Real Name: Andrew G. Kaufman
Stats: 5' 11" 160 lbs.
Given the over-the-top theatrics and flamboyant characters inherent with (if not exclusive to) professional wrestling, not to mention the far-reaching penetration that television has always afforded the "sport," it's no surprise that celebrities from other media genres have long been drawn to the strange, surreal goings on inside of the 'squared circle.' Certainly, recent wrestling history has proven this to be true, as countless celebrities have lined up to be involved with the "Rodney Dangerfield of Sports" itself, pro wrestling.
Indeed, big-time mainstream celebs like Mike Tyson, Jay Leno, KISS, Dennis Rodman, Mohammed Ali and, of course, Cyndi Lauper to more notorious entertainers such as Jasmine St. Claire, the Insane Clown Posse, Pete Rose, The Misfits, David Arquette and even Tonya Harding have all found their way into the ring at some point in their career. Of course, this is nothing new for wrestling. Earlier in the twentieth century, the same held true as household names like Jackie Gleason, Joe Lewis, Liberache and Jack Dempsey all took part in the pseudo sport.
However, of all the many celebrities that have been involved with pro wrestling over the years, none were as successful at crossing the line from mainstream entertainment into the kayfabed non-reality of wrestling than the one star who genuinely understood what pro wrestling was truly about, the brilliant performance artist Andy Kaufman...
Kaufman was born on January 17, 1949 in New York City and grew up in the quiet Long Island suburb of Great Neck. Early on in life he became an avid, nearly fanatical wrestling fan. In 1963 he attended his first live event, which was the card headlined by the historic encounter between "Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers (Kaufman's favorite wrestler during his youth) and Bruno Sammartino at Madison Square Garden in which the young Sammartino defeated Rogers to win his first World Wide Wrestling Federation championship. That night, as well as many others spent in The Garden, left an indelible oimpressionn the future comedic genius that, years later, would play a major part in his career as an entertainer.
After graduating from Graham Junior College in 1971, the eccentric young performer set about making a name for himself in small comedy clubs and theaters across the northeast. By 1972, his ingenious brand of comedy had caught the eye of renowned Improv owner Budd Friedman, who immediately began booking Kaufman for shows at his clubs in New York and Los Angeles.
After making his national television debut in 1974 on Dean Martin's Comedy World, the strange young comic landed career-making gigs such as going on tour as the opening act for The Temptations and also Sonny & Cher, as well as appearing on national television programs such as The Mike Douglas Show, Dinah!, Dick Van Dyke & Co., and The Monty Hall Variety Hour. Andy was also a favorite of the legendary Johnny Carson, and he appeared on The Tonight Show four different times during the mid & late seventies.
He also made no less than fifteen guest appearances on Saturday Night Live between 1975 through 1983, including the program's debut episode. In fact, Kaufman even appeared on SNL's 1979 Christmas episode with his childhood idol, none other than the first-ever former NWA & WWWF World champion himself, "Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers.
Concerning Kaufman, the legendary Rogers once said the following; "Andy thinks like I did about wrestling. I didn't care if people loved me or hated me. What the hell's the difference? As long as you intrigue your fans. Andy has balls."
Much more interested in evoking a genuine emotional reaction from his audience than merely causing them to laugh, Andy Kaufman often staged simple experiments (such as laying onstage for an excruciatingly extended period of time inside of a sleeping bag while pretending to be asleep or purposefully blowing his lines in order to make the audience think he was 'bombing') for no other reason than to observe how the crowds would react.
It was in that spirit that, during the Fall of 1977, the innovative performance artist developed a segment for his concerts in which he would randomly pick women from his audience and then challenge them to a legitimate wrestling match.
Promising $1,000 to any woman who could pin his shoulders to the mat, a highly aggressive Kaufman (once again) shocked mainstream America by holding nothing back during the legit Male vs. Female wrestling contests. Yet, in terms of theatricality, having watched professional wrestling on television throughout the majority of his life, Kaufman had much to draw from as he took on the role of a quintessential heel during the bouts.
Proclaiming himself the World Inter-Gender Wrestling champion, the controversial Kaufman (who never broke character during the wrestling segments of his show) was obnoxious, unforgiving and arrogant as he battled his female audience members in actual wrestling contests.
