The Enigma of Andy Kaufman: Wrestling’s Unconventional Entertainer
Jerry Lawler once mentioned that Andy Kaufman told him he would give up everything he was doing in Hollywood if he could stay involved in wrestling. "He was the greatest thing that ever happened to my career," Lawler declared.
Once inside the wrestling world, very few could argue that Andy wasn’t born to be a heel. Like a fish takes to water, he instigated and got heat like the best of them. The small territory of Memphis was about to go mainstream in a hurry. Nobody had seen anything like Andy Kaufman before or since.
It was often difficult to separate the entertainer from the real person that was Andy Kaufman. What was real, and what was an act?
Kaufman wanted genuine emotions from his audience, and most of the time, he kept people around him out of the loop of what he was going to do. He wanted to entertain but kept pushing the envelope further, making people uncomfortable and questioning if what they saw was genuine and true.
This proved invaluable when he got involved in wrestling, a business that had no qualms with muddling the truth. The characters Andy Kaufman later developed were made for entertainment, not necessarily for the audience to like him.
Andy Kaufman – Early Life
From an early age, Kaufman felt a need to perform. Instead of going outside to play with the other kids as his parents urged him, he preferred to watch television all day (if he could) and to write poems and stories.
When in his basement bedroom, Andy imagined a camera on the wall where he recreated shows as if he were on television. When his younger brother Mike reached the age of two, Andy could often be seen alone in the living room, looking sad and just staring out the window.
This was when he was four years old. His parents sought professional help because they believed something was wrong with their son.
"My mother sent me to psychiatrists since the age of four because she didn’t think little boys should be sad,” Kaufman once admitted. “When my brother was born, I stared out the window for days. Can you imagine that?"
Andy, who didn’t like to go in summer camp, would, according to his father, "just stand in the outfield with his back turned to home plate and dream out there."
He was not athletic and did not enjoy playing sports with others. As if he felt safer with older children compared to kids of his own age, Kaufman began to entertain them at parties at eight years old.
Transformation and Focus
As an adolescent, he was shy and obsessed with Elvis Presley. He remembers while living in the Long Island, New York area, nobody liked Elvis and preferred the Beatles. He’d stay at home obsessively listening to his records and imitating him. Years later, as an adult, playing the role of Elvis was one of his main acts.
As a teenager in the early ‘60s, he became part of a group of outsiders in high school that liked to take illegal narcotics. Once they were getting close to graduating, they wondered what Andy would do when he had to go to college or work. He had gotten low grades throughout school and seemingly was "not part of this world."
Andy stated at this time in his life, "I went to college to study to be in television, and I said to myself, ‘What do I want to do in life? Do I want to keep getting stoned, which I don’t enjoy that much, or do I want to do something with my life? I want to be on television and be successful at what I do.’"
Transcendental Meditation helped keep him grounded as he focused on his goal. He conquered his shyness through inner peace and wellness. He also had his own show in college called "Uncle Andy’s Funhouse."
Andy Kaufman Out In The World
After high school, the eccentric Andy Kaufman began performing at comedy clubs and coffee houses and putting on concerts where he showcased his various characters. Several appearances on Saturday Night Live heightened his fame along with The Tonight Show, The Midnight Special, The David Letterman Show, and many more.
The popular sitcom Taxi brought him aboard, where he played Latka Gravas, who was very similar to his "Foreign Man" character. His manager convinced him to take a role in Taxi because this would help him grow his audience. At first, Andy was not so enthused about this role because, to him, sitcoms were very derivative and not worth his time.
Kaufman demanded that his alter ego character, Tony Clifton — a drunken, cigarette-smoking lounge singer/insult comic — have guest appearances on the show and a contract different from Andy Kaufman’s.
On why Andy always pushed the envelope, friend, and writer Bob Zmuda said, "His big fear was that he’d only be remembered for the show Taxi."
Tony Clifton was one of Andy Kaufman’s most well-known characters, sometimes played by his friend and confidant Bob Zmuda. He befuddled the nightclub crowd even more when Tony Clifton was on stage, and Andy was in the audience enjoying the show with everyone else!
