Andy Kaufman - Performance Artist / Comedian (January 17, 1949 - May 16, 1984)
Andy Kaufman was probably the world's only successful nihilistic comedian - though he would deny it. Famous for such roles as Latka Gravas and Tony Clifton, his lounge lizard alter ego, Andy brought a unique sense of humour to the people around him. He touched lives and hearts, but always left the audience wondering what the punch line was.
Born Andrew Gregory Kaufman, Andy wasn't long in discovering his love of the spotlight. At 7, he was entertaining friends and family; by 9 he was doing children's parties. An amazingly prolific writer, he wrote poetry, stories, novels and plays throughout his life, but his real passion lay in performance.
In 1972, he was "discovered" by Budd Friedman, owner of the Improv, while performing at a lesser venue. He began performances in New York and Los Angeles, all the while insisting he wasn't a comedian - not that many audiences would argue.
In 1975, he joined the inaugural cast of Saturday Night Live, where he performed (or, rather, lip-synced to) the "Theme from Mighty Mouse." Later performances saw him singing "Old Macdonald," "Pop Goes the Weasel," and performing characters like Elvis and a "Foreign Comedian" that characterized him for much of his life. This sort of off-beat nonsensical humour characterized his performances until he was eventually voted off the show, 195,544 to 169,186. His final appearance on SNL (videotaped), thanked viewers who voted for him in vain.
Andy never stopped doing the talk-show / variety show / stand-up circuit. Appearances included "The Tonight Show", "Hollywood Squares", "The Redd Foxx Comedy Hour", "Dinah!", and many more. It was during this time that Andy began working with "Tony Clifton," a loud, brash Vegas lounge singer who claimed to be "the greatest entertainer ever." He also began his famous wrestling career - wrestling women.
In 1978, while appearing at The Comedy Store, Andy and "Tony" were seen by producers of an upcoming show, "Taxi", which they invite Andy to join. He was never very fond of the idea - he hated to lose his "Foreign Man" character - but he needed the money and the exposure. "Taxi" ran for five years.
If there was one thing that was certain about Andy, it was that you could never be certain about him. Throughout his career, he was always doing the unexpected, like taking 2,800 members of his Carnegie Hall audience out for milk and cookies, or claiming the title as "World Inter-gender Wrestling Champion" (wherein he challenged any woman to pin him to the mat, for the dubious reward of $1,000). This last incensed people all over the world, so of course, Andy did it more. This would eventually lead to a wrestling match with then-pro, Jerry Lawler, who "pile-drivered" Andy, causing severe spinal injury. Or did it?
That was part of the mystique of Andy Kaufman - no matter how outrageous, no act seemed too far out for him. This, ultimately, seemed to be the final irony when, in December of 1983, he was diagnosed with a rare form of lung cancer. Who would believe that pure, clean Andy who never smoked or drank, who practiced Transcendental Meditation daily, could have lung cancer? Even Elayne Boosler, one of Andy's closest friends at the time, could not believe it. She asked him to tell her it was just another put on. He couldn't.
Ever the fighter, Andy was not ready to give up. After radiation and chemotherapy had no effect, Andy went to the Philippines to have "psychic surgery" performed. Six weeks later, amazingly restored, he headed home - but the turnaround was not to last. On a warm, twilight evening in May of 1984, Andy Kaufman passed away.
Even after his death, many couldn't believe it. They expected "Tony Clifton" to make an appearance, or Andy to jump out of the coffin and shout "Surprise!" But the long strange trip of Andy's life had truly come to an end. He was 35.
In a final bizarre tribute to Andy's life, "Tony Clifton" made one final appearance; exactly one year after Andy's death, "Tony" hosted a show at The Comedy Store to raise money for cancer research in Andy's memory. This became the model for the annual "Comic Relief" fundraiser, which to date, has raised millions for the homeless.
In a beautiful tribute to Andy's life, REM recorded "Man on the Moon" in 1992 and in 1999, Jim Carrey was Andy Kaufman in the biography, Man on the Moon, perhaps one of Carrey's best performances ever.
As David Letterman said when he announced Andy's death, "He certainly was unique, and we're going to miss him."
Internet Movie Database - http://us.imdb.com/
Life and Times of Andy Kaufman - http://andykaufman.jvlnet.com/