There are a few trademark gags that we will always remember Andy Kaufman for: Elvis impersonations, Latka on Taxi, and wrestling women. But there was so much more to this comedic genius that many have forgotten. His performances were so unusual, you could say that Kaufman was the inspiration for the expression "think outside the box". For Kaufman, there was no box strong enough to hold him—he was simply a man on the moon. Let’s check out the facts and see the whole wacky story one step at a time.
1. He Started Young
Andy Kaufman was born in New York City on January 17, 1949. He was the oldest of three kids and they all grew up in the strangely named village of Great Neck on Long Island. At age nine, Kaufman was already keeping small audiences amused. His acts were mostly at children’s birthday parties where he spun records and showed cartoons. But there was something more:
he was already impersonating Elvis.
Just wait and see how "doing Elvis" will become Kaufman’s signature gag.
2. He Had A Guest
By 1969, Kaufman was studying television production, and at the same time hosting Uncle Andy's Fun House, which was a campus TV program. One of his guests on the show was a struggling actor named Gail Slobodkin.
Unfortunately, Kaufman decided to be totally rude to her and tell her she didn’t have a chance to make it in show business.
Later, a book by Kaufman’s friend Bob Zmuda, revealed the whole twisted tale. Unable to take the harsh criticism, Slobodkin actually ended her life shortly after her appearance on Andy’s Fun House. There's only one problem with this story:
Gail Slobodkin didn’t exist.
Kaufman was already showing his love of pranks—here’s another one.
3. He Had An Idea
Smack in the middle of his studies, Kaufman had a wacky idea. He was going to meet his hero Elvis Presley. Unfortunately, all he knew was that Presley was performing at a hotel in Las Vegas.
When Kaufman arrived in Vegas—by hitchhiking—he somehow got backstage where Elvis was performing and managed to hide out in a cabinet. Kaufman had also prepared a costume for his surprise meeting with the King: a hot pink suit. Now all he had to do was wait.
4. He Made The Leap
When the unsuspecting Elvis came backstage, Kaufman saw his opportunity. He leaped out of the cabinet and surprised the singing legend. Kaufman then handed Presley a copy of a play that he’d written about the King of Rock and Roll.
And what did Presley have to say about Kaufman?
He simply said: "You’ve got a weird mind, kid". The thing is, maybe Presley was onto something.
5. He Was Weird
Presley certainly was right: Kaufman did have a weird mind. After meeting Elvis, Kaufman seemed to take his weird mind—and his career—much more seriously. He performed in coffee houses and worked on a routine.
Instead of telling jokes, Kaufman was creating characters. His first one that people noticed was Foreign Man.
This gentle guy from the fictional island of Caspiar had an incredibly high pitched voice and an odd accent. But Foreign Guy wasn’t about to go up on stage and tell jokes. No way.
Kaufman had much more interesting plans for this character.
6. He Sprang To Life
While playing Foreign Man, Kaufman filled the comedy bar with the familiar song from the Mighty Mouse cartoon. This was the only entertainment for the audience, as Kaufman would stand perfectly still and just listen. But then the audience was in for a shock.
Kaufman would suddenly spring to life and lip sync the line "Here I come to save the day" with a shocking amount of energy.
This wasn’t like anything audiences had seen before—but Kaufman was just getting started.
7. He Did Two Things Badly
The only thing worse than Foreign Man’s comedy skills were his impersonations. He would announce to the audience who he was going to impersonate and then do nothing to alter his voice or mannerisms and say something like, "Hello, I am Mister Carter, the President of the United States".
Of course he would sound nothing like the ex-president, but the audience loved his lack of skill.
Just when the audience was getting used to his terrible impersonations, Kaufman would hit them with a zinger.
8. He Saved The Best For Last
Kaufman’s final impression on most shows when he was Foreign Man was Elvis Presley. Of course. by then, the audience was used to his terrible impressions and expected this one to be just as bad.
Kaufman shocked them all by suddenly turning into Presley, with a quick costume and hair change. He’d then sing and move just like the King and the audience would go wild.
But not all audiences went wild for Kaufman—some even hated him.
9. He Brought Them Up
When Kaufman was still a struggling comedian, he got a gig at a resort in the Catskills.
It seemed like a golden opportunity but Kaufman was in for a rude awakening. Since it was Thanksgiving weekend, Kaufman insisted that the resort put up his entire family for the holiday.
It may have been time for mom and dad to be proud of their son except audiences in the Catskills hated Kaufman’s performances. The loud boos didn’t stop Kaufman from bringing his family up on stage to bask in the hatred of a large crowd of people.