His dream was to play at Carnegie Hall, and he did it in 1979, singing as Elvis. After the show, he had shuttles waiting to take audience members to a local bakery for milk and cookies. The next day, his performance continued on The Staten Island Ferry, and everyone was invited.
Confrontation, To Andy Kaufman, Was Hilarious
On the set of Taxi, the character of Tony Clifton didn’t last long because the cast and crew members were fed up with his outlandish behavior. One day during rehearsals, he got fired on the set as Tony Clifton because he showed up with two prostitutes.
After throwing a tantrum, he got into a scuffle with fellow star Judd Hirsch, and the incident made the local papers. A week later, Andy showed up on the set as if nothing had happened because that had been Tony, not Andy. Remember, they had separate contracts!
"Confrontation to [Andy] was funny,” according to a former girlfriend, Lynn Margulies. “He would laugh at you because you were getting angry at him, which, of course, could drive you insane."
Challenges on the Variety Show Fridays
On the variety show Fridays, he refused to say his lines. He was ultimately confronted by Michael Richards (later Kramer in Seinfeld) and shoved by a producer while the cameras were still recording.
"He loved to see people lose it. It was just good theater," admits musical director Gregg Sutton.
As Tony Clifton, Andy Kaufman continued causing trouble when invited to The Dinah Shore Show. During the cooking segment, he started cracking raw eggs and bacon in her hair. It’s said that Dinah burned the footage.
As previously mentioned, Tony Clifton was sometimes played by his writer friend Bob Zmuda. Bob had this to say about the character, "Andy didn’t understand how someone could play a bad guy in a movie, and it was okay, but not on stage. So through Tony Clifton, he explored that."
A Career-Altering Decision
Instead of maintaining the course and playing it safe, in typical Andy Kaufman fashion, he decided to do something many say was like butchering his career at the peak of his fame.
Andy was always a fan of professional wrestling, and in 1963 when in the 8th grade, he witnessed Buddy Rogers lose his title to Bruno Sammartino at Madison Square Garden. He was amazed at Rogers’s reaction from the crowd and wanted to somehow recreate that emotion in his acts.
Andy Kaufman as World Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion
Andy Kaufman began to challenge women in his audience and wrestle them for a chance to win a cash prize if they could pin him. He incited his audience into a frenzy as only the best wrestling heel could.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I am here to wrestle! This is not a comedy routine or a skit. This is real. I am here to wrestle a woman."
Andy would then say that he wanted competition, insinuating that maybe the women in the audience were afraid.
"All I’m trying to say is that it takes a certain mental energy to be able to wrestle. It takes a certain way of thinking, a certain strategy. Women, I think, do not possess this. When it’s a woman against a man, the man possesses it; the woman doesn’t.
By the same token, there are times when a woman has more of this mental energy and presence than a man in the kitchen, scrubbing the potatoes, washing the carrots, scrubbing the floors, and raising the babies. These are all things that women are good at."
Inspiration From Wrestling’s Carny Roots
Andy wanted to recapture the old days of the carnivals before television, where wrestlers would go from town to town and offer money to any man that could last a certain amount of time with them. So he decided to do the same, offer a prize, and make it out like a contest.
He couldn’t challenge men in the audience. After all, he’d certainly be disadvantaged because he considered most men bigger and stronger than him. To counter this, he challenged women instead.
"Whenever I play a role, no matter if it’s a good, bad, nice person or evil person, I believe in being a purist and going all the way with the role.
If I’m going to be a villainous wrestler, I believe in going all the way with it and not breaking character. I’m not giving away to the audience that I’m playing a role. I believe in playing it straight to the hilt.
When I’m playing the villain, what I’m trying to do is get people to really dislike me, so they’ll root for the woman I’m wrestling and hope that I lose." – Andy Kaufman
Fans Turn On Andy Kaufman Because of Him Wrestling Women
George Shapiro, Andy’s manager at the time, once said, "There’s been such a negative reaction to his wrestling, especially on Saturday Night Live, which was a show his fans watched. As a result of that show, fans that loved him for years suddenly turned on him. I got thousands and thousands of letters of hate mail directed at Andy."
