Facts About Andy Kaufman

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kaufman as toddler

• Andrew Geoffrey Kaufman was born on January 17, 1949 in Great Neck, Long Island, New York to Stanley Kaufman, a jewelry salesman, and his wife Janice Bernstein. He was the oldest of three. Brother Michael arrived two years later, and sister Carol was the youngest.

• Shortly after Michael’s birth, Andy would stand at the big picture window of their house and just stare for hours. His parents felt that children shouldn’t be sad, so they sent their son to numerous psychiatrists.

kaufman as boy [2]

• Andy would pretend that a camera was in his basement bedroom wall. Here he would put on shows for his imaginary audience; any show genre you can imagine that was popular during the 1950s. About 80% of the material Andy would end up performing as an adult got its start in his bedroom and from performing at children’s birthday parties: impersonating Elvis Presley, lip-syncing to the theme song to “Mighty Mouse”, singing simple children songs like “Pop Goes the Weasel”, and Foreign Man.

• Never did very well in school and often brought up straight D’s his entire scholastic career. Teachers would sometimes pass him so that they wouldn’t have to have him in their classes again the next year.

• Towards the end of high school and for a year or two afterwards, Andy became a stoner and an alcoholic. The partying came to an end when he got his seventeen-year-old girlfriend, Gloria, pregnant when he was nineteen. Andy finally took stock of his life and decided to go back to school, going to a junior college in Boston and getting an association in arts and television. It was around this time that Andy discovered Transcendental Meditation (TM), a discipline that would keep him focused and healthy (for the most part) for the rest of his life.

• Andy was off at school when his daughter was born in July of 1969. He never saw the baby, but his parents and Gloria’s parents did for a few days before the baby was put up for adoption.

elvis

• A huge Elvis Presley fan since elementary school, Andy was one of the first professional Elvis impersonators. The King himself had a few tapes of Andy’s Vegas impersonation gigs on tape at his mansion in Graceland. Elvis enjoyed Andy most of all because Andy would sing obscure Elvis songs and dress as Elvis had dressed when Elvis was at his peak.

• When Andy was twenty, he wrote a fan letter to Elvis:

Feb 27, 1969

Kaufman
Leavitt Hall
645 Beacon St.
Boston, Msses, Room 629

Dear Mr. Presley,

Hi.

Here I am at the old college desk writing you a letter for the first time in my life.

Here I am twenty years old. I have been an “Elvis Presley fan” since my grandfather bought me a copy of Elvis’ Golden Records when I was seven. (Since then I have acquired every word you ever recorded, except three.)

You are Elvis Presley. I am Andy Kaufman. One day I shall meet you. I shall shake your hand. I shall say “Hello.”

I know you, ya know? I really do know you. I have seen

[PORTION MISSING]

as yours.) It’s just an idea, but if it can’t happen, can you arrange for me to just shake your hand and say hello? I mean, I’ve gone through a heckova lot these past few years, turning people on to you, dragging friends and parties to your movies. I don’t even drink, smoke, or curse anymore.

Thanks for everything

(No kiddin’, I feel like I’m writin’ to Santa Claus or something’.)

Sincerely,

Andy G. Kaufman

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• Bob Zmuda was Andy’s  best friend and partner in crime. Raised in Chicago, Illinois to a Polish Catholic family. Dabbled in stand-up with his old friend Chris Albrecht (“Comedy From A to Z”) but mostly did odd jobs around the clubs of New York City, like serving drinks. He met Andy when he offered to help the comedian load his car up after a show, all this being done while Andy was Foreign Man. Later, Andy would approach Zmuda and ask to hear the stories about Zmuda’s short stint as a personal assistant to eccentric screenwriter Norman Wexler. A lifelong friendship was born and Zmuda became Andy’s official writer.

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• A huge fan of “Howdy Doody” since he was a very young child, Andy arranged to have the original puppet to appear on his ABC “Andy’s Funhouse” show. The special was filmed in 1977 but did not air until 1979. A similar show was filmed in 1983 for PBS called “The Andy Kaufman Show”. Paul Ruebans asked permission to possibly use Andy’s funhouse format for his Pee-Wee Herman character, and Andy said yes. Later Reubans would create “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse”.

• Andy did not consider himself a comedian. He saw himself as a “Song and Dance Man”.

mighty mouse

• Performed  his “Mighty Mouse” lip syncing routine on the very first episode of Saturday Night Live on October 11, 1975.

• A fan of the ladies, Andy found it was easy to meet women when one was famous.  He started wrestling women mostly to meet, and hopefully have sex with, them. He organized fan mail based on if any good looking women sent him their pictures, and he would send them back stage passes if they did. He patronized the brothels around Las Vegas and Reno, and would often make life-long friends with the working women.

