By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
He opened with his Foreign Man character, hopeless and inept, all pidgin English, and there was nervous tittering in the audience. And he did Mighty Mouse with the phonograph — and I was astonished by his timing, absolutely impeccable. Then he had the conga, which he started banging in sync with this crying jag — he had started crying as the Foreign Man because he lost his place and said he was ashamed, but he turned this into a conga symphony banging to the beat of these big gulping sobs. The audience was going crazy. And then the way he closed was absolutely sensational because it was Elvis — and it was incredible because the coeds were screaming! I’m saying they were emotionally involved with this impression to the point of screaming . . . I remember looking around, thinking to myself, Something very important is happening here . . .
With renewed, T.M.-assisted confidence and optimism, something very important graduated from Grahm in 1971, left Boston to travel around Europe for a few months, then returned to New York and set out to become famous.
Budd Friedman caught Andy’s act at a Long Island rock club called My Father’s Place, and soon Andy was performing regularly at Friedman’s club in New York, the Improvisation. Mighty Mouse, congas, Foreign Man doing Archie Bunker and Jimmy Carter, and, of course, the ultimate Elvis. (Andy was Elvis’ favorite Elvis impersonator.) Always dressed up as his father, in Stanley Kaufman’s hand-me-downs.
From there, Dick Ebersol and Lorne Michaels invited him to perform his Mighty Mouse piece on the inaugural episode of NBC’s Saturday Night, and soon periodicals across the land were printing brilliant and genius and new genre and performance artist, and Foreign Man was given a job portraying lovable mechanic Latka Gravas on Taxi, and Foreign Man became famous throughout the land as some form of Andy Kaufman.
Andy wasn’t very interested in Latka’s fame, or in Taxi. But he figured it was a fair trade: In exchange for Foreign Man image control, Andy got paid more than enough to support his pursuit of more important projects, like busing tables and wrestling.
Wrestling was fun, and wrestling women led to lots of recreational sex. In order to be a wrestler, one needs a persona. Andy decided he’d be a bad guy — a much more fun role than good guy, and also quite shocking to an audience that thought of him mostly as Latka the lovable.
The confusion arose from the public’s astute determination that Andy’s bad guy — a stereotype of the Hollywood Jew as soulless, money-grubbing, belligerent wimp — had the exact same name as Andy, and wore neither mask nor much of a costume (pale long underwear with dark boxer shorts on top). So audiences thought Andy’s character was Andy. And that’s what really made it fun.
For some, though, maybe it wasn’t such fun. If it were your life’s work to change audiences into entertainers, would you allow your parents to believe you’d broken your neck in a wrestling mishap, let them watch paramedics lift you onto a gurney and drive you away? Or would you tell them up-front, and risk blowing the gag?
Sometimes when you look Andy in the eyes, you get the feeling somebody else is driving.
Middle of the night, 1980: Andy called Zmuda. It happened often. “Andy was the kind of guy who, when he came up with an idea in the middle of the night, he had to talk with you right then. So we met at Canter’s, and I said, ‘So what is it?’ He said, ‘This is the greatest idea ever! This is the greatest put-on of all time!’ Now, at this time, Elvis had died, and there were already rumors going around about did Elvis fake his death, did Jim Morrison fake his death. Andy said, ‘You know, if some celebrity really did this, do you know how big it would be? How legendary it would be?’
“And don’t get me wrong: Andy was always looking to be legendary. Always looking to be legendary. So I knew where he was going with this, but I was tired. I said, ‘So . . .?’ And he said, ‘I’m thinking about faking my death. What do you think about that concept?’ I said, ‘Andy, I think it’s absolutely brilliant. But count me out. I don’t wanna hear any more about it.’
“He said, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘Because it’s illegal to fake your death — I think it’s a felony. Because there’s insurance fraud, there’s premiums paid, you’re a member of AFTRA, of SAG. People fake their deaths all the time for insurance money, or they don’t wanna pay child support or whatever. If you’re really serious about this, you gotta take that into consideration.
“‘And besides that, I’m not gonna lie to your parents that you’re dead when you’re not. I don’t think you could ask anyone to do that.
“‘I think it’s a great idea, but don’t ever bring it up to me again. Get it?’
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