Andy’s letters from women wanting to wrestle him on SNL are featured in the book Dear Andy Kaufman, I Hate Your Guts! by Lynne Margulies and Bob Zmuda. He wrestled women at any time and any place. On airplanes, restaurants, and even brothels. He wanted to open "Andy Kaufman Wrestling Farms."
His friend Bob Zmuda offered, "I definitely think that wrestling has cost Andy Kaufman his career, no doubt about it."
Zmuda would later say that most places wouldn’t hire Kaufman anymore because he was wrestling women.
Pro Wrestling Wasn’t Ready For Andy Kaufman
With his obsession with wrestling, he now craved a bigger stage and at first tried to convince the WWF to bring him aboard, as Bill Apter mentions in his book, Is Wrestling Fixed? I Didn’t Know It was Broken!
Andy Kaufman Gets Interviewed by Vince McMahon
McMahon met Andy Kaufman backstage at Madison Square Garden sometime in late 1981. Andy tried to convince Vince Sr. to bring him aboard, but he was not interested in "Hollywood Types."
After the show, according to Bill Apter, Andy asked if he could ride the subway back to his apartment to talk wrestling. At the time, Bill was sharing an apartment with woman wrestler Susan Sexton.
Andy’s Obsession with Wrestling
Andy just would not stop talking about wrestling, so Susan had to leave them alone and went to the bedroom to listen to music instead.
Left by themselves, Andy kept questioning why Vince Sr. wasn’t interested in giving him a chance. While talking, Bill thumbed through wrestling magazines and noticed some photos of the Memphis, Tennessee, area.
He saw that they had some horror-themed characters. Recalling Andy’s great imitation of Elvis in his performances, he suggested Andy could "go to Memphis as an evil Elvis or something."
Bill’s Wrestling Idea and Jerry Lawler Connection
Bill was friends with Jerry Lawler and suggested that maybe they could give him a call. Bill explained to Andy, "The wrestling community is up all night, and if they aren’t, they’re always open to a wake-up business call."
Even though it was midnight in Memphis, Lawler picked up, "You’ve got Andy Kaufman, the guy from Taxi, in your little roach-infested apartment in Queens?"
Bill explains what happened afterward.
"A few days later, Andy called me from Lawler’s house. Plans were underway to make Andy Kaufman the most hated man in wrestling. His promos insulting the people in the Mid-Southern area are classics. Alongside Kaufman was "Mouth of the South" Jimmy Hart. What a duo of mouths!"
Andy Kaufman Takes His Act to Memphis
Vince Sr. didn’t have the vision or desire to do something with Andy, but thankfully Jerry Lawler, Jerry Jarrett, and the Memphis promotion did!
"He wasn’t just misunderstood by Memphians; he just wasn’t understood at all," says Dave Brown, who co-hosted Championship Wrestling in Memphis with Lance Russell.
He continues, "For Andy to come in and start insulting Jerry and then carrying that over to insulting the entire area, I mean he was talking about the people of Memphis and putting them down and how they were backwoods.
In one interview, he explained soap and how it should be used regularly to clean their bodies. I mean, really insulting stuff. And people were just furious." (You can see this legendary promo later in this piece)
Andy started wrestling women in clubs as part of his act and claimed to be the World Intergender Wrestling Champion. In Memphis, he upped the ante as he sometimes wrestled several women on the same night.
Once, when he wrestled four women in a row, the fourth woman, Foxy, almost defeated him, and Andy almost lost the $500 he offered. The Memphis crowd exploded every time these women challengers threw or almost pinned Andy.
He enjoyed this and ensured these contests never lacked controversy by regularly kicking them when they were down or resorting to other cheap shots that made him even more hated – if that were even possible!
The following week, he addressed the crowd and said he was disappointed in the competition he had received. He told them he would return in a month and offer $1,000 to any woman who could pin him. If he were to lose, he would also shave his head. And, as an additional prize, he’d marry the winner.
The Shove That Got Jerry Lawler Involved
In a rematch with Foxy, Jerry Lawler was in her corner, trying to give her tips to beat Andy but to no avail. After Foxy was already pinned, Andy wouldn’t get off of her. This prompted Lawler to get in the ring and subsequently push him off.
Andy Kaufman had not come into Memphis wanting to wrestle men, but now after Lawler’s interference, he seemed like he would have to.