He once explained the idea behind his Inter-Gender concept by saying, "Well, I'm not really a wrestler, though the last couple of years I have learned a lot about it just by doing it." Kaufman continued, "I wanted to recapture the old days of the carnivals, where, before there was television, wrestlers used to go from town to town and offer $500 to any man who could last three minutes in the ring with them. So, I figured if I could offer a prize, make it like a contest, it could get very, very exciting. And it turned out to be one of the highlights, one of the most exciting parts of the concerts. But, I couldn't very well challenge men in the audience because I'd get beaten right away. I mean, most men are bigger than me and stronger than me. So, I figured if I could challenge women, there are enough who are almost as big or as big as me and they would have a good chance of beating me."
They might have had a good chance, but none of the estimated four-hundred women that Andy Kaufman defended his prized World Inter-Gender championship against (be it on a mat, inside of a traditional ring or even in a mud pit) ever upended him for the title. In fact, Kaufman went undefeated throughout his entire 'reign' as the I-G champ, save for one occasion when he took on -- and lost to -- six women at once during a non-title bout held at Chippendale's in Los Angeles.
Perhaps Kaufman's most publicized match as the World Inter-Gender champion took place on October 11, 1981 at the Playboy Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City when he wrestled Playboy's Miss September of that year, the beautiful Susan Smith (pictured).
As his former Taxi co-star Tony Danza once explained, "Andy was great because he knew how to get the girls that he wrestled so into it that when he beat them, they were humiliated."
Certainly, this was the case with the athletic and determined Smith, who took Kaufman's chauvinistic pre-match insults very personally and spent the entire match trying her best to defeat the antagonistic Inter-Gender champion before he finally pinned her at the eighteen minute mark to retain his title belt.
It was around this time that Kaufman began approaching well-known wrestling promoters across the country with the idea of running an angle involving him and a legitimate (male) professional wrestling superstar. Somewhat surprisingly, the controversial entertainer found few takers within the world of wrestling, perhaps because some felt his Inter-Gender championship was a mockery of (as opposed to a tribute to) the "sport." Indeed, numerous big time promoters were contacted, including Vince McMahon, Sr., yet no established territory was interested in working with Kaufman, despite his celebrity status. However, when word of his intentions reached Memphis promoter/wrestler Jerry Lawler and his partner Jerry Jarrett, they immediately saw great potential in the Inter-Gender champion's proposal and quickly agreed to work with the eccentric performer.
On October 12, 1981, Kaufman and Lawler put their plan into effect when, as the first step, the moonlighting TV star (in addition to his starring role on Taxi and his duties as the reigning Inter-Gender champion, during this period Kaufman also held a part-time job as a busboy for several months at Jerry's Famous Deli in Hollywood. He claimed that he took the job because he wanted something to fall back on in case his career as an entertainer stalled) defended his World Inter-Gender championship on a CWA card held at the Mid South Coliseum.
For his debut, the outspoken I-G champion was scheduled to take on four women; the first three were defeated in rapid succession by the defending champ (who frequently boasted that he possessed the most devastating Headlock in all of wrestling) each with relative ease. However, when his fourth & final challenger, a six-foot-one, two hundred and fifty pound female known simply as "Foxy" was able to hold Kaufman to a time-limit draw, a rematch was immediately ordered...much to the dismay of the visibly shaken titleholder.
But, it was after "The King of Memphis Wrestling" Jerry Lawler (who had "trained" Kaufman's female opponent for their rematch) became involved in the angle, shoving the obnoxious & gloating Kaufman to the mat following his victory over Foxy, that the Inter-Gender champion's inspired plan truly began to take shape.
Following his confrontation with Lawler, Kaufman sent the first of several videotaped interviews to the Memphis television station that aired CWA wrestling. In it, he sat poolside amidst the lush foliage of southern Californian palm trees with his "attorney" Bob Zmuda (the future founder of the hugely successful 'Comic Relief' charity) and delivered a blistering verbal attack on the Memphis wrestling hero...
"Hello Mr. Lawler, Jerry Lawler, do you remember me? I'm Andy Kaufman, from Hollywood. Remember...you pushed me around the last time I was down in Memphis, Tennessee? Well, let me tell you something Mr. Lawler....I am not a hick. I don't come from Memphis like you do, ok? I come from Hollywood, California where I make movies and TV shows. I am a national television star, I want the respect that I deserve. And, I don't need any hick like you pushing me around in the ring. I never agreed to wrestle you, I was wrestling someone else. You stuck your nose into it, you came into the ring, you pushed me around and now, you know what I'm going to do? Mr. Lawler, I have a lot of money, ok? A lot of money. And I am going to sue you for every cent that you've got! You'll be in debt to me for the rest of your life, Lawler...you'll never eat again when I'm through with you! You'll wish you never heard the name Andy Kaufman, do you hear me?"
