The Last Days of Andy Kaufman(?)
“I haven’t been sleeping lately. It’s not that I can’t; just that I don’t. A friend of mine said that you reach a point when your parents don’t tell you to go to sleep anymore. Some people get to that age and never put themselves to bed. That’s me. There’s just too much to do.”
Andy Kaufman’s short and extraordinary life ended in as bizarre a fashion as anyone could imagine and the events surrounding his final days remain the source of curious speculation even today. The day Andy left us the world lost a daring genius — a performance artist masquerading as a stand-up comedian.
Here’s a little agit for the never believer…
Thanksgiving, 1983 — Holiday dinner at the Kaufman home in Long Island was no different than any other celebration, except for one thing…Andy’s nagging cough caused everyone to express concern over his health. He assured family and friends everything was fine. A doctor had recently checked him out and found nothing abnormal.
A month later the coughing continued and grew worse. Something was obviously wrong so Andy returned for a full battery of medical tests. When the final results were available, the doctors were shocked. Andy Kaufman had lung cancer and it was already in advanced stages. Diagnosed with a rare large-cell carcinoma, Andy’s ailment was inoperable and incurable. The doctors expected him to live less than three months.
The cruel irony to this twist of fate was not lost on Andy. Throughout his career he had always pushed the envelope, testing the limits of what an audience would endure. To do so, Andy resorted to many forms of put-ons and trickery. This sudden and shocking diagnosis of terminal lung cancer was incredible. Who could believe that Andy Kaufman — who hadn’t smoked, used drugs, or drank since high school would contract lung cancer?? His only vice was a weakness for candy and ice cream. Some have since speculated that second-hand smoke (floating like dense fog in the comedy clubs and lounges) where Andy performed during his career was responsible for the cancer.
Here’s a little ghost for the offering…
Never losing hope, Andy set out to find a cure and was willing to entertain any idea, or travel to any part of the world in the hopes that a miracle could be found. When he wasn’t searching for a cure, or taking medical treatments, Andy worked to maintain his normal routine. Each day he took time to meditate (Andy had practiced TM daily since his days at Grahm Junior College in Boston), meet with friends, run errands, make phone calls, etc.
Word of Andy’s illness spread slowly. In fact, Andy insisted on keeping it a secret for as long as possible (Andy didn’t tell his parents until late February. His mother, Janice had recently suffered a stroke and was diagnosed with bone cancer after heart bypass surgery — so understandably Andy was reluctant to devastate his family with even more bad news.) When the secret began to leak, many dismissed it as a hoax, and therefore, gave the story no credence. “When Kaufman died I thought it was a joke”, said Merle Kessler, a founding member of the Duck’s Breath Mystery Theater. People on the street would approach Andy (sitting in his wheelchair) and say, “Andy, come on man. This dying bit is just too much!” Andy would turn to friends and just shrug in astonishment, “Can you believe it? They think I’m making this up!” His years of (in)famous characterizations totally transfixed audiences to the point that they believed he had no other off-camera reality. They were convinced the “dying thing” was just another cleverly-crafted Kaufman performance piece.
On March 20, 1984, Andy and his new girlfriend, Lynne Margulies attended the West Coast premier of My Breakfast with Blassie (Lynne was “Blassie’s” film editor). An all-black leather outfit draped loosely on his thinning frame and a mohawk-haircut (Andy’s hair had been falling out from his radiation treatments) made it obvious (to those who knew of his illness) that Andy was suffering the effects of the cancer and chemotherapy. Most of the audience dismissed his appearance as the latest “bit du jour” from their quirky comic hero. Later that night friends gathered for a bon voyage party as Kaufman and Margulies prepared for a trip to the Philippines in search of a miracle.
Impressed by a documentary, narrated by Burt Lancaster, on the psychic healers of the Philippines, Andy was ready to stop taking his weekly treatments and give this miracle cure a try. Denounced by the American Medical Association as quackery, the documentary has never been shown in the United States. However, many who have witnessed the “surgeries” swear they are effective in curing cancer and other types of ailments. Many wondered why Andy Kaufman, the master manipulator, would look to this voodoo medicine for a cure to his terminal disease. “That’s where Andy was really strange,” said Lynne, “because it was like he was two people. There was that one person who was the manipulator; the other side of him was the naive child. Plus I think he said, ‘If I’m gonna go, I’m gonna do the weirdest thing I can possibly do and just really flip people out.’”
On March 21st a small group of Andy’s closest friends accompanied he and Lynne to the airport. As the group made their way to the gate a photographer jumped out and snapped Andy’s picture. Andy was furious! The photographer escaped unharmed and less than a month later an article titled, “TAXI STAR TELLS PALS: I’M DYING OF CANCER” was published in the National Enquirer.
When they arrived in Baguio, a beautiful resort town in the mountains just outside of Manila, Andy undertook a six-week course in physic surgery, a controversial form of treatment in which healers appear to plunge their hands into the human body to remove tumors or cure other ailments. At the clinic of “physic surgeon” Jun Labo, Andy underwent the painless treatments twice daily. Labo claimed to have removed large cancerous tumors from Andy’s body and Andy started to look and feel better. And Andy’s spirits rose tremendously when his friend Bob Zmuda showed up on a surprise visit. After several weeks, Andy, Lynne and Bob decided to return to the United States. Upon his return to Los Angeles Andy’s condition immediately took a turn for the worse.
