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Andy Kaufman

KAUFMAN, ANDY (1949–1984), U.S. comic actor. Andrew Geoffrey Kaufman was born in New York and grew up in suburban Long Island. He graduated in 1971 from the now defunct Grahm Junior College in Boston, where he studied television. Kaufman lived in a hazy borderland between comedy and performance art. After appearing on the inaugural telecast of Saturday Night Live in 1975, he became famous as a comedian who provoked nervous laughter, if any at all. He was believed to be the first person to publicly, and repeatedly, perform in the garb and persona of Elvis Presley, and his impersonation was believed to be a Presley favorite. His comedy act often caused his audience to become rowdy or to simply walk out in the middle of his show. He would read The Great Gatsby to the audience in its entirety, sing all verses of "100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall," or impersonate a fictitious Las Vegas lounge singer named Tony Clifton. In 1978, Kaufman began playing the part of Latka Gravas on the ABC television network show Taxi. Latka was an immigrant auto mechanic in the taxi garage who spoke in a high-pitched accent that Kaufman concocted, and indulged in a bewildering array of personality changes. On Saturday Night Live, he affected what he called a Puerto Rican accent, recited nonsensical verse, and got the audience to imitate barnyard animals while he sang "Old MacDonald Had a Farm." Kaufman outraged feminists with a character he called the Intergender World Wrestling Champion, in which guise Kaufman offered $1,000 to any woman who could pin him in a match. More than 60 women accepted the challenge, and Kaufman claimed that he never lost, although he fought some to a draw. Kaufman suffered neck and back injuries in a bout with a professional male wrestler, Jerry Lawler, who was reportedly angered by Kaufman's disparaging on-air remarks about "professional" wrestling, and challenged him. Kaufman died of lung cancer, although he was not a smoker, and countless fans doubted his death, thinking he had staged it as the ultimate Andy Kaufman stunt. In 1992 the actor Jim Carrey starred in a film about Kaufman, Man on the Moon.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.