Back in Memphis, an unimpressed Lawler laughed off Kaufman and his ambulance-chasing lawyer's threats of legal action. The King's position was simple; if Kaufman really wanted to fulfill his fantasy and truly know what it's like to be a professional wrestler, all he had to do was agree to come back to Memphis and face Lawler inside of a ring.
Of course, the Inter-Gender champion's long-standing policy was that, simply put, he never wrestles men.
Week after week, verbal taunts were exchanged and the red-hot angle continued to advance, while Kaufman (who, in addition to being represented by his 'attorney' Bob Zmuda and his agent George Shapiro, also brought "The Mouth of the South" Jimmy Hart aboard as his manager) skillfully and adeptly performed as the consummate pro wrestling heel.
Finally, after a build-up of nearly six months, the long awaited Andy Kaufman vs. Jerry Lawler match took place before nearly 10,000 rabid Memphis fans as the Mid South Coliseum. The match itself, not surprisingly, could by no means be considered a wrestling classic, at least not in the traditional sense. However, in terns of pure emotion and crowd participation/reaction, it was undoubtedly a four-star event. Lasting just under seven minutes, the majority of the bout consisted of a nervous and gun-shy Kaufman enlisting the aid of virtually every cliched stalling tactic ever devised in the history of wrestling...testing the patience of not only his opponent but also the thousands of Memphis fans who had come to see the condescending 'yankee' receive his just due against the hometown hero. Eventually, however, the pro-Lawler crowd got what they paid for...and then some.
After a great deal of effort, Lawler (with his hands behind his back) finally convinced the I-G champ that he'd give Kaufman a 'free' chance at offense and allow him to clamp on his 'dreaded' Side Headlock. Reluctantly, he followed suit, and squeezed with all of his less-than-considerable might..at least until Lawler decided he had had enough of this 'wrestler' who only fought women. In the blink of an eye, the King of Memphis wrestling hoisted the Inter-Gender champion high into the air and performed a very stiff looking Belly-to-Back suplex on Kaufman that violently jack-knifed the television star upon impact.
However, it was what Lawler had in store for Andy Kaufman next that became the following day's top story for virtually every television station and newspaper in America...
With Kaufman crumpled on the mat following the brutal Belly-to-Back, Lawler pulled the hapless comedian to his feet and then positioned him for a move that, according to pre-match stipulations, signaled an automatic disqualification if used during the bout.
Completely disregarding their 'agreement' the insulted and unforgiving grappler, who was intent on teaching Kaufman a lesson in humility while also defending the honor of his often maligned profession, scooped up the offbeat entertainer and proceeded to execute a textbook Pile Driver. Indeed, due to The King's skill, the move was highly impressive visually, as Lawler flawlessly delivered the dangerous maneuver to his prone opponent in a manner that looked as though he had genuinely spiked Kaufman's exposed head & neck straight down onto the mat.
Then, just to make sure that Andy Kaufman knew what it was truly like to be a professional wrestler...he did it again.
Following Lawler's brief but utterly devastating offensive assault, the so-called World Inter-Gender Wrestling champion was left lying in the middle of the very ring that he had dreamt about performing in for nearly his entire life, completely 'unable' to move his legs or arms. For the better part of fifteen minutes Kaufman remained still while his frantic entourage attended to him until paramedics arrived and carefully secured the traumatized entertainer with a neck brace before wheeling him out to a waiting ambulance.
In all, Andy Kaufman spent the following three days in Memphis lying in traction, the victim of an injured cervical vertebrae. While his x-rays did not indicate that he had broken his neck, injuries of this type can often be quite ambiguous and his doctors, trained professionals, were all reportedly convinced that the man's neck had suffered a severe trauma.
In fact, it had not.
Trauma, yes. Anyone taking a piledriver, especially a first-timer, is going to come out of it at least a bit traumatized. However, while Lawler's Pile Drivers on Kaufman are, to this day, two of the most convincing and realistic looking examples of the controversial move, it is still clear to the trained eye that he was 'protected' by The King.
That said, it really did look like Lawler had driven his foe straight into the mat, head first. Twice.