• Played Carnegie Hall in 1979. Andy invited his grandmother to watch the show on a sofa set up on stage. At the end of the show, the “grandmother” revealed herself to be none other than Robin Williams. Then Andy had the entire audience load into buses for some milk and cookies. The next day he had the audience meet him at the Staten Island Ferry where the performance continued.

cliftion

• Andy claimed that the character of Tony Clifton was based on a lounge singer he observed in Las Vegas. in the late 1960s. Andy was there in the first place to try to ambush and meet Elvis Presley. It worked.

• Before Zmuda met Andy, he was a personal assistant to screenwriter / script doctor Norman Wexler. Wexler, who wrote “Serpico”, “Joe”, and “Saturday Night Fever”, was very eccentric and probably mentally ill. He suffered from bi-polar disorder and was once arrested in 1972 for threatening to assassinate President Richard Nixon. A lot of the stories Zmuda told Andy about Wexler would be the basis of Clifton.

• Andy had a Cadillac he only used for when he was playing Clifton.

• One of the conditions for joining the cast of “Taxi” was that Andy’s mysterious friend Tony Clifton would be allowed to make two guest appearances, and two separate contracts were written. Tony’s first episode was to be a Christmas 1978 episode where he plays Louie DePalma’s (Danny DeVito) gambling brother Nicky. On the first day of rehearsal Clifton brought hookers to the set, botched his lines, was rude to the cast, and generally created chaos. Tony Danza captured the entire incident with his hand-held camera. Naturally the producers wanted to fire Tony, so Andy told them to fire him in front of everyone the next day at rehearsals. Tony was not happy about this and ended up being escorted out of the building by security guards.

• One belief is that Andy never smoked and stuck to a squeaky clean diet. While this was true 99% of the time, when he was playing Clifton he would chain smoke, eat meat, and down bottles of whiskey.

• During an appearance on “The Dinah Shore Show”, a drunk Clifton dumped a bowl of raw eggs and bacon on her head during the cooking segment. During the chaos that followed, Jean Stappleton (Edith on “All in the Family”) hid herself in her dressing room.

• Clifton was played by Andy, Bob Zmuda, and sometimes by Michael Kaufman. Clifton’s appearance on “David Letterman” was Zmuda.

• Andy and Zmuda wrote an epic biopic about Clifton to be filmed at considerable expense. Those who have read the script have said that it would have made a great movie. But any hopes for a Tony Clifton movie were killed when Andy’s movie “Heartbeeps” bombed at the box office.

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• A fan of wrestling since he was a young boy, he would wrestle any woman at any time at any place. On airplanes. In restaurants. In hospitals. In brothels. On Saturday Night Live. He had a room in his modest Laurel Canyon house laid down with nothing but wrestling mats. Towards the end of his career, he made a small film called “My Breakfast With Blassie”, a take on “My Dinner With Andre” where Andy has breakfast with old school wrestler Fred “Pencil Necked Geeks” Blassie.

• Beat almost every woman he wrestled with. When he wrestled on “Saturday Night Live”, the producers picked who Andy was going to wrestle. Nervous because he didn’t get the chance to choose the woman, Andy ended up winning anyway. The letters Andy received from women around the country wanting to wrestle him on SNL are featured in the book “Dear Andy Kaufman I Hate Your Guts”.

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• The character of “Foreign Man” was popular for several years before producers of a new show based around taxi cab drivers approached Andy one night. Andy felt that American sitcoms were one of the lowest forms of entertainment, but took the job in order to gain more exposure so he could do anything he wanted for (or to?) a larger audience. It also gave him a chance to make more money, so he could pay for his increasingly elaborate gags. This “Foreign Man” from “Caspiar” became the Sunshine Cab Company’s mechanic, Latka Gravas, on the show “Taxi”.

• The less Andy had to work on the show the better. While most actors fight tooth and nail for screen time, Andy did the opposite. While the cast worked a full week, Andy was allowed to show up for the Tuesday’s table readings and Friday’s filming. His photographic memory made it so that he never made any mistakes during filming.

Taxi_Season_1_Cast

• Andy did not socialize with the cast much at all. This is not to say he didn’t like them. And except for the Tony Clifton ordeal, Andy was a consummate professional. Do your job and go home.

• Friction did occur though. Judd Hirsch was irritated that the producers never made clear who the real star of the show was, and that Andy could get away with so much. Jeff Conaway, drinking a little bit too much at a cast party,  asked Andy if he thought he was better than everyone else and then promptly punched him in the face. Conaway apologized the next day and was forgiven.

