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Andrew Geoffrey "Andy" Kaufman (January 17, 1949 – May 16, 1984) was a popular and eccentric American entertainer, actor and performance artist. While often referred to as a comedian, Kaufman did not consider himself to be one. He disdained telling jokes and engaging in comedy as it was traditionally understood, referring to himself instead as a "song-and-dance man". Elaborate ruses and pranks were major elements of his career. His body of work maintains a cult following and he continues to be respected for his original material, performance style, and unflinching commitment to character.
Inspired by the theatricality of kayfabe, the staged nature of the sport, and his own tendency to form elaborate hoaxes, Kaufman began wrestling women during his act and was the self-proclaimed "Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion of the World," taking on an aggressive and ridiculous personality based upon 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, as a stooge in this act for a while.
Kaufman initially approached the head of the World Wrestling Federation, Vince McMahon Sr., about bringing his act to the New York wrestling territory. McMahon dismissed Kaufman's idea as the elder McMahon was not about to bring "show business" into his Pro Wrestling society. Kaufman had by then developed a friendship with Wrestling magazine reporter/photographer Bill Apter. After many discussions about Andy wanting to be in the Pro Wrestling business, Apter called Memphis' iconic Jerry "The King" Lawler and introduced him to Kaufman by telephone from Apter's apartment in Queens, New York. The battles between Kaufman and Lawler became legend and were really the first "sports entertainment" angle that became known worldwide and is being seen even today on TV stations such as Comedy Central.
Later, after a challenge from professional wrestler Jerry "The King" Lawler, Kaufman would step into the ring (in the Memphis wrestling circuit) with a man—Lawler himself. Kaufman taunted the whole city of Memphis, sending "videos showing residents how to use soap" and proclaiming it to be "the nation's redneck capital." Their ongoing feud, often featuring Jimmy Hart and other heels in Kaufman's corner, included a broken neck for Kaufman as a result of Lawler's piledriver and a famous on-air fight on a 1982 episode of Late Night with David Letterman. For some time after that, Kaufman appeared wearing a neck brace, insisting that his injuries were worse than they were. Kaufman would continue to defend the Inter-Gender Championship in the Mid-South Coliseum and offered an extra prize, other than the $1,000: that if he were pinned, the woman who pinned him would get to marry him and that Kaufman would also shave his head.
Kaufman and Lawler's famous feud and wrestling matches were later revealed to have been staged, or a "work," as the two were actually friends. The truth about its being a work was not disclosed until more than 10 years after Kaufman's death, when the Emmy-nominated documentary A Comedy Salute to Andy Kaufman, aired on NBC in 1995. Coincidentally, Jim Carrey, the one who revealed the secret, later went on to play Kaufman in the 1999 film Man on the Moon. In a 1997 interview with the Memphis Flyer, Lawler claimed he had improvised during their first match and the Letterman incident. Although officials at St. Francis Hospital stated that Kaufman's neck injuries were real, in his 2002 biography It's Good to Be the King ... Sometimes, Lawler detailed how they came up with the angle and kept it quiet. Even though Kaufman's injury was legitimate, the pair pretended that the injury was more severe than it was. He also said that Kaufman's explosion on Letterman was Kaufman's own idea, including when Lawler slapped Kaufman out of his chair. Promoter Jerry Jarrett would later recall that for two years, he would mail paychecks to Kaufman, with payments comparable to what other main-event wrestlers were getting at the time, but Kaufman never cashed any of them.
Kaufman also appeared in the 1983 film My Breakfast with Blassie with professional wrestling personality "Classy" Freddie Blassie, a parody of the art film My Dinner With Andre. The film was directed by Johnny Legend, who employed his sister Lynne Margulies as one of the women who appears in the film. Margulies met Kaufman for the first time on camera, and they later became a couple, living together until Kaufman's death.
In 2002 Kaufman became an unlockable character in the video game Legends of Wrestling II and a standard character in 2004's Showdown: Legends of Wrestling.
Kaufman never married. He met his partner Lynne Margulies on the set of "My Breakfast With Blassie," in 1982, and they were together until Andy's death in 1984. She was portrayed by Courtney Love in the movie Man on the Moon. Lynne is a film editor and producer who resides in Los Angeles.
He was survived by his father and a daughter, Maria Bellu-Colonna, who was born in 1969 out of wedlock to a high-school girlfriend and 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; later she married New York insurance salesman Joe Colonna.
On December 5, 1969, Kaufman learned Transcendental Meditation at college. According to a BBC article, Kaufman used transcendental meditation "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." He trained as a teacher of transcendental meditation in Majorca, Spain, from February to June 1971.
Illness and death
At Thanksgiving dinner on Long Island, New York, 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 a physician, then checked himself into Cedars-Sinai Hospital for a series of medical tests. A few days later, he was diagnosed with an extremely rare type of lung cancer (though Kaufman never smoked).
After audiences were shocked by his gaunt appearance during January 1984 performances, Kaufman acknowledged that he had an unspecified illness which 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 rapidly spread from his lungs to his brain. His last resort was "psychic surgery," a New Age procedure performed in Baguio, Philippines, in March 1984. Kaufman died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in West Hollywood, California on May 16, 1984 of kidney failure caused by metastasized large-cell lung carcinoma, and his body was interred in the Beth David Cemetery in Elmont, New York, (Long Island). He was 35 years old.
Death hoax rumors
Kaufman allegedly told many people that he wished to fake his own death, leading some fans to believe that Kaufman's death in 1984 was staged. Kaufman himself reputedly claimed that if he were to fake his death, he would return 20 years later, which would have been in 2004.
The 1999 Miloš Forman film Man on the Moon leaves the question open ended. "Tony Clifton" performed a year after Kaufman's death at The Comedy Store benefit in Kaufman's honor, with members of his entourage in attendance. Bob Zmuda has acknowledged death hoax rumors over the years quite tongue in cheek, admitting that Kaufman and he had discussed faking his death at times and that he seemed "obsessed with the idea", but he says that Kaufman truly did die and his death was not faked; he does not think Kaufman would be cruel enough to go this long without making contact with his family if he were still alive. His official web site states that his death was not a hoax.
During the 1990s, "Tony Clifton" made several appearances at L.A. nightclubs, prompting speculation that perhaps Kaufman was still alive and working under the makeup. Jim Carrey stated on the NBC special Comedy Salute to Andy Kaufman that the person doing the Clifton character was in fact Bob Zmuda and that the character had been passed on to him by Kaufman while he was still alive. Kaufman's death certificate is on file with the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services and is also available on the web site The Smoking Gun.
In November 2013 at the 9th Annual Andy Kaufman Awards at the Gotham Comedy Club in New York a woman came forward claiming to be Andy Kaufman's daughter. She said that he is alive and wanted to live a quiet life and raise a family. However, The Smoking Gun reported that the woman is an unrelated actress who was recruited by Kaufman's brother Michael to play the role of Andy's daughter. Michael Kaufman later agreed it seemed like a hoax, though he claimed he'd been duped and not involved in planning it.