Kaufman, an utter master at manipulating the moment and twisting reality into whatever he decided it should be, once again fooled everyone. Everyone. Certainly, the relatively gullible 'mainstream' media outlets bought the entire angle, some with alarming ease. Meanwhile, wrestling fans of the era, the majority of whom still believed that at least some of what they saw taking place inside of the ring was "for real" also felt that Kaufman had been legitimately injured. And, lastly, many of the toughest critics of all -- the wrestlers, promoters and others within the outlaw "sport" -- thought, at least initially, that perhaps Lawler had actually 'gone into business for himself' and stiffed Kaufman, whose Inter-Gender gimmick was perceived by many as being very disrespectful to professional wrestling. Even Andy's friends and business associates were convinced that his hospital stay (as well as the neckbrace he wore for months after the his match with Lawler) was the direct result of him finally going too far.
In reality, Andy Kaufman's reality, he hadn't even gotten started yet...
Three months after their now-legendary encounter at the Mid South Coliseum, both Kaufman and Lawler appeared together on a live broadcast of NBC's The David Letterman Show. The ensuing segment has unquestionably gone down as one of the strangest and most controversial moment's in television. While the bewildered Letterman did his best to maintain at least a modicum of control of the interview, in the end he could only sit back and watch in disbelief as the two went at each other verbally.
Kaufman mocked the south (and, in particular, Lawler's hometown of Memphis) before threatening to sue The King for intentionally trying to cripple him. Meanwhile, Lawler questioned both the comedian's sanity as well as his masculinity in front of a national audience.
While the exchange was definitely humorous, the segment suddenly took a violent and somewhat ugly turn when Lawler, fed up with an unending stream of personal insults from Kaufman, stood up and (with great force that was evident to all who saw it) slapped the belligerent yet injured performer across the face, knocking him from his chair. A stunned Letterman immediately called for a commercial break, but when they came back, the melee continued as an irate Andy Kaufman proceeded to use virtually every expletive one can think of before throwing the host's coffee at (and missing) Lawler.
While the coverage he and Lawler received after their match had been extensive (to say the least) the media frenzy following the Letterman debacle was literally something to behold. Word trickled down that NBC was seriously considering permanately banning Kaufman from ever appearing again on the network. Furthermore, there seemed to be a good chance that NBC would take legal action against Kaufman for his purposeful use of profanity on the network during a live program. At the same time, Kaufman actually did file a lawsuit against NBC, asking the court for damages in excess of $200 million. Like puppets at the end of Kaufman's strings, the mainstream media outlets were expertly 'worked' by his disingenuous lawsuit (which, of course, was soon dropped by his attorneys after serving its purpose, illegal as it may have been) and Kaufman's laughable claim that he intended on buying the National Broadcasting Company with the intent of transforming it into the world's first all-wrestling network. In several television and newspaper interviews, Kaufman confirmed that he was sincere in his belief that he'd been wronged and was, indeed, taking legal action. One press release stated that, "in an exclusive interview with Geraldo Rivera, comedian Andy Kaufman today revealed that he plans to buy NBC after the pending two hundred million dollar lawsuit is settled. Kaufman also laid out his intentions of altering NBC programming at that time to a 24 hour a day wrestling format. NBC sources revealed that NBC president Grant Tinker is threatening a counter suit against Kaufman. Tinker could not be reached for comment."
Legend wanted to borrow the basic premise of Malle's daring film (two successful, well-known men sitting in a single location having a conversation) while using Blassie and Kaufman in place of Malle's actors/participants, theatre director Andre Gregory and playwright Wallace Shawn, both of whom had also portrayed themselves. The end result was, in true Kaufman form, a genuinely bizarre independent film that left the majority of its (limited) audience thoroughly confused.
Cited as either a subtly hilarious, borderline brilliant piece or as simply one of the worst films ever, when My Breakfast with Blassie premiered on March 20, 1984 at the Nuart Theatre in Westwood, CA., it (along with his steadfast refusal to disassociate himself from the wrestling business, not to mention a near riot that he caused during a live episode of the ABC comedy Friday's) convinced some within the entertainment world that, after years of unconsciously trying, Andy Kaufman was finally committing career suicide...intentionally. His next project, a wrestling-themed Broadway musical entitled Teaneck Tanzi, did little to alter that perception. Tanzi, which also featured Deborah Harry of Blondie, opened and closed in one night...an utter failure. While Kaufman's part, that of a referee, was relatively small, his name had been heavily promoted in association with the musical prior to its opening/closing night and the resulting negative publicity certainly didn't help his standing with fickle Hollywood producers.
