Waking Andy Kaufman

There are no empty beer cans or cigarette butts that can guide you to his grave. No crowds. No security guard. No graffiti on the neighboring headstones. Walk past Fishman and Waldman in Section One-4 of Beth David cemetery in Elmont until you reach a small bush with those little red berries that our moms all told us were poison when we were kids. Look down and you'll see it.

There is no bust of him in his Elvis getup, lip curled and hair coiffed. No statue of him standing awkwardly next to a phonograph, waiting to lip synch the Mighty Mouse theme song. No mention of his lounge-lizard alter ego Tony Clifton or the lovably incompetent Latka Gravas or the sword-swallowing fakir. No mention of his profession at all. No sign of what he was or who he was. Just a slab of granite, sticking six inches above the ground at the front of the Kaufman-Bernstein family plot, etched with the words "beloved son, brother and grandson."

Andy Kaufman's body is supposed to be lying six feet below this hunk of stone. Nobody's sure whether to believe that or not.

The greatest prankster Hollywood had ever seen, Kaufman left every audience he played asking one question: "Was that for real?" He conned news agencies, press conferences, national television audiences. He hired cops to bust up his gigs. He stood outside Carnegie Hall in a mad-man-rags disguise holding a sign that read "Andy Kaufman=Antichrist." The show sold out. He fooled David Letterman into thinking wrestler Jerry Lawler had really broken his neck and slapped him silly. Having the world think he was dead would be his greatest prank of all.

Fifteen years ago at the Nassau Funeral Home in Great Neck, Bob Zmuda stood over the casket of his best friend and wondered the same thing. Well-wishers approached Kaufman's longtime writing partner and begged Zmuda to let them in on the joke—Andy wasn't really dead, and this gig in Great Neck would be the performance of his career.

But Zmuda, a guy who risked life and limb helping Andy execute pranks across the globe, was sitting this one out.

"He had talked about faking his death to me," Zmuda recalls. "I told him, 'Count me out. It's illegal and this is one prank you have to do on your own.' He got the hint from Elvis. He was always looking for the ultimate hoax. You don't get better than faking your own death."

Andy had often said he would fake his own death and come back when he was 50. He was born in 1949. What better time to return than when your name will be on the lips of everyone in Hollywood? That would be around Christmas, when Man on the Moon, a biopic of Kaufman directed by Milos Forman, starring Jim Carrey and featuring music by R.E.M., hits the theaters.

Zmuda says he never saw the body, fearing that a lasting image of his best friend's cancer-ridden body, his shaved head and skin-and-bones stuffed in a box, would have freaked him out too much. He stayed in the back of the funeral parlor as his friend Joe Troiani poked the body. He says Troiani still wonders if the body he jabbed was real or wax because he didn't know what a dead body was supposed to feel like.

If Kaufman isn't lying underneath this pitch of earth in Elmont, then where would he be? Where would he have gone all these years? Elvis went to truck stops. Jim Morrison went to Africa. Maybe Andy went home.


'The time to rise has been engaged'

What's the big deal about Andy Kaufman? Lots of people remember him as Latka on Taxi. They may recall that he wrestled women. Some may even recall his obnoxious alter ego, Tony Clifton. Kaufman was just another comedian from the '70s—including Belushi, Prinze and Candy—who died young and left a not-so-good-looking corpse.

But Andy hated being called a comedian. He was a button-pusher, a behavioral psychologist with balls as big as grapefruits. He would bring an audience to the brink of insanity, and at the very last moment, often listen to them scream as they fell over the edge.

Andy loved to make an audience uncomfortable. He would bring a sleeping bag on stage and take a nap for 20 minutes in front of a packed, paying audience. He relished being booed and took delight in his own failure. He once let his family bomb horribly onstage during a Thanksgiving show in the Catskills. If the crowd started yelling "Latka, Latka, Latka," Andy would pull out a copy of The Great Gatsby and proceed to read aloud for two hours—or until he sent everyone out of the theater and running to the box office for their money back.