In an interview with FilmFad.com, Jerry Lawler spoke about Andy Kaufman. "When [Andy] was a youngster, he watched wrestling as I did, and he was a fan of the bad guys. He watched guys like "Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers, and he told me he was fascinated by the fact that somebody could go on TV and intentionally try to make people dislike them.
Most people would want people to like them. He said he would see these heel wrestlers trying to make people hate them, but they were still popular. So Andy incorporated that into his act.
He hated being called a comedian.
He said, "I’ve never told a joke in my life. I’m a performance artist. I’m from Hollywood. That’s where we make movies and TV shows… I’m not from down here in men-fus ten-uh-see, okay? I come here because I want people to respect me because I am a star!" Andy Kaufman was always looking to insult the southern fans."
The late-great commentator Lance Russell recalls, "Andy Kaufman was the biggest thing we had in terms of crowds in Memphis. Andy would ask for a private locker room so that he could meditate before his matches."
Andy Kaufman Accept a Challenge From Jerry Lawler
On April 5th, 1982, Andy Kaufman took on Jerry Lawler at the Mid-South Coliseum in front of 10,000 people. Andy got backdropped on the night of the match and then got piledrived twice. To sell the injury further, Andy refused to get up and wanted to be taken out on a stretcher and then an ambulance, even if he had to pay for it.
A couple of months later, on July 28th, 1982, the famous incident on The Late Show with David Letterman propelled Jerry Lawler and Memphis wrestling into the mainstream like never before. Here, Andy Kaufman and Jerry Lawler were supposedly going to air their differences, but as they went to a commercial break, Lawler smacked Andy in the face so hard that he knocked him off his chair.
When they returned, Kaufman went into a profanity-laced tirade threatening to sue Lawler and calling him an ******* several times. As you watch it, it seems like it’s one of those moments that goes wrong on a TV show.
This made the front page of The New York Times thanks to Bill Apter and his editor Craig Peters, who developed the film. The Associated Press picked up the image, and hundreds of newspapers published it.
Andy and Lawler went to great lengths to keep kayfabe so that everything about their rivalry could be believable. More than a decade later and years after Andy’s death, it was finally revealed that they did not hate each other.
In one of the more famous lines from The Late Show meeting with Jerry Lawler, Andy Kaufman said, "I could’ve sued you for everything you’re worth, only I didn’t because I’m not that kind of guy."
Lawler responded, "What kind of guy are you?" Lawler would act bothered by the fact that such a "wimp" wanted to be involved with professional wrestling but only via wrestling women.
Unforgettable Moments In The Andy Kaufman and Jerry Lawler Rivalry
When Andy Kaufman made his surprise return, he and Jimmy Hart cost Jerry Lawler to lose a title match against Nick Bockwinkel. In the following promo, Kaufman plays the victim’s role and warns Lawler that he will send him to the hospital.
Mr Lawler, I’m Going to Give You a Taste of Your Own Medicine
This led to a Handicap-Piledriver match involving Andy Kaufman and "The Colossus of Death" (Duke Myers) versus Jerry Lawler. Andy’s mystery partner wore a horror-themed latex mask and seemed indestructible until Kaufman, after a running knee off the rope, caused his partner to get tangled in them. In the end, Lawler disposed of "The Colossus of Death."
This led to Andy Kaufman putting a $5,000 bounty on Jerry Lawler’s head for any wrestler that puts him in the hospital. He later raised it to $10,000.
Andy, teaming up with Jimmy Hart, could not defeat Lawler when they had a handicap match. Andy got knocked out again when piledrived hard by Lawler. Kaufman and Hart soon had a major falling out, which led to Andy seeking Lawler’s help to defeat Hart.
In this about-turn, Kaufman offered to pay Lawler the bounty money he had placed on his head. Lawler refused it but agreed to team up with Andy if he promised that this would be his last match in a wrestling ring.
Andy, Hart, and the Assassins (not Jody Hamilton and Tom Renesto) turned on Jerry Lawler by piledriving him. At this point, Andy began to call himself the new "King of Wrestling," promising that there would be changes. He would start teaching the people of the south lessons in manners, etiquette, and hygiene.
