sitcom Taxi, which ran from 1978 to 1983. As a condition of his employment, Kaufman convinced the producers of the show to cast his so-called protégé, the smarmy Las Vegas lounge singer Tony Clifton (another one of Kaufman's alter egos) in two episodes. Clifton was soon fired for unprofessional behavior. Kaufman went to some lengths to maintain that he and Clifton were two separate people; his best friend and fellow comedian Bob Zmuda eventually took over the character, even appearing as Clifton after Kaufman's death.
In another dubious achievement, Saturday Night Live viewers voted 195,544 to 169,186, in a live, call-in ballot in November 1982, to keep Kaufman permanently off the show. After that, he never appeared on SNL again, except in reruns. The ban, combined with his erratic track record, made it hard for him to get other TV guest spots. Outside the TV arena, Kaufman appeared alongside the singer Deborah Harry in the ill-fated Broadway play Teaneck Tanzi: The Venus Flytrap, which closed after only two performances in April 1983. He also made a short film, My Breakfast with Blassie, in early 1984.
In January 1984, Kaufman was diagnosed with a rare form of lung cancer. He had never smoked, and some even accused the consummate performer of faking his illness, even in its most advanced stages. He died on May 16, 1984, in Los Angeles, at the age of 35. Though Kaufman never married, it was later revealed that he and his high school sweetheart had a daughter who was born in 1969 and given up for adoption.
After his death, the legend of Andy Kaufman lived on, and some even believed the enigmatic comic was still alive. Zmuda built the HBO special Comic Relief—an annual benefit for the homeless hosted by Billy Crystal, Robin Williams, and Whoopi Goldberg—from an event commemorating the first anniversary of Kaufman's death. After Shapiro and his partner, Howard West, produced a 1995 NBC special, A Comedy Tribute to Andy Kaufman, which met with a tremendous viewer response, Universal Pictures began production on a big-budget Kaufman biopic. The film, released in late 1999 and starring Jim Carrey in a well-received performance, was called Man on the Moon, after the 1992 musical salute to Kaufman by the rock band R.E.M. Kaufman's granddaughter, Brittany Colonna, appeared in the film as the young comedian's sister. Also in 1999, two biographies of Kaufman were published: Andy Kaufman Revealed! Best Friend Tells All by Zmuda, and Life in the Funhouse: The Life and Mind of Andy Kaufman by Bill Zehme.
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