 

And just because the lights came up didn't mean the show was over. He played out his psychodramas backstage, on airplanes and in restaurants. No one knew whether he was crazy or brilliant, or if it even mattered. How did he become the ultimate man-child of comedy, an obsessive-compulsive addicted to chocolate and tantrums, a devotee of both pro wrestling and Transcendental Meditation? To try to understand, we visited his Island haunts and pieced together his life—before he hit it big—through bootleg videos, interviews with his high school buddies, his biographer, his best friend and writing partner and his illegitimate daughter.

Before anything else, it's clear, he was a classic boomer, a nice, strange Jewish boy from Great Neck.


'A birdie in the hand, for life's rich demand'

As a kid, Andy's best friend was the television, particularly Howdy Doody. In his bedroom, Andy would produce his own TV show, "broadcasting" from the split-level of Stanley and Janice Kaufman at 5 Robin Way in the Saddle Rock Estates subdivision of Great Neck to somewhere on the planet.

When he reached school age, Andy utilized the after-lunch recess periods to perform a half-hour show on the playground of Saddlerock Elementary.

As the Kaufmans expanded with the birth of his sister, Carol, and the success of Stanley Kaufman's costume-jewelry business, they moved from one North Shore Jewish neighborhood to a better North Shore Jewish neighborhood. Andy's imaginary TV show was now being broadcast from his bedroom at 21 Grassfield Road, in a wooded, hilly area of King's Point.

His elders apparently didn't know quite what to think of him. "Andy's father was a bit of a hothead," says author Bill Zehme after an intense year of researching Kaufman's life for his book Lost in the Funhouse: The Life and Mind of Andy Kaufman. "But he kept him in line. Andy might have fell completely off the map if not for him."

Andy practiced the gigs incessantly and around age six moved from doing his acts for the imaginary TV station to performing puppetry and telling jokes in the living room for his family. His mother had told him he had to start performing in front of a real audience. Zehme thinks she actually hoped that would make him give up. But Andy bribed his 2-year-old sister with bubblegum to sit and watch.

Then he went pro.

Calling himself "Uncle Andy," he put up signs in supermarkets advertising kiddie birthday party shows for the low, low price of five bucks. He showed Little Rascals movies, sang "Old MacDonald" and "Mighty Mouse," performed magic tricks and orchestrated Pin the Tail on the Donkey and Musical Chairs. And he would never let any adults in the room. Toward the end, he was getting 25 bucks a show.

Though the shows seemed full of spontaneity, they were actually carefully rehearsed performances honed over the years in Andy's basement and bedroom. These bits were the bedrock of his career: the man-child doing kiddie-party song and dance for adults.

But while Andy performed for little kids, he never hung out with them. Other than the TV—and his imaginary twin brother Dhrupick—his two most faithful companions were his grandparents. He loved playing games and singing songs with his grandfather, whom he called Papu. Grandma Pearl would take him to Coney Island and into the city, where Andy stood in front of Hubert's Museum and Flea Circus, a freak show in Times Square, and marveled at "Turko the Half Man."

On the playground, Andy was usually picked last, but he was a decent athlete, once setting the Great Neck North Junior High School record for the most consecutive chin-ups (35). It was Grandma Pearl who really piqued his interest in sports by taking Andy to pro wrestling matches at Madison Square Garden and the Commack Arena. Watching "Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers, Killer Kowalski and Bruno Sammartino shaped the shy kid's life and gave him the material for what would become two of his most famous gigs: wrestling and Tony Clifton.


'A simple prop to occupy my time'

Puppets, professional wrestling, kiddie shows and Turko the Half Man—these are what Andy had going for him when he became a teenager. Then he got into the beatnik scene.