Here’s a truck-stop instead of Saint Peter’s…
Andy was alternately amused and amazed by the fact that many thought his illness was another put-on. Elayne Boosler asked him to tell her that it was. He couldn’t. In her recollections of Andy for the November 1984 edition of Esquire, Boosler shared the wonderful and touching account of her experiences with Andy. They met in New York’s “Hell’s Kitchen” in the summer of 1973, Andy an up-and-coming comic, and Elayne an aspiring singer. Their relationship grew from friendship — to romance — and back to friendship over the course of the next eleven years. Andy encouraged Elayne to give up singing and become a comedian and she also credits him with teaching her about meditation, music, books, food, wrestling, acceptance and love. She spent some time with Andy during the last weeks of his life and remembers those final days like this:
It’s not like in the movies. Concise farewell speeches do not flow from the mouths of distraught people, especially when they don’t want to give death credence by saying its name. You talk the way you’ve always talked, about everything and nothing. But you listen harder, hoarding words like acorns to get you through the long winter that you know is coming. We talked, and sometimes a sentence turned to gold. Studying my face as if he were hoarding a few acorns of his own, he said simply, “Enjoy your life.” I answered truthfully, “Thanks to you, I will.”
Andy never gave up hope. He didn’t intend to die. Near the end he took to sleeping with his eyes open just to make sure. When death came, early in the twilight of a warm Los Angeles evening, it was met with two unflinching eyes. When the nurse tried to close them, they just opened again. I remembered a reviewers words: “This guy doesn’t know when to get off.” I laughed. One more time he was teaching me. I stood on the ground below and watched him ride on alone. It was smooth. He was on the next hill before I realized it. I knew then that when my turn came, I wouldn’t be afraid. He had shown me the way.
Mister Andy Kaufman’s gone wrestling…
When word of Andy’s death reached Studio 6A in New York City, Dave Letterman decided to end his show with a simple, but sincere salute. He announced to the audience that Andy had died and finished with, “He certainly was unique, and we’re going to miss him.” Many of the Late Night staff thought it was another classic Kaufman stunt. Former Late Night with David Letterman executive producer, Robert “Morty” Morton was one of the few people to attend Andy’s funeral. They asked Morty if he had actually seen Andy’s body in the casket. He told them that he had.
Andy Kaufman died at 6:27 PM on May 16, 1984. On May 18th, over 300 close friends and family members gathered in Great Neck, New York for the funeral. Still skeptical, some mourners discreetly poked his body, hoping beyond hope that this was Andy’s strangest, sickest, and wildest put-on of them all. At Andy’s request, Classy Freddie Blassie sat in the front pew with the family. Overcome with emotion, Blassie was unable to give interviews to the press who gathered outside the synagogue after the service. When asked for his reaction to Andy’s death, Robin Williams replied, “Andy was the master of the comic switch; at his tribute, people were expecting Tony Clifton to speak.”
In Elmont, New York on the western edge of Nassau County you can find the grave of Andy Kaufman at Beth David Cemetery. Not far from houses whose backyard’s border the quiet green rows of headstones and occasional mausoleums, Andy’s remains rest in peaceful eternity. The inscription on Andy’s headstone reads, “Beloved Son, Brother and Grandson. We Love You Very Much.” In another Long Island cemetery nearby, the inscription on the tombstone of renowned artist, Jimmy Ernst could also be a fitting comment on the life of Andy Kaufman: “Artists and Poets are the raw nerve of humanity. By themselves they can do little to save humanity — without them there would be little worth caring.”
As distance grows between Andy’s passing and the next regularly scheduled sunrise stories of his life grow to mythic proportions. In fact, they’ve practically become “Urban Legends.”
What are Urban Legends? Urban Legends are modern folklore that appear mysteriously and spread spontaneously in varying forms. They make for good story-telling and don’t have to be false, although most are. They often have basis in fact, but it’s their life after-the-fact that gives them this title. Since his early death, Andy’s entire life has grown into one large Urban Legend. Rumors, inaccuracies, myths and misconceptions abound when the subject of Andy Kaufman arises.
Some examples of Andy Kaufman legends are:
- Andy died from a broken neck suffered during a professional wrestling match.
- Andy’s bizarre performances/behavior were due to a brain tumor.
- Andy hated women.
- Andy was banned from future appearances on Saturday Night Live.
- Andy was insane.
- His ghost haunts “The Comedy Store” in Los Angeles.
- Andy was married.
- Andy and Tony Clifton were the same person.
- Andy faked his death and is hiding somewhere waiting to return and shock the world.
Is Andy really dead? Could he have faked his own death in an elaborate hoax? If anyone on earth was capable of playing this type of ultimate practical joke it would be Andy Kaufman. As one of Andy’s close friends recently remarked, “Andy wouldn’t come back in 5 years. He would come back dramatically 20 or more years later when he would have to start all over.”
As time passes Andy’s curiously unorthodox life and career grow in magnitude. Books, movies, TV specials and Internet Home Pages do little to recapture the magic that was “Andy” and we clearly begin to understand that he was a unique human being, the likes of which we shall never see again.
What we may know or may not know about the final days in the life of Andy Kaufman, we do know this: He spent his last days wide awake…never asleep…with his eyes wide open.