Andy Kaufman Gets Very Upset After Jerry Lawler Got Revenge on Him With a Fireball
After Lawler uses a fireball on Andy’s face, he tries to appease the fans and wants to "give them tips to better their lives." Kaufman began giving them hygiene advice, including introducing and properly using soap, razors, and toilet paper.
The Andy Kaufman and Jerry Lawler feud continued, with Andy and Jimmy Hart, as a wrestler and boxer, respectively, teamed up once again to face Jerry Lawler.
"Muhammed Ali taught you how to box? The only thing you could box would be apples and oranges!" – Jerry Lawler referring to Kaufman’s questionable boxing training claims.
“If either one of us gets our hands on your skinny little neck, we’re gonna ring it. You’re gonna be seven-foot-four, and we’re gonna call you Kareem-Abdul Hart by the time we get done stretching your neck!" – Austin Idol wanted to help Jerry Lawler against his feud with Andy Kaufman and Jimmy Hart.
Andy Kaufman – Post-Wrestling Career and Lung Cancer Diagnosis
Opportunities for Andy Kaufman outside of wrestling were drying up as the rivalry winded down.
D. Ebersol, the Executive Producer for Saturday Night Live at the time, went on air saying that Andy Kaufman wasn’t funny anymore. They would let the audience vote on whether Andy Kaufman should be allowed back on SNL.
Even though the audience banned him, some say they agreed that he would be brought back, but this never happened. Not helping things, other projects like a movie called "Heatbeeps" was a flop, and a Broadway play Kaufman was involved in with Debbie Harry closed after only one night.
A huge blow came when he was denied admittance into the Transcendental Meditation Organization training sessions because they "found his wrestling too offensive."
"This was a supposedly loving organization turning him down like a devout Roman Catholic being excommunicated from the church. It killed him," according to Bob Zmuda.
While living with Lynn Margulies, Andy went to the doctor with his manager about a persistent cough. He then discovered he had been diagnosed with lung cancer (large-cell carcinoma).
Andy looked for solutions through alternative medicine because the doctors had told him that they could only slow it down and that death was inevitable. This was when Kaufman went to the Philippines for something called "Psychic Surgery," a miraculous procedure where a faith healer could supposedly reach into the body and remove the disease.
Being a former magician, Bob Zmuda could see that the healers were "palming things," and he could see that it wasn´t real. Still, for the six weeks he was there, Andy seemingly felt like he was getting better, but ultimately they went back to California when they saw that he went into a relapse.
The news hit the tabloids and was met with skepticism due to all the stunts he had pulled before. It seemed like this was just another one of Andy’s ways of seeking attention for himself. They thought he was "doing an Andy."
On May 16th, 1984, Andy passed away due to Kidney failure caused by metastasized large-cell carcinoma in West Hollywood, California, with his family and manager, George Shapiro, by his side. He was thirty-five years old.
In an odd promo, Jimmy Hart on television claimed that Jerry Lawler, with his piledrivers, had been the cause of Andy Kaufman getting cancer in his brain. This promo can be seen below.
Andy Kaufman’s Cancer Announcement Met With Laughter in Memphis
"Pure entertainment is not an egotistical lady singing boring songs onstage for two hours, and people in tuxes clapping whether they like it or not. It’s the real performers on the street who can hold people’s attention and keep them from walking away."– Andy Kaufman
"He basically conducted his life like he could pass away any minute."– Johnny Legend (Martin Margulies)
Andy Kaufman and Jerry Lawler David Letterman Show Interview
Andy Kaufman was changing wrestling into sports entertainment, whether he knew it or not. His angle with Lawler was truly revolutionary in 1982 and got the country talking about the Memphis territory.
Soon afterward, the WWF, under the tutelage of Vince McMahon Jr., would bring celebrities into their promotion. Aspiring men and women wanting to enter the sport could do no better than studying Andy Kaufman being Andy Kaufman.
"My Breakfast With Blassie"
In a spoof of “My Dinner With Andre,” (not André The Giant, but a 1981 comedy-drama starring Wallace Shawn and André Gregory) here Andy Kaufman meets with former wrestler Freddie Blassie to discuss topics like personal hygiene. And, of course, it feels more like a shoot than a work. Improv at its best!
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