In the mid-'60s, he moved from the upstairs bedroom he shared with brother Michael to his own turf in the basement. There he began to collect the props that would define his career: A Howdy Doody doll, a movie projector, comic books and Mighty Mouse paraphernalia, an old Victrola, conga drums he got after West African percussionist Babatunde Olatunji played at a Baker Hill Elementary School assembly. Over the years, he put up Elvis posters and album covers on his walls.

 

And he began escaping to Greenwich Village, reading and writing poetry, carrying a copy of Kerouac's On the Road in his back pocket. When he couldn't get to the city, he spent his nights at Grace Avenue Park in Great Neck, as part of a loose band of hippies who called themselves the "F-Troop," terrorizing local parties and—except for Andy—hitting on local girls.

Every day after school, Andy would bolt from the gleaming, cathedral-like monolith that was Great Neck North to the park, a block away from the kosher delis along the downtown crawl of Middle Neck Road.

"We were a really nice group of young people who smoked a little pot and drank," says Peter Wassyng, a former F-Troop member who went to rival Great Neck South High School and is now a record executive in Los Angeles.

"Andy was performing a lot," Wassyng recalls. "You would make-believe wrestle, but Andy would stay in character mode for hours, and you'd finally say, 'Andy, I'm exhausted, let's stop.' "

F-Troop did plenty of impromptu comedy bits, including wrestling skits and impressions. The clique was also where Andy got the voice for his "Foreign Man" character ("Thank you veddy much"), which evolved into TV's Latka. Biographer Zehme doubts this claim, but Wassyng swears Kaufman cribbed the character from him. "He got the 'Foreign Man' accent from me," Wassyng claims. "As funny kids, we used to make fun of Puerto Ricans—not being racist, we would just do characters. I would do this Puerto Rican accent and he adopted it. David Frye's album was big at the time and he did Hubert Humphrey saying 'I'm proud as punch.' " Andy married the Puerto Rican accent to the phrase and "Foreign Man" was born.

"They used to go down to my basement while we were away," says Wassyng's father, Seymour, who still lives in Great Neck. "They would play bongos and drink wine. Andy always had that 'far away' look. We always thought he was on something, which he probably was."

There are two Andy Kaufmans in the 1967 Great Neck North yearbook. One was a good-looking kid who took part in school happenings and was president of Teenagers Pitch In. The other was our Andy. No student activities are listed under his name. He wasn't even involved in the April 1 parody of the school newspaper The Guidepost, which they called "The Guide Pot" and which included stories like "National Moron Society Inducts 461 Seniors." He didn't do any theater work on the stage at the front of the school. It would be 10 years until he came back and played Great Neck North for two sold-out shows.

But Andy wasn't a cipher back in high school. "Andy was an unusual kid," English teacher Carol Lee Kamin recalls from her basement office at Great Neck North. "He was writing a novel [the unpublished The Hollering Mangoo]. He related far more to the teachers than to the kids."

Kaufman was a wallflower, incredibly shy and never comfortable around girls. This timidity in the sex department seemed to provide the major impetus for his infamous "intergender" wrestling bouts late in his career.


'When the world is a monster'

After graduating, Andy continued to hang out at the park. He was a self-confessed teenage alcoholic, with wine being his drink of choice. Whatever money he got driving trucks or delivering meat went back into the booze. He was the teenager out of control. But he was also unknowingly doing field research for a character he would create five years later, the boorish lounge singer Tony Clifton.

When Andy cleaned up a few years later, he became a vegetarian who didn't drink or smoke. But when he donned the character of Tony Clifton, the Camels, liquor and steak flowed. Clifton was the ultimate bad guy, a horrible singer with a horrible temper. A fan once attacked him with a knife when he was onstage. Kaufman showed up at the Taxi set as Clifton, drunk, prostitutes from the Mustang Ranch on each arm, and was forcibly thrown off the lot when co-stars Jeff Conaway and Judd Hirsch couldn't take it anymore.

