I came across this remarkable odd and funny character Latka Gravas whilst watching one of my favorite American comedy shows Taxi in the 80ties. Not until much later I realized he wasn’t just some oddball actor. Later I realized he had subconsciously affected me in the sense that being weird is ok. I recommend you watch Man on the Moon, a movie starring Jim Carrey (who else) which is a great and accurate version of Andy Kaufman. Such a shame he died at such an early age…
Andrew Geoffrey Kaufman (January 17, 1949 – May 16, 1984) was an American comedian, entertainer, actor, wrestler, and performance artist. While often called a comedian, Kaufman described himself instead as a “song and dance man”. He has sometimes been called an “anti-comedian”. He disdained telling jokes and engaging in comedy as it was traditionally understood, once saying in a rare introspective interview, “I am not a comic, I have never told a joke. … The comedian’s promise is that he will go out there and make you laugh with him… My only promise is that I will try to entertain you as best I can.”
After working in small comedy clubs in the early 1970s, Kaufman came to the attention of a wider audience in 1975, when he was invited to perform portions of his act on the first season of Saturday Night Live. His Foreign Man character was the basis of his performance as Latka Gravas on the hit television show Taxi from 1978 until 1983. During this time, he continued to tour comedy clubs and theaters in a series of unique performance art / comedy shows, sometimes appearing as himself and sometimes as obnoxiously rude lounge singer Tony Clifton. He was also a frequent guest on sketch comedy and late-night talk shows, particularly Late Night with David Letterman. In 1982, Kaufman brought his professional wrestling villain act to Letterman’s show by way of a staged encounter with Jerry “The King” Lawler of the Continental Wrestling Association.
Kaufman died of lung cancer in 1984, at the age of 35. Because pranks and elaborate ruses were major elements of his career, persistent rumors have circulated that Kaufman faked his own death as a grand hoax. He continues to be respected for the variety of his characters, his uniquely counterintuitive approach to comedy, and his willingness to provoke negative and confused reactions from audiences.
Kaufman was born on January 17, 1949, in New York City, the oldest of three children. Andy, along with his younger brother Michael and sister Carol, grew up in a middle-class Jewish family in Great Neck, Long Island. He began performing at children’s birthday parties at age 9, playing records and showing cartoons. Kaufman spent much of his youth writing poetry and stories, including an unpublished novel, The Hollering Mangoo, which he completed at age 16. Following a visit to his school from Nigerian musician Babatunde Olatunji, Kaufman began playing the congas.
After graduating from Great Neck North High School in 1967, Kaufman took a year off before enrolling at the now defunct two-year Grahm Junior College in Boston, where he studied television production and starred in his own campus television show, Uncle Andy’s Fun House. In August 1969, he hitchhiked to Las Vegas to meet Elvis Presley, showing up unannounced at the International Hotel. Soon after, he began performing at coffee houses and developing his act, as well as writing a one-man play, Gosh (later renamed God and published in 2000). After graduating in 1971, he began performing stand-up comedy at various small clubs on the East Coast.
Kaufman first received major attention for his character Foreign Man, who spoke in a meek, high-pitched, heavy-accented voice and claimed to be from “Caspiar”, a fictional island in the Caspian Sea. It was as this character that Kaufman convinced the owner of the famed New York City comedy club The Improv, Budd Friedman, to allow him to perform on stage.
As Foreign Man, Kaufman would appear on the stage of comedy clubs, play a recording of the theme from the Mighty Mouse cartoon show while standing perfectly still, and lip-sync only the line “Here I come to save the day” with great enthusiasm. He would proceed to tell a few (purposely poor) jokes and conclude his act with a series of celebrity impersonations, with the comedy arising from the character’s obvious ineptitude at impersonation. For example, in his fake accent Kaufman would say to the audience, “I would like to imitate Meester Carter, de president of de United States” and then, in exactly the same voice, say “Hello, I am Meester Carter, de president of de United States. T’ank you veddy much.” At some point in the performance, usually when the audience was conditioned to Foreign Man’s inability to perform a single convincing impression, Foreign Man would announce, “And now I would like to imitate the Elvis Presley,” turn around, take off his jacket, slick his hair back, and launch into a rousing, hip-shaking rendition of Presley singing one of his hit songs. Like Presley, he would take off his leather jacket during the song and throw it into the audience, but unlike Presley, Foreign Man would immediately ask for it to be returned. After the song’s finale, he would take a simple bow and say in his Foreign Man voice, “T’ank you veddy much.”