But in the end, it didn’t matter about the Catskills—there were enough people that thought Kaufman was a genius.
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10. There Was A First Time
The first time Kaufman did his Elvis impression on TV was on Kennedy At Night, which was a TV show hosted by a friend of Kaufman’s. The real Elvis was performing nearby, so Kaufman let loose with his impression on TV.
On this momentous occasion, Kaufman did something that he never did again when impersonating Elvis: he lip synched. Everytime after this one, Kaufman sang the lyrics himself.
Kaufman’s spot on impersonation of Elvis was getting him noticed, and the only way was up.
11. He Got A Larger Audience
A little later on, Kaufman brought his Foreign Man to a much larger audience:
on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. This time Kaufmam started with a few impressions that most comedians did: TV icons like Archie Bunker from All In the Family and Ed McMahon who was Carson’s co-host. Of course, Kaufman did these poorly to lower the audience's expectations.
Again Kaufman wowed the audience with his impression of Elvis.
But what did the real King think of this imposter?
12. He Found Out The Truth
Many years later, Kaufman got a chance to meet world famous singer—and friend of Presley’s—Johnny Cash. Cash told Kaufman a story, and it likely knocked the socks off of Kaufman.
Cash said that Presley—who had at that time already passed—had seen Kaufman’s impression of himself and thought that Kaufman had done it better than anyone else. Wow! And to hear that from superstar Johnny Cash. Kaufman was likely on cloud nine.
Foreign Man was a hit, and offers were soon coming in.
13. He Didn’t Want It
Kaufman’s appearance on The Tonight Show was a huge success, and soon offers were coming in. One of the most interesting offers was from ABC. They wanted Kaufman to use his Foreign Man character and appear in a sitcom. The sitcom was Taxi and the cast was full of actors who had huge careers ahead of them. Kaufman however, had a problem:
he didn’t like sitcoms, and he didn’t want to be in one.
14. He Made A Demand
Kaufman had a manager named George Shapiro, who also managed comedian Jerry Seinfeld. Shapiro convinced Kaufman that doing Taxi was a good idea. He suggested that Kaufman could make some big money on the sitcom and invest it back into his own stage show.
Kaufman was slowly coming round to the idea of playing Foreign Man on Taxi. Yet, just when he was about to sign on the dotted line, Kaufman issued a startling ultimatum.
15. He Brought A Friend
Kaufman told ABC that he would only appear on Taxi if he could bring someone else on board. And who was this other person?
It wasn’t another actor, but it was another one of Kaufman’s characters: Tony Clifton. Clifton was an annoying lounge singer who loved to berate audience members. He often opened Kaufman’s shows and some people were unclear as to whether he was Kaufman or someone else. The truth was, however, that ABC also thought Clifton was a real person.
16. He Got Fired
ABC reluctantly agreed to sign Clifton on for a few guest spots as long as Kaufman signed on as well. Kaufman, in his Clifton disguise, showed up late for his first rehearsal. Worse yet, he was apparently inebriated. He also brought along some provocatively dressed women.
After a few rehearsals, ABC fired Clifton.
This, however, had all been part of Kaufman’s practical joke. Kaufman, however, stayed on to play Latka on Taxi in 79 episodes.
17. He Had A Disorder
What Kaufman likely feared about working on a sitcom was that he had to play the same character episode after episode. When he complained about this, the writers came up with an original idea.
What if Latka had a multiple personality disorder? This would allow Kaufman to branch out and do any number of characters.
One of the characters Kaufman did was an exact replica of his co-star Judd Hirsch’s character, Alex Rieger. This impression had mixed results.
18. They Didn’t Like Him
Of course, when Latka starts acting exactly like Rieger, Reiger gets mad.
This however, was part of the script, but what was the story behind the scenes?
Judd Hirsch, the actor who played Rieger, had very few nice things to say about Kaufman. He even once stated that everyone on Taxi hated Kaufman. It could be that Hirsch had no right to speak for the entire cast, but there are stories to suggest he may have been right.
19. He Got Foamed
One day, when they were making an episode of Taxi, Kaufman refused to work because he said he needed to meditate. The entire cast and crew had to wait for Kaufman to be ready to act. This didn't sit well with Tony Danza, who played taxi driver Tony Banta.
He completely lost it.
To get Kaufman out of his meditation, he grabbed a fire extinguisher and sprayed foam all over Kaufman. To make matters even worse, Kaufman stayed in his moment and stared at Danza in complete serenity—while dripping foam.
There were other cast members that had a problem with Kaufman and his hijinks.