"When Andy was Tony, there ain't any semblance of Andy in the building," recalls Zmuda (who also played Tony, further confusing the world). The character required a three-and-a-half-hour makeup job. "They knew it was Andy. But you're better off telling Tony to get the fuck out than trying to even say, 'Andy, get out.' He would never break character—never, ever. Not in a million years."

In Great Neck, no one paid attention to a weirdo teenage drunk who did blotter tabs at one of the local parks. Andy needed to escape Long Island for good. With horrific high school grades— he was 419th out of 461 graduates in the Class of '67—Andy enrolled in television studies at now-defunct Grahm Junior College in Kenmore Square in Boston.

 

In Boston, Andy got heavily into Transcendental Meditation and began to tread a straighter path. His boozing habits began to slow, although when his high school sweetheart, Gloria Acre, came up to see him they indulged in a weekend of sex and wine. That was a weekend when Gloria would get pregnant.

When he shared a joint at Peter Wassyng's apartment in Allston in 1968, he vowed it would be his last, and it apparently was. TM also helped him with his shyness, but Andy still didn't have much of a plan. Then he went back to his old obsession: He tried to get laid.

"A cute girl on campus that he wanted to shack up with asks him to be in this talent show," Zmuda says Andy later told him. "He says, 'Uh, I don't know what I can do.' She says, 'You gotta do something.' 'Well, there was this act I did when I was 11 years old.' She said, 'Well, do that.' "

Andy did the act and it was a hit. "It was taking that childlike material and performing it in a smoky nightclub with adults drinking," says Zmuda. "It was the juxtaposition of that—that was Kaufman. That's where he got it. Then he went wild."

With his first performance behind him, Andy packed up his novel about Elvis, which he had handwritten on loose-leaf paper, stuck out his thumb and set out for Vegas.


'I am Superman, and I can do anything'

Before ambushing Elvis in the kitchen of the Las Vegas Hilton and receiving the King's blessing, Andy went to Disneyland. From the park, he called North Shore Hospital and spoke to Gloria, who had just given birth to a daughter. Andy's daughter.

Gloria named her Laurel, and even though Andy agreed to marry Gloria, her parents persuaded her to give the baby up for adoption. The only images Andy ever saw of Laurel were the ones taken on the lawn at St. Bernard's Church on Hempstead Turnpike in Levittown. Minutes after the photos were shot, the baby was taken away by Catholic Charities.

His daughter was raised minutes away from the Kaufman household in Roslyn, but Andy never saw her.

That baby is now Maria Colonna, a 30-year-old occupational-therapy student living in Melville, raising a 4-year-old daughter.

"Back in '92, when I found my natural mother," Colonna tells the Voice, "she said, 'Your dad was on Taxi,' before she revealed who it was. I went to the library and I researched information. Then I saw a picture of him and I knew."

Colonna says her mom simply explained that she and Andy "were high school sweethearts and she had me just before she graduated."

For a guy who spent his life chasing after young women and performing children's shows, Andy could not bring himself to find his one child. (His granddaughter, Brittany, has a part in Man on the Moon, playing his sister, Carol, Andy's first audience member whom he had to bribe with bubblegum to sit through his show.)

"He would see Gloria in San Francisco," Zehme says. "And they would always have a romp for old times' sake and then lay there and wonder about her. He would say, 'There's a little Andy Kaufman running around somewhere in the world.' "

After another year in Boston, Andy came back to Long Island and started gigging at a strip club.

"There was a girl named Meryl, a young Jewish girl who was dancing at one of those topless bars on Salem Road in Port Washington," remembers Eppy Epstein, former owner of the now-defunct My Father's Place in Roslyn. "She worked one night a week for us. She said, 'There's a very strange young man who gets onstage with a tape player and does Elvis Presley.'

