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June 16, 2021

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Getting to know the real Andy Kaufman

Heads rarely turned in the quiet streets of San Francisco's Noe Valley neighborhood, except on laundry day, when prankster-comedian Andy Kaufman would indulge in a little street theater usually reserved for an audience of one -- girlfriend Lynne Margulies.

In early 1983 Kaufman and Margulies were sharing a small apartment there as a respite from Hollywood and the fame brought by Kaufman's portrayal of bashful foreign mechanic Latka Gravas on TV's "Taxi."

But it wasn't just fame. Audiences had gotten so tired of Kaufman's shtick that they'd voted him off "Saturday Night Live" after 14 appearances.

The comic, who would soon be diagnosed with the rare form of lung cancer that killed him, was also taking a breather from his highly publicized foray into professional wrestling and the grand-scale hoaxes featuring foulmouthed alter-ego Tony Clifton.

But occasionally during those overcast days on 24th Street, Kaufman longed for the familiar look of shock in the eyes of innocent bystanders. What better place than the local laundermat?

"I'd hunch my shoulders like a bag lady and walk in, and Andy would be sitting there all by himself, waiting for his clothes to dry," Margulies recalls. "I'd come shuffling in and start taking his stuff out of the machine. And he'd say, 'Excuse me, those are my clothes.' And it would go on like that, getting increasingly louder and more outrageous. It was a bit Andy orchestrated for whoever happened to be in the laundermat at the time.

"And that was just as important as being on TV for Andy. It had equal value."

Friends and associates of the late Kaufman tell similar tales of being called upon as sometimes unwilling co-conspirators in pranks devised by the frequently ingenious entertainer. Kaufman, subject of Milos Forman's "Man on the Moon" (opening Wednesday), starring Jim Carrey as Kaufman, Courtney Love as Margulies, Danny DeVito and Paul Giamatti, died 15 years ago at age 35.

"He took things from his life and exploited them on stage," Bob Zmuda, Kaufman's writer and close friend of a dozen years, says. "Like, when 'Taxi' went off the air, the first thing Andy did was get on the phone to David Letterman and insist he be booked on the show immediately. So, Andy grew a two-day beard, put Vaseline under his nose to look like he'd been crying and sniffling, and told the audience he'd never work again because the wrestling had ruined his career. And people believed it, too. Letterman himself sometimes didn't know what Andy was going to do."

Zmuda, creator of HBO's "Comic Relief" telecasts and co-executive producer of "Man on the Moon," tells behind-the-scenes stories of Kaufman's various confrontations both on and off the air in the memoir "Andy Kaufman Revealed! Best Friend Tells All" (Little, Brown; $24).

"When Andy lay dying, he asked me to do three things: write a book about him, do a movie about him and keep the legacy of Tony Clifton alive," said Zmuda, who sometimes played the Clifton role in Kaufman's pranks. "When the movie happened, I had the writers, the director and Carrey downloading my memories of what really came down. While we were shooting, I was writing the book. I'd literally walk off the set, go back to my trailer and write."

Everyone who knew Kaufman well said he was a complex but misunderstood loner who walked a tightrope between genius and madness while setting the stage for the acceptance of new, radical types of humor. Among the now-mainstream entertainers who cite Kaufman as an influence are Robin Williams, Carrey (who shares the same birth date as Kaufman -- Jan. 17), Letterman, Lily Tomlin and Richard Belzer.

But unlike most comics then and now, Kaufman didn't aim for laughs, instead going for some kind of psychological netherland where you weren't sure which character was the real Kaufman.

"I am not a comic," Kaufman himself once said. "I just want to play with their heads."

When performing stand-up in comedy clubs as the bumbling Foreign Man persona later used for the role of Latka in "Taxi," Kaufman would tell awful jokes, offer notoriously inept impersonations, or read entire chapters from "The Great Gatsby."

In the next breath, as re-created in a memorable scene from "Man on the Moon," Foreign Man would suddenly launch into a note-perfect Elvis Presley, again confounding the audience by mumbling "tank you veddy much" afterward.

"At first you felt sorry for this guy from some foreign country," said George Shapiro, the film's co-executive producer, who was Kaufman's manager before becoming a producer of TV's smash "Seinfeld" series. "Then you saw this drop-dead Elvis, and you began to think the whole thing could be a put-on. Then he'd confuse you again by reverting back to this immigrant personality. When I first met Andy, I said he'd never have to worry about anyone stealing his act. It was that unique."

