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Andy Kaufman: Still Dead

Friends pay tribute to late eccentric comic

May 17, 2004 12:00 AM ET

Sad to say, Andy Kaufman is apparently still dead. But at a celebration of his life and work at the House of Blues Los Angeles on Sunday night, his spirit lived on.

The edgy comic, famous for wrestling women and lip-synching to Mighty Mouse on Saturday Night Live, Fridays and other programs before going mainstream with a regular role as Latka Gravas on Taxi, died twenty years ago Sunday from a rare and aggressive lung cancer. But as Kaufman, once dubbed a Dadaist comic, was known for his outrageous and often elaborate pranks, some thought reports of his demise were premature, if not entirely phony.

"I remember seeing the headline that Andy had died," mused screenwriter Larry Karaszewski, who penned the Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon. "And I remember thinking, 'I can't believe they bought it!"

Kaufman had told many friends of his plan to stage his death and vanish, only to return twenty years later. But either somebody forgot to remind Kaufman to show up, or he's otherwise engaged, as not even a lookalike was in evidence. Nor were fans Michael Stipe of R.E.M., who penned "Man on the Moon" about him, or Jim Carrey, who played him in the movie, or various other expected celebrities.

Kaufman's partner and writer, Bob Zmuda, who wrote the book on which Man on the Moon was based, emceed the event, which raised money for Comic Relief. "You might have to phone home," he said, referring to the legendary Carnegie Hall performance by his late partner, which went in to the wee hours of the morning. "We're going for it! Yeah, you clap now, but wait until four in the morning!"

Well, this is Los Angeles, and nothing ever happens that late, so the event actually wound down before 2 a.m., with a candlelight vigil (Act IV) proceeding up Sunset Blvd., from the Comedy Store to a last stop at Kaufman's nearby last residence, filled for the night with his clothing and memorabilia. That followed post-midnight milk and cookies -- echoing a stunt Kaufman pulled at Carnegie Hall, when he invited the entire audience out for dessert after the show (Act II), and had three-dozen buses on hand to transport them. This time, the crowd crossed Sunset Blvd., from HOB to the landmark club.

In the club, after exotic dancers handed out small bags of Famous Amos chocolate chip cookies and tiny boxes of milk, the crowd was treated to a tag-team wrestling match, one team resembling the Village People, the other a group of clucking chickens. Finally, out came Jerry Lawler -- the pro wrestler who (pretended to) hurt Kaufman, both in the ring and on Late Night with David Letterman -- to slap them around and inflict a pile driver, the same move that left Kaufman hospitalized for four days, on one of these wrestlers.

Lawler noted that Kaufman had been a fan of a "bad" wrestler nicknamed Nature Boy, who worked to rile up the audience and earn their hate. "He mad a big impression on Andy," Lawler said, "and I think it carried over into his comedy."

Before the move across the boulevard, comics including Andy Dick, Bob Oderkirk, Rich Voss and Zack Galifianakis performed and paid tribute before a sellout crowd. Also on stage was Bunny Ranch owner Dennis Hof, along with a few of his girls, including the lovely and barely legal Sunshine Lane. Kaufman, he claimed, was a frequent visitor and would pay the girls to wrestle among themselves before wrestling and eventually having sex with the victor.

Lynne Margulies, Kaufman's former girlfriend, introduced a never-before-seen film of Jim Carrey getting carried away in his role in Man on the Moon, as both Kaufman and alter-ego Tony Clifton. Entertaining for some, it was interminable for others, and heckling broke out during the screening.

While the evening, which began at 8 p.m., ended at a reasonable hour, Zmuda offered, while dressed as Clifton, to continue the show into the next day, promising that anyone who showed up with a ticket stub between 8 p.m. and midnight on Tuesday at the Bunny Ranch in Nevada would, um, enjoy Act III with the girl of his choice.

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