20. She Didn’t Speak The Language
When ABC brought in Carol Kane to play Latka’s love interest, the idea was that her character was from the same country as Latka. The problem was that Kaufman was using a language that he’d made up for his character. To help Kane sound like she was speaking the same language as Latka, Kaufman invited her for a dinner out.
But this was far from an average dinner date. Instead of working together, Kaufman had a rule for their dinner out: Neither of them was allowed to speak English. Kane had to struggle through dinner speaking a language that she didn't know and—for that matter—didn’t even exist.
This next altercation with a Taxi cast member got a bit more physical.
21. He Belted Him
Kaufman was used to ruffling feathers but he never expected that a night on the red carpet would end in chaos. Jeff Conaway—who played struggling actor Bobby Wheeler on the show—got physical with Kaufman. This happened at the 1979 Golden Globes Awards night.
The story goes that Kaufman was insulting his co-stars, and Conaway let him have it with his fist.
While it seems that Hirsch, Danza, Kane, and Conaway all had good reasons to despise Kaufman, it may not have been true at all. The showrunner for Taxi, Sam Simon said that all the stories of Kaufman acting out on the set were complete lies.
But who would want to spread such wicked rumors about Kaufman?
Well, it was a friend.
22. He Spread Rumors
Bob Zmuda had been with Kaufman since his days of making his college show Andy’s Funhouse and his role in Kaufman’s life is a little unclear. We do know that he occasionally played the role of Tony Clifton, and no one knew it wasn’t Kaufman himself. It also seems true that Zmuda spread untrue stories about Kaufman in order to keep up his reputation as an out-of-control performer.
Kaufman, however, was trying something very unusual to stay in control.
23. He Tried To Stay Grounded
One rumor that portrays Kaufman as the opposite of out of control is the story about his part time job. Apparently, while he was getting famous on Taxi, he felt the need to ground himself. To do this, Kaufman got a part time job at The World Famous Jerry’s Deli in Los Angeles. Believe it or not, he worked there as a lowly busboy.
So one day, he could be bussing the table—and the next you could see him on TV.
24. He Made Them Nervous
Back in 1977, Kaufman made a TV special for ABC, but the network didn’t air it for two years. There was a reason that will probably surprise absolutely no one:
it was too weird. It had many of the usual Kaufmanisms, like bad celebrity imitations followed by a good Elvis one.
Kaufman also hauled out old time kids' show host Howdy Doody out of retirement. What really made the ABC executives nervous, however, was something to do with technology.
25. He Was A Star
The part of Kaufman’s special on ABC that was making the network nervous was static. During his special, Kaufman wanted it to look like the network was having technical problems. Of course, the guys who ran ABC quite rightly assumed that viewers would simply turn to another channel.
This explains why ABC waited two years to air this special. When Kaufman, however, became a sensation on Taxi, ABC couldn’t air the special fast enough. But Kaufman wasn’t about to be happy working on TV specials or a sitcom: he wanted to entertain live.
26. He Revived Her
When he performed at Carnegie Hall in New York City, Kaufman had an older actor, Eleanor Cody Gould come on stage and fake a heart attack. When she collapsed onto the floor in a lifeless heap, the audience didn’t know what to think.
Soon, Kaufman appeared in what many now would consider to be a politically incorrect outfit:
a Native American headdress. Kaufman then proceeded to revive the woman with a spiritual dance. But this was just the first of many surprises that night.
27. The Audience Went Wild
At this same Carnegie Hall performance, Kaufman made a fuss about his grandmother being in the audience. He even placed a special chair near the stage so she could have a good view of her grandson performing.
When the show was over, his grandmother stood up and removed her mask. When the audience saw who it was, they went wild.
28. He Asked Them To Leave
When Kaufman’s grandmother’s mask came off, it was clear that it wasn’t a grandma at all. It was legendary comedian Robin Williams. Once he’d revealed Williams, where could Kaufman go with this show? Well, he topped that stunt by asking the audience to walk out of the theater.
Once they got to the street, they saw 24 buses waiting for them.
What was Kaufman’s plan? You won’t believe it.
29. He Took Them Out
The entire audience of 2,800 people—with Tony Danza among them—went out into the city. Eventually the audience received Famous Amos cookies and small containers of ice cream.
There were also performers waiting to entertain the audience: mimes, jugglers and even wrestlers. The whole thing cost more than $20,000.
But if you thought that Kaufman’s performance was over, you don’t know Kaufman.
30. It Wasn’t Over
At the end of the already long evening, Kaufman announced to the audience that he would see them the next morning.
That’s right, what he called the "third half" of his show was at the Staten Island Ferry. Here, he entertained the audience of about 300 people with a dramatic reading of the song "MacArthur Park". You know the one: where "someone left a cake out in the rain". The audience certainly got their money’s worth at this performance that refused to end.