• When Carol Kane was hired on to play Simka, Latka’s love interest from the same country, Andy invited her to dinner at his house. He attempted to teach her the made up “ibby-da” language of Latka’s people and made it so she could only talk in this language during dinner. He also asked her to wrestle. She politely declined, much to his disappointment.

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• By 1982 and 1983 audiences were getting exhausted with Andy’s antics. On “The David Letterman Show” alone (the only show he could get booked on in the end) he had his fake feud with wrestler Jerry “The King” Lawler, adopted three adult black men as his children, claimed he was homeless and needed money, and became a born-again Christian. He was voted off of “Saturday Night Live” in a stunt that backfired. A Broadway show he was in with Debbie Harry failed after one night. His movie “Heartbeeps” bombed at the box office, destroying any chance for a long time of a movie career. And worst of all, the Transcendental Meditation organization he loved so dearly refused to allow him to join their training sessions to become a teacher because of his wrestling women routine. This hurt him most of all.

• During a visit home for Thanksgiving in 1983, Andy’s family showed concern for the lingering congestive cough he just couldn’t seem to shake. When he returned to Los Angeles he went to a doctor and was diagnosed with a rare form of lung cancer. At first he didn’t treat it seriously. After all, he was Andy Kaufman! He would beat this! He put off telling his family due to a separate crisis the family had when Andy’s mother Janice had a stroke.

• Andy finally publicly announced his illness in January of 1984 when audiences were amazed at his gaunt appearance. Andy hoped to cure the cancer with “natural medicine”, including a diet of fruit and vegetables and plenty of vitamins.

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• He started radiotherapy but by then the cancer had gone from his lungs to his brain. In March of 1984 Andy, his long-time girlfriend Lynne Margulies, and (later) Zmuda went to Baguio, Philippines for “psychic surgery”, a New Age procedure featuring quack doctors using slight of hand tricks and chicken parts to pretend to pull tumors from desperate peoples’ bodies.

• On May 16, 1984 Andy Kaufman died of kidney failure, caused by metastasized large-cell lung carcinoma, in West Hollywood with his family and manager, George Shapiro, at his side. He is buried in the Beth David Cemetery in Elmont, New York. He was thirty-five years old.

bzmuda051410

• Bob Zmuda would go on to create Comic Relief USA (based in part on the UK’s Comic Relief charity) in Andy’s memory in 1986. In 1999 he wrote “Andy Kaufman Revealed!” and helped work on the movie “Man on the Moon” (the name based on a song by REM about Andy) , where he prepared the Tony Clifton make-up for Jim Carrey. Zmuda was played by Paul Giamatti. Andy was played by, of course, Jim Carrey. Lynne was played by Courtney Love. Zmuda still plays Tony Clifton, as seen above.

• Andy’s manager, George Shapiro would end up representing Jerry Seinfeld and, along with his agency West/Shapiro, would executive-produce the hit sitcom “Seinfeld”. Later, Shapiro would be played by Danny DeVito in the biopic “Man on the Moon”.

• Andy’s father, Stanley Kaufman, died in the summer of 2013 at the age of 90.

andy daughter

• In 1992 a young woman named Maria Bellu (pictured above) was able to track down her birth mother and was told that her father was Andy Kaufman, the guy on “Taxi”. She promptly began relationships with the Kaufman clan, becoming extremely close to her grandfather Stanley. She married New York insurance salesman Joe Colonna and had a daughter, Brittany in the mid-1990s. Andy’s granddaughter Brittany made an appearance in “Man on the Moon”, playing the younger version of her aunt Carol.

• The Andy Kaufman Hoax Machine 2014 has already started, with a woman coming onstage in November 2013 with Michael claiming to be Andy’s younger daughter and that he is living a quiet life with another family. And a grainy black and white video has surfaced of an old guy who looks nothing like Andy in Albuquerque.

• Is Andy Kaufman dead? Most likely, yes. He hasn’t appeared thus far and there’s no reason to believe he would have put his parents in so much pain. There were too many witnesses to his deteriorating condition as the cancer took hold in the final months and finally caused his death. Although he had thought about faking his death, Andy dropped the idea when he realized how difficult it would be and how stressful it would be for his family. But if Andy Kaufman returned, it would be one for the history books for sure.

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Further Research

Lost in the Funhouse: The Life and Mind of Andy Kaufman by Bill Zehme

Andy Kaufman Revealed! by Bob Zmuda

Letters of Note: http://www.lettersofnote.com/2009/11/you-are-elvis-presley-i-am-andy-kaufman.html

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