Epstein went into the club and immediately began to book and manage Andy, who did a regular gig at My Father's Place. His antics unnerved Epstein. "Andy was a very complicated young man," he says. "But he did not display any of his schizophrenia with me. He did want to incite a riot, to play out his psychodramas." The last straw was when Andy got hit in the head with a bottle while opening for the Good Rats. "I didn't want to lose my liquor license," Eppy recalls. "So I said, 'Andy, I'm not managing you anymore. I'll introduce you to a man who I respect very much, Budd Friedman.' "

Andy floored Friedman, who owned the Improv comedy club, and began playing regular gigs there and at the upstart Upper East Side joint Catch a Rising Star. It was at the Improv in '73 that Kaufman and Zmuda first met. Then came Andy's TV specials, Saturday Night Live and Taxi. Elvis himself said his favorite Elvis impersonator was Kaufman. But he was more than Elvis. When Andy finally made it to a sold-out Carnegie Hall, he took the entire audience out for milk and cookies after the set.

 

He also acted out some of his teen fantasies in adulthood. Remember that shy kid? Why do you think that, once he hit it big, he started to wrestle women?

"He slept with about a third of the 300 women he wrestled," Zmuda confides. "That was no shit. I was there, man, I saw him."

"He had no vices other than ice cream or young women," recalls Eppy. "He'd call me late hours of the night obsessing over the specific ways to woo women. I tried to tell him to just be himself. It took up much of his psyche." He finally settled down later in life with Lynne Margulies, whom Zmuda calls the only woman who could handle Andy. She stayed close to him to the very end.

In the ring, Andy was able to break down the physical barriers between himself and females by offering $500 to any woman who could pin him.

"He'd be down on the mat," remembers Zmuda, "and I would be refereeing and this is what I would hear: 'Oh baby, baby. This is so—oh, is this wild? After the show, come backstage. Oh, this is great.' He'd get all excited. It was so self-indulgent, and he knew that, but he couldn't stop himself. He would be the first one to tell you: If it wasn't for his celebrity, he would have never gotten laid."

So it was probably a good thing he left Great Neck. Except that he still felt a need to be just another kid from the North Shore.

"He loved to get out of Great Neck," Zmuda says. "Then he comes to Hollywood and the celebrity, the whole thing. And then a strange thing happened. He realized that he was losing the real guy, the good Jewish boy from Great Neck. So at the height of him on Taxi, making thousands upon thousands a week playing Latka, he decides to take another job as a busboy at Jerry's deli. And it wasn't for publicity. He really thought that he was losing that local boy. And he didn't like it."

Andy found that lost boy whenever he would make his frequent visits back to Great Neck. But when he came home for Thanksgiving dinner in 1983, he brought with him a nagging cough that concerned his family.

Six months later, he was in Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, diagnosed with lung cancer. "The guy was down to 80 pounds because of the chemotherapy," Zmuda remembers, "and people would come up to him and go, 'Andy, you and this dying routine, it's fantastic.' And he got a charge out of that. He'd say, 'Can you believe I'm dying and they think it's a joke?' "

The funeral took place on May 19, 1984.


'See you in heaven if you make the list'

If Andy hadn't gone away, he was going to try to open up Andy Kaufman Wrestling Palaces in every major city across the country. He could have become the most hated wrestler the world has ever seen. He could have made more movies like the short, strange art film My Breakfast with Blassie, more campaign performances like the ones he did for Jerry Brown, more crazy college gigs. He could have thrown out more elaborate mindfucks on an unsuspecting world.

Or he could have gone the other way. He could have faded into obscurity, becoming the kids' favorite employee at a daycare center or a clown on a small-market afternoon TV show or a busboy at a neighborhood deli.

"He would talk to Lynne Margulies, the love of his life, about if he was going to do this, what would be the right amount of time that he would be gone to prove that he was really dead?" Zmuda recalls. "And he came up with ten years. Who knows? If he had done this, maybe when the ten-year mark came up, he said, 'You know what? This is so cool what I'm doing now and I have such a different life. Who needs it? I've lived that one.'"


Sponsor Content