Kaufman first used his Foreign Man character in nightclubs in the early 1970s, often to tell jokes incorrectly and do weak imitations of famous people before bursting into his Elvis Presley imitation. The character was then changed into Latka Gravas for ABC’s sitcom Taxi, appearing in 79 of 114 episodes in 1978–83. Bob Zmuda confirms this: “They basically were buying Andy’s Foreign Man character for the Taxi character Latka.” Kaufman’s longtime manager George Shapiro encouraged him to take the gig. Kaufman disliked sitcoms and was not happy with the idea of being in one, but Shapiro convinced him that it would quickly lead to stardom, which would earn him money he could then put into his own act. Kaufman agreed to appear in 14 episodes per season, and initially wanted four for Kaufman’s alter ego Tony Clifton. After Kaufman deliberately sabotaged Clifton’s appearance on the show, however, that part of his contract was dropped. His character was given multiple personality disorder, which allowed Kaufman to randomly portray other characters. In one episode of Taxi, Kaufman’s character came down with a condition that made him act like Alex Rieger, the main character played by Judd Hirsch. Another such recurring character played by Kaufman was the womanizing Vic Ferrari.
Sam Simon, who early in his career was a writer and later showrunner for Taxi, stated in a 2013 interview on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast that the story of Kaufman having been generally disruptive on the show was “a complete fiction” largely created by Zmuda. Simon maintained that Zmuda has a vested interest in promoting an out-of-control image of Kaufman. In the interview Simon stated that Kaufman was “completely professional” and that he “told you Tony Clifton was him”, but he also conceded that Kaufman would have “loved” Zmuda’s version of events.
Kaufman was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor in a Series, Limited Series, or Motion Picture Made for Television for Taxi in 1979 and 1981.
Another well-known Kaufman character is Tony Clifton, an absurd, audience-abusing lounge singer who began opening for Kaufman at comedy clubs and eventually even performed concerts on his own around the country. Sometimes it was Kaufman performing as Clifton, sometimes it was his brother Michael or Zmuda. For a brief time, it was unclear to some that Clifton was not a real person. News programs interviewed Clifton as Kaufman’s opening act, with the mood turning ugly whenever Kaufman’s name came up. Kaufman, Clifton insisted, was attempting to ruin Clifton’s “good name” in order to make money and become famous.
As a requirement for Kaufman’s accepting the offer to star on Taxi, he insisted that Clifton be hired for a guest role on the show as if he were a real person, not a character. After throwing a tantrum on the set, Clifton was fired and escorted from the studio lot by security guards. Much to Kaufman’s delight, this incident was reported in the local newspapers.
At the beginning of an April 1979 performance at New York’s Carnegie Hall, Kaufman invited his “grandmother” to watch the show from a chair he had placed at the side of the stage. At the end of the show, she stood up, took her mask off and revealed to the audience that she was actually comedian Robin Williams in disguise.
Kaufman also had an elderly woman (Eleanor Cody Gould) pretend to have a heart attack and die on stage, at which point he reappeared on stage wearing a Native American headdress and performed a dance over her body, “reviving” her.
The performance is most famous for Kaufman’s ending the show by taking the entire audience, in 24 buses, out for milk and cookies. He invited anyone interested to meet him on the Staten Island Ferry the next morning, where the show continued.
The Taxi deal with ABC included giving Kaufman a television special/pilot. He came up with Andy’s Funhouse, based on an old routine he had developed while in junior college. The special was taped in 1977 but did not air until August 1979. It featured most of Andy’s famous gags, including Foreign Man/Latka and his Elvis Presley impersonation, as well as a host of unique segments. There was also a segment that included fake television screen static as part of the gag, which ABC executives were not comfortable with, fearing that viewers would mistake the static for broadcast problems and would change the channel—which was the comic element Kaufman wanted to present. Andy’s Funhouse was written by Kaufman, Zmuda, and Mel Sherer, with music by Kaufman.
In 1981, Kaufman made three appearances on Fridays, a variety show on ABC that was similar to Saturday Night Live. In his first appearance, during a sketch about four people out on a dinner date who excuse themselves to the restroom to smoke marijuana, Kaufman broke character and refused to say his lines.
In response, cast member Michael Richards walked off camera and returned with a set of cue cards and dumped them on the table in front of Kaufman, who responded by splashing Richards with water. Co-producer Jack Burns stormed onto the stage, leading to a brawl on camera before the show abruptly cut away to a commercial.
Richards has claimed that this incident was a staged practical joke that was known only to him, associate producer Burns, and Kaufman, but Melanie Chartoff, who played Kaufman’s wife in the sketch, has stated that, just before airtime, Burns told her, Maryedith Burrell, and Richards that Kaufman was going to break the fourth wall.