As for his feud with Lawler, it continued unabated. The two faced each other in any number of 'gimmick' matches, including a Boxer (Kaufman) vs. Wrestler (Lawler) bout as well as several two-on-one handicap matches with both Jimmy Hart and The Assassin acting as his partner. Obsessed with revenge, Kaufman also put a $5,000 bounty on Lawler, promising to award the money to any wrestler that could hospitalize The King. High-profile superstars from throughout the wrestling world (including top AWA names such as Nick Bockwinkle, Ken Patera and Crusher Blackwell as well as NWA stars like Terry Funk and Kendo Nagasaki) descended one by one upon the Memphis territory in the hope of cashing in on the Kaufman angle, both figuratively and literally. None succeeded.
At the same time, his hostile relationship with southern wrestling fans worsened, particularly after he began sending a series of 'philanthropical' videotaped interviews specifically created for the Memphis fanbase. During these classic promos, Kaufman condescendingly instructed his audience on the finer points of brushing one's teeth, the need for (and proper use of) both soap and toilet paper, the advantages of women shaving their legs & armpits and other antagonistic topics designed to inspire controversy and hatred for the character he was portraying.
So, naturally, those same fans were highly skeptical when Kaufman set the next phase of his experiment into motion and, via a feud with his longtime manager Jimmy Hart, made the previously unthinkable switch to a babyface. After running a series of angles designed to make him appear sympathetic to the fans, an apologetic Kaufman humbly approached Jerry Lawler with a proposition. Having been the victim of several sneak attacks by Hart's stable of wrestlers, Andy knew he needed someone in his corner to watch his back while he settled things with "The Mouth of the South." As a show of good faith, he offered to double the $5,000 bounty he had once placed on Lawler and give it to The King, if only he would agree to be his partner for one match. Lawler, not sure what to think of Kaufman's seemingly sincere change in attitude, stated that not only would he be his partner, Andy could keep his $10,000. Lawler did, however, have one condition...Kaufman had to swear that it would be he last wrestling match. Ever. Reluctantly, he agreed to Lawler's stipulation and the match was set; Jerry Lawler & Andy Kaufman vs. Jimmy Hart & The Masked Assassin. In the end, Kaufman made a predictable (yet no less dramatic) heel turn and rejoined Hart as the massive team of The Assassins attacked Lawler, sending him to the hospital after delivering three devastating Spike Piledrivers.
Finally, after a year of trying, Kaufman (who was once quoted as saying, "There is no drama like wrestling") had at last gained his revenge on Jerry "The King" Lawler and their ground-breaking saga had come full circle.
Yet, in a twist of fate so bizarre that many were convinced that it was merely another one of his clever stunts, not long after his program with Lawler concluded word slowly spread that Kaufman had been diagnosed with a rare form of lung cancer and had just a few months to live. Unfortunately, this unexpected latest chapter in the never-ending saga of Andy Kaufman was not staged in order to elicit a reaction or challenge people's perception of humor. Kaufman was dying...and he knew it. He spent his last days remaining optimistic while searching for a cure via some highly unconventional avenues, including a trip to the Philippines where he sought out the services of controversial 'psychic healer' Jun Labo. However, upon returning to the United States, his health took a rapid and drastic downturn.
On May 16, 1984, Andy Kaufman passed away at the age of just thirty-five. Two days later, he was buried in Elmont, NY. As per Andy's request, Fred Blassie (who was so overcome with emotion that he was unable to make a statement to the press corps waiting outside the cemetery) was seated with the Kaufman family. While many had felt, up until the very last moment, that this was simply another elaborate hoax, Kaufman's proverbial coup de grace, the reality of the situation eventually sunk in. Andy Kaufman was gone, for good. No joke.
Andy meant a lot of things to a lot of people, and his impact and influence on the worlds of both stage and screen cannot be questioned. Yet, some within another world, one that is as unconventional and unique as Andy himself -- the world of sports entertainment -- tend to forget the importance of his year-long feud with Lawler and the precedent that it set Unquestionably, his is the one 'celebrity angle' in wrestling that all others will forever be measured against.
Aside from his obvious love, knowledge and fundamental understanding of the business of professional wrestling, the reason for his success and believability as a sports entertainer was probably best explained by Kaufman when he said, "Whenever I play a role, whether it's good or bad, an evil person or a nice 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...I believe in playing it straight to the hilt."
HistoryofWrestling.com is proud to posthumasely induct the first and only Inter-Gender Heavyweight wrestling champion of the world, television & film star, cutting edge performance artist and one of the greatest pure heels ever to step into the squared circle, the incomparable Andy Kaufman into the H.O.W. Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame.........
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