Kaufman seemed to only go big or go home, but sometimes he performed just for the heck of it.
31. He Freaked Out
At one point in his life. Kaufman was hanging around with Avant Garde musician Laurie Anderson. One day, they went to Coney Island and got on that ride where you spin in a huge cylinder and then the floors drops away. Just before the ride started spinning, Kaufman took his pranks to a frightening new level.
He faked a complete freak out and announced that the belts that hold riders in are flimsy and that no one is going to survive the ride.
Later, Anderson called it complete chaos. To me it sounds like the beginning of one of those Final Destination movies.
Kaufman seemed determined to blur the line between performance and real life. The problem was that sometimes his fellow performers weren’t sure what was real and what was an act.
32. He Broke Down
In 1982, ABC—tired of seeing all the late night viewers watching NBC’s Saturday Night Live—launched their own late night sketch show called Fridays. Kaufman appeared on Fridays and they wanted some typical Kaufman antics. At one point during a sketch, Kaufman refused to say his lines.
Michael Richards, of Seinfeld fame, got into a snit and soon there was a full on brawl on the set. Of course the whole thing was fake, but some cast members swear they had no idea what was happening. Kaufman seemed enthralled with on stage combat. The next logical step?
33. He Received A Challenge
Another aspect of Kaufman’s theatricality was wrestling. As part of his act, Kaufman would often wrestle women and always in the end announce that he was the Intergender Heavyweight Champion. Real life wrestler Jerry Lawler thought Kaufman’s parody of wrestling was inappropriate, so he challenged Kaufman to a real wrestling match. The match took place in Memphis, Tennessee and, of course, chaos reigned.
34. He Landed On His Head
During his fight with Lawler, Kaufman was at the wrong end of two "piledrivers". This is a wrestling maneuver that ends up with the victim in the air, upside down and landing on his head. The piledriver is a legit move in wrestling, but the second piledriver happened after the bell had rung.
This was a cue for Kaufman: let the wrestling feud begin. Unfortunately, Kaufman's performance in the ring proved to be more dangerous than he expected.
35. He Met Him Again
The second piledriver sent Kaufman to the hospital with a nearly broken neck. Next, Kaufman encountered Lawler on the Late Night with David Letterman show. During this altercation, Kaufman received an open handed hit across the face.
In response to this, Kaufman hurled some nasty words toward Lewler and threw coffee on him. It seemed that there was no shortage of hatred between Kaufman and Lawler—but all was not as it seemed.
Years later, Lawler admitted something astonishing. Not only was the feud between Kaufman and Lawler completely manufactured for entertainment, the two men were actually good friends.
36. He Loved His King
In 1982, the people at Saturday Night Live wanted Kaufman back on the show and they wanted him to play Elvis. The idea was that Kaufman would play Foreign Man playing Elvis Presley. This kind of meta silliness was right up Kaufman’s alley, but the SNL writers wanted him to go one step further. They wanted him to disparage his idol.
Well, they obviously didn’t know Kaufman, and how much he loved the King of Rock and Roll.
37. They Played Rough
A year before Kaufman appeared on SNL, there was a book about Elvis that had gotten people riled up. The author, Albert Goldman, suggested that Presley had a few perversions that we didn’t know about. To make light of this, the SNL writers wanted Kaufman, when playing Presley, to ask female audience members to come backstage and fool around. Kaufman’s first reaction was to say "no way". That’s when the people at SNL decided to play rough with Kaufman.
38. He Got Pushed
The folks over at SNL continued to push Kaufman into making fun of his hero, Elvis. When he still resisted, Kaufman said that they planned to "ruin his reputation" in show business if he didn’t comply. Well, Kaufman did comply, and he played the scene as they had written it.
And then Kaufman took his revenge.
While he was still in the scene as Presley, Kaufman did something almost unforgivable on SNL. He broke his character and spoke to the audience. Kaufman carefully removed his wig and gave the audience a rather sincere apology.
This, however, was just the beginning of his problems on SNL.
39. He Was The Loser
Kaufman got a lot of backlash from Saturday Night Live for going out of character, but this was nothing compared to his next bit of business for SNL. In 1983, Kaufman developed a skit called the "Women’s Wrestling Champion". Here, Kaufman would talk women audience members into coming on stage and wrestling him.
Of course, Kaufman always won the fixed matches—but in the end he actually lost.
40. They Had To Do Something
It was the morning after Kaufman’s Saturday night wrestle, and the American public was still angry about the way Kaufman treated women. When the anger went on for days, Saturday Night Live executive producer Dick Ebersol knew he had to do some damage control.
