Who Was Andy Kaufman?
Andy Kaufman began performing at age 8. His later stand-up routine was unorthodox, but it caught the attention of Hollywood, and he was soon appearing on TV, including on a new show called Saturday Night Live, Van Dyke and Company, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, The Mike Douglas Show, The Dating Game and the comedy show Fridays. 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. Around this time, he landed the role of Latka Gravas, an auto mechanic of indeterminate nationality, on the hit sitcom Taxi. Kaufman also appeared on the big screen, including in the films In God We Trust (1980) and Heartbeeps (1981), before his death in 1984.
Early Comedy Career
Andy Kaufman was born in New York City January 17, 1949. Raised in the affluent suburb of Great Neck, Long Island, New York, Kaufman early on began practicing his unorthodox brand of comedy, staging a make-believe television show in his bedroom and performing at children's birthday parties from the age of 8. He graduated from high school in 1967 and received a 4-F deferment from the military draft after failing the psychological portion of the test. Early on, Kaufman embraced the practice of transcendental meditation, which became an important fixture in his life and helped him gain the courage to perform. While studying at Boston's Grahm Junior College, where he majored in television and radio production, Kaufman wrote, produced, directed, and starred in his own program, Uncle Andy's Funhouse, on a campus TV station.
In 1971, Kaufman was discovered by Budd Friedman, owner of the Improvisation Comedy Club, while doing a stand-up routine in a Long Island nightclub. He began performing at improv locations in both New York and Los Angeles, confronting his often confused audiences with a strange kind of performance art—he once read F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby aloud until his entire audience walked out; another time, he appeared on stage with a sleeping bag and slept his way through the act. With an array of bizarre foreign accents, dead-on impersonations of Elvis Presley, and a strange obsession with professional wrestling, Kaufman won fans — and rabid critics — in large numbers. Through his stand-up, he met the comedic actors Carl Reiner and Dick Van Dyke; their manager, George Shapiro (later co-executive producer of the hit sitcom Seinfeld), agreed to represent Kaufman as well.
Rise to Fame: 'SNL' and Carnegie Hall
Kaufman made his national TV debut in 1974 on The Dean Martin Comedy Hour. In 1975, the NBC executive Dick Ebersol saw Kaufman's stand-up routine and invited him to audition for a new comedy program called Saturday Night Live. Kaufman made his first of 14 appearances on the show during its first-ever broadcast on October 11, 1975, when he lip-synched "The Theme from Mighty Mouse." The most notorious of the many characters Kaufman portrayed on SNL was the self-proclaimed undefeated Intergender World Wrestling Champion, an ultra-chauvinistic character who offered women $1,000 if they could pin him in a wrestling match. 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.
Erratic Reputation and 'Taxi'
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.
Legacy and Death
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. Maria Colonna discovered the identity of her father in the early 1990s.
After his death, the legend of 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 Carol. 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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