Kaufman appeared the following week in a videotaped apology to the home viewers. Later that year, Kaufman returned to host Fridays. At one point in the show, he invited a Lawrence Welk Show gospel and standards singer, Kathie Sullivan, on stage to sing a few gospel songs with him and announced that the two were engaged to be married, then talked to the audience about his newfound faith in Jesus (Kaufman was Jewish). That was also a hoax. Later, following a sketch about a drug-abusing pharmacist, Kaufman was supposed to introduce the band The Pretenders. Instead of introducing the band, he delivered a nervous speech about the harmfulness of drugs, while the band stood behind him ready to play. After his speech, he informed the audience that he had talked for too long and had to go to a commercial.
At some point Kaufman began wrestling women and proclaimed himself “Intergender Wrestling Champion of the World”, taking on an aggressive and ridiculous personality based on the characters invented by professional wrestlers. He offered a $1,000 prize to any woman who could pin him. He employed performance artist Laurie Anderson, a friend of his, in this act for a while.
Kaufman for a time in the 1970s, acting as a sort of “straight man” in a number of his Manhattan and Coney Island performances. One of these performances included getting on a ride that people stand in and get spun around. After everyone was strapped in, Kaufman would start saying how he did not want to be on the ride in a panicked tone and eventually cry.
Kaufman never married. His daughter, Maria Bellu-Colonna (born 1969), was the child of an out-of-wedlock relationship with a high-school girlfriend and was placed for adoption. Bellu-Colonna learned in 1992 that she was Kaufman’s daughter when she traced her biological roots by winning a petition of the State of New York for her biological mother’s surname. She soon reunited with her mother, grandfather, uncle, and aunt. Bellu-Colonna’s daughter, Brittany, briefly appeared in Man on the Moon, playing Kaufman’s sister Carol as a young child.
In December 1969, Kaufman learned Transcendental Meditation at college. According to a BBC article, he used the technique “to build confidence and take his act to comedy clubs”. For the rest of his life, Kaufman meditated and performed yoga three hours a day. From February to June 1971, he trained as a teacher of transcendental meditation in Majorca, Spain.
Lynne Margulies, who met Kaufman during the filming of My Breakfast with Blassie, was in a relationship with Kaufman from 1982 until 1984.
At Thanksgiving dinner on Long Island in November 1983, several family members openly expressed worry about Kaufman’s persistent coughing. He claimed that he had been coughing for nearly a month, visited his doctor, and been told that nothing was wrong. When he returned to Los Angeles, he consulted another physician, and then checked himself into Cedars-Sinai Medical Center for a series of medical tests. A few days later, he was diagnosed with large-cell carcinoma, a rare type of lung cancer.
After audiences were shocked by his gaunt appearance during January 1984 performances, Kaufman acknowledged that he had an unspecified illness that he hoped to cure with natural medicine, including a diet of all fruits and vegetables, among other measures. Kaufman received palliative radiotherapy, but by then the cancer had spread from his lungs to his brain. His final public appearance was at the premiere of My Breakfast With Blassie in March 1984, where he appeared thin and sported a mohawk (radiation treatments made his hair fall out). The following day, he and Lynne Margulies flew to Baguio, Philippines, where as a last resort, Kaufman received treatments of a pseudoscientific procedure called psychic surgery.
Kaufman died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles on May 16, 1984, at the age of 35.
Kaufman often spoke of faking his own death as a grand hoax, with rumors persisting, often fueled by sporadic appearances of Kaufman’s character Tony Clifton at comedy clubs after his death. Kaufman’s official website describes the faked death story as an “urban legend” and includes a picture of his death certificate.
“Clifton” performed a year after Kaufman’s death at The Comedy Store benefit in Kaufman’s honor, with members of his entourage in attendance, and during the 1990s made several appearances at Los Angeles nightclubs. Jim Carrey, who portrayed Kaufman in Man on the Moon, stated on the NBC special Comedy Salute to Andy Kaufman that the person doing the Clifton character was Bob Zmuda.
In 2013, responding to rumors following the appearance of an actress who claimed to be Kaufman’s daughter and that he was still alive, Los Angeles County Coroner’s office re-released Kaufman’s death certificate to confirm he was indeed deceased and buried at Beth David Cemetery.
In 2014, Zmuda and Lynne Margulies, Kaufman’s girlfriend at the time of his death, co authored Andy Kaufman: The Truth, Finally, a book claiming that Kaufman’s death was indeed a prank, and that he would soon be revealing himself, as his upper limit on the “prank” was 30 years.
Check him out(or not):
Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube, interweb, poetpas