But this was SNL, and they had to keep a sense of humor about it. What Ebersol came up with, however, wasn’t funny—it was utterly humiliating.
41. They Could Dump Him Forever
The following Saturday night, the SNL performers gave audiences two different phone numbers. If you dialed one number, you were saying that you wanted to "Keep Andy". If you dialed the other number, you wanted to "Dump Andy" from Saturday Night Live forever.
It appeared that Kaufman’s colleagues had a strong opinion, and they made it hilariously obvious.
42. They Supported Him
On the night of the Keep Andy/Dump Andy episode of SNL, the regulars on the show had to read out the two numbers for the audience. But they weren't letting him go without a fight.
When cast regular Mary Gross read the "Dump Andy" number, she said it so fast that no one would be able to make it out. Eddie Murphy went a step further by threatening the audience if they called the "Dump Andy" number.
But surely this was a joke right?
SNL wouldn’t seriously fire someone based on an audience poll?
43. The Audience Had Spoken
After the show, they tallied the numbers and it was a close race. In the end, of the more than 350,000 people who voted, there were about 26,000 more of them who wanted Kaufman off the show. Saturday Night Live and Kaufman had agreed to go by the audience’s opinion, so Kaufman was off the show.
Now, this does sound a little like one of Kaufman’s practical jokes. But what Kaufman did next, proves that it wasn’t.
44. He Begged
The first thing Kaufman did after getting the boot from SNL was try and get back on. He took his own money and bought air time on various local TV stations.
On these small stations, Kaufman did something that shocked the nation.
He begged with the American people. He wanted his spot back on Saturday Night Live and he wanted it badly. Sadly, Kaufman needn’t have worried about being on SNL—he should’ve been worrying about his health.
45. He Went Quickly
In 1983, Kaufman began coughing—a lot. It got so bad that he checked himself into Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
While there, he learned the awful truth: he had lung cancer. By 1984, Kaufman appeared quite thin and sickly. He explained that he would be treating his illness with natural remedies.
He and his girlfriend, Lynne Margulies, flew off to the Philippines for an experimental treatment. When he returned, he said he felt much better.
Sadly, he wasn’t better. In May of 1984, he went back to the hospital and by the 16th, he had passed.
Yet that wasn't the end of his story and there was only one problem: Kaufman had always talked about faking the end of his life. So, how could we know if this was for real?
46. He Came Back
Because Kaufman was a prankster, of course faking an early demise would have been high on his list of things to do. To make matters even more confusing, his character, Tony Clifton, continued to perform live.
At this point, the public knew that Bob Zmuda could play Clifton—he’d done it in the past. Eventually, when Kaufman didn’t resurface, people started to realize the horrible truth: he was really gone.
47. He Was A Father
In 1992, a young woman who’d been adopted came forward as Kaufman’s long lost daughter. She had proof, and the Kaufman family welcomed her in. In 2013, another woman came forward and said that she was also Kaufman’s daughter—but there was something much more shocking about this woman.
She said that Kaufman was certainly still alive because he’d conceived her after his apparent demise. The fans once again rallied together and got ready for Kaufman to return.
48. He May Still Be With Us
With all the renewed interest in whether Kaufman was alive or not, the Los Angeles Coroner's office did something to stop the rumors forever. They released—for the second time—Kaufman’s death certificate. This settled people down at least until 2014. That’s when the rumors started again because of a book written by Zmuda and Kaufman's ex-girlfriend Lynne Margulies. They suggested that Kaufman would end his prank "soon".
Kaufman never appeared, but it's a bit fitting that he’s become like his hero Elvis: everyone half expecting him to suddenly turn up alive.
49. He Was A Man On The Moon
In the 1999 biopic of Kaufman’s life, Jim Carrey—a huge fan of Kaufman’s—got the chance to play his hero in Man On The Moon. Carrey, like Kaufman, refused to go out of character between takes. There was, however, something more chilling that happened before the film was even cast.
British actor Gary Oldman started discussing the movie with Taxi cast member Danny Devito and then sent an audition tape to the director. What’s so weird about that? Oldman later said he neither spoke to Devito or sent in a tape. So who was this mystery man impersonating Gary Oldman?
Could it have been Kaufman himself?
50. He’s Hiding In Plain Sight
More than one pundit has offered an intriguing explanation as to where Kaufman is. Who’s another performer who disappears completely into his characters and even sometimes refuses to get out of character? It’s Borat portrayer Sasha Baron Cohen of course. He even has a wrestling match at the end of his movie Bruno as a clue.
Is Kaufman really hiding in Cohen?
Someone should ask him to do an Elvis impression and see.