However, journalist Bill Zehme, author of "Lost in the Funhouse: The Life and Mind of Andy Kaufman" (Delacorte, $25.95), takes a somewhat different view.

"Kaufman was a hardheaded guy who refused to bend," he said. "He had extended his entire bag of tricks by 1977, and that's what drove him to wrestling. He would just wreak havoc on any show that would have him on.

"It was all about human response testing. Why do it? I don't know. The bits were often performed for an audience of two -- Andy and Zmuda. But if he had survived, I'm convinced he would have reinvented himself."

More behavioral scientist than comedian, Kaufman turned his obsession with wrestling into one of the strangest career crossovers in celebrity history. Eventually, Kaufman's baiting of professional wrestlers turned ugly, and he was hospitalized for a life-threatening neck injury. A notorious confrontation between the comic and wrestling champ Jerry Lawler on the Letterman show sent security guards scurrying onto the set to separate the two.

Aside from "Taxi" reruns and until the buzz surrounding the Carrey movie began two years ago, Kaufman's image was rarely evoked in the years since he died. The exception came in 1993, when the rock band R.E.M. scored a hit with "Man on the Moon," a touching tribute to the comedian. Zmuda says the song helped convince producers to consider a Kaufman biopic.

"Kaufman was easily 15 years ahead of the curve in terms of what he was presenting and where he was going with his comedy," R.E.M. singer-lyricist Michael Stipe says. "He really moved things forward."

Along with the movie, a current segment of cable channel A&E's "Biography" is devoted to Kaufman. Also, the Museum of Television & Radio in Beverly Hills is screening "The Comedy of Andy Kaufman," a presentation running through Jan. 30 that includes the rarely seen TV special, "Andy's Funhouse: The Andy Kaufman Special," along with selected clips of TV talk show appearances.

In addition, a documentary is being assembled on the making of "Man on the Moon." Financed by Carrey and filmed by Margulies during the 85-day shoot, the documentary shows the star of "The Truman Show" taking his dual roles as Kaufman and Clifton very seriously.

"Jim lost his mind for real playing this role," said Zmuda, perhaps reprising the P.T. Barnum role he played in Kaufman's career. "Jim got totally into the character. In 85 days of filming, Jim Carrey was never there -- it was either Andy or Clifton. He was channeling Andy. We ended up with 121 hours of Carrey losing his mind. It's kind of like 'the unmaking of ...' "

Zmuda expects the behind-the-scenes documentary to be cut down to about two hours and released around the time "Man on the Moon" is issued on video.

Had he lived, most agree Kaufman would probably be a fixture on cable TV today.

"He might've been a wrestler," said Margulies, who first met Kaufman in 1982 during the filming of "My Breakfast With Blassie," a parody of "My Dinner With Andre" in which Andy and pro wrestler Freddie Blassie sat in a restaurant and simply talked. "Or he might've hosted a cable TV show where he could do whatever he wanted. He'd probably be going on all the talk shows playing the part of a washed-up Hollywood has-been. He might've given up performing altogether. He could've made millions on radio."

Margulies, who says one of Kaufman's most endearing qualities was his loyalty to friends and family, said the making of "Man on the Moon" was cathartic, helping to bring her out of what she described as a 15-year mourning period.

"It was incredibly emotional," says the San Fernando-raised Margulies. "I cried constantly. In fact, I started crying the first time I saw Jim as Andy. He made it so real. If his performance was real for us, it was real for him -- and he fed off that. It enabled him to keep going."

Margulies was the recipient of an unexpected gift from Carrey once principal shooting on "Man on the Moon" was completed. Carrey had restored a 1979 Chrysler Cordoba of the sort Kaufman drove in order to help authenticate his performance. At the movie's wrap party, Carrey handed Margulies a small box with a set of car keys inside.

"When Jim handed me the keys it dawned on me what they were for," Margulies said. "He knew how much I loved that car. It was the car where Andy and I had our first kiss."

Margulies said she always thought Kaufman's work would eventually be re-evaluated -- but not in her lifetime.

"Andy would always say, 'Wait and see. Years from now, they'll figure it out and see what I was doing,"' she said. "He was right once again."

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