In the early 1980s, the most hated man in Memphis, Tennessee, was a Long Island comedian.
Andy Kaufman had spent years as a stand-up comic, perfecting his own brand of antagonistic performance art and making the audience angry by reading literally The Great Gatsby, pantomiming the theme song Powerful mouseand take a nap on stage. Even when he had mainstream success with an outstanding role as Latka Gravas in the popular sitcom taxiKaufman still longed to arouse discontent. He was popularly called a “heel” by professional wrestling – someone who gets attention by whirling crowds.
He did this by challenging and wrestling women.
Kaufman grew up on Long Island and perfected his craft in unpaid appearances in comedy clubs before drawing attention to his guest appearances Saturday night live. taxi A successful tour followed, in which Kaufman went out of his way to masquerade as Elvis Presley to accompany 2,000 fans for milk and cookies after their performance at Carnegie Hall.
As a child, Kaufman was a fan of professional wrestling and an admirer of “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers. He once saw Rogers grappling with Bruno Sammartino in Madison Square Garden and Rogers – the bad guy – pulling boos out of the crowd. It was this memory that probably called Kaufman back when he started challenging women in the audience in 1977. If they pinned him, he would give them $ 1,000.
Estimates of how often Kaufman wrestled with a woman range from 60 to over 400. Although some games may have been played, Kaufman appeared to be involved in real physical competitions with many volunteers. While it had the expected result for its audience – they were alternately amused and confused – Kaufman wanted to do it on a larger stage. He made his suggestion during a performance on Saturday night live on October 20, 1979 he wore his now well-known wrestling outfit made of black trunks over white long underpants. Kaufman explained that he was not interested in wrestling men because they could beat him, but he would take on any woman who dared.
A pregnant woman volunteered, but Kaufman refused to wrestle her. Instead, he faced Mimi Lambert, a dancer and heiress to Lacoste Sportswear, who was pinned down after a few minutes. For no apparent reason, a triumphant merchant challenged Olympic swimmer Diana Nyad to a match in which she had $ 10,000 on the line before chuckling like a chicken.
Andy Kaufman returned to Saturday night live several times this year to continue his challenges, at one point even “threatening” host (and future Gold girl) Bea Arthur.
Eventually Kaufman found an opponent in Diana Peckham, the daughter of Olympic wrestling coach James Peckham, and wrestled her from December 22, 1979 SNL. Even though Kaufman had childhood hero Buddy Rogers in his corner, he couldn’t beat Peckham and the fight was declared a tie.
Kaufman then started calling wrestling promoters, including prominent New York promoter Vince McMahon Sr., and told them he had crowned himself the inter-gender wrestling world champion and was ready to defend his title against all newcomers. He was undefeated except for a loss to six women at the same time in a Chippendales club in Los Angeles.
As always, Kaufman was ahead of his time. This was in 1981, years before McMahon’s son Vince McMahon Jr. started doing eyewear like WrestleMania and celebrity appearances by Mr. T, Cyndi Lauper and Liberace. In a short time he would have been accepted into the group. But McMahon Sr., a wrestling traditionalist, wasn’t interested.
Kaufman turned in dismay to friend and wrestling journalist Bill Apter, who recommended the comedian to get in touch with Jerry Lawler, the most popular wrestler in Memphis. With partner Jerry Jarrett, Lawler led the region’s Continental Wrestling Association (CWA). Lawler was intrigued by the suggestion and suggested Kaufman to come to Memphis. Although he had no real in-ring skills, he was recognizable and his male chauvinistic person would likely draw attention.
For months, Kaufman sent tapes to mock the locals. Finally, on October 12, 1981, Kaufman appeared in the Tennessee Mid-South Coliseum, wrestling three women in a row. On November 23, he took in four women. The fourth, Foxy Brown, managed to get Kaufman to a tie. Both Lawler and Kaufman knew that a rematch with Brown – with Lawler in her corner – would be a success.
It was. Kaufman defeated Brown convincingly on November 30, 1981, causing Lawler to jump into the ring to confront Kaufman for his unsportsmanlike conduct. At that point, Kaufman and Lawler realized that they had something special. Lawler, the hero of Memphis, faced Kaufman, the Hollywood outsider who had no respect for women. The crowd’s reaction was electrifying for Kaufman, who saw the opportunity to take his admiration for Buddy Rogers a step further and actually wrestle with a man.
For months, viewers of local pro-wrestling programs in Memphis watched Kaufman submit more videos that bothered them. “I’m from Hollywood!” he said. He taught them how to use soap, a skill he insisted on, and played with offensive stereotypes of the South. He insisted that women “belong in the kitchen” and that their time was best spent “scrubbing potatoes”. If Kaufman ever walked the streets of Memphis unaccompanied, it could have been a problem.
Eventually Kaufman and Lawler split up on April 5, 1982. About 11,200 fans came to the Mid-South Coliseum to see how Lawler silenced Kaufman and invested in the result, though part of them likely recognized that the two of them Played roles. (They even rehearsed at referee Jerry Calhoun’s house two nights earlier.) The fight lasted less than seven minutes, with Kaufman spending much of the time avoiding Lawler and practicing little offense beyond a simple headlock. Finally the wrestler got his hands on the comedian and sent him onto the mat with successive stake drivers.
It was far from the end of the show. Kaufman spent 15 minutes twitching in the ring before insisting that Lawler call for an ambulance. (Lawler told him that it would cost $ 250 if the real thing came in. Kaufman promised he would pay for it.) He was carried away on a stretcher and spent the next few days interviewing from a hospital bed, including insisted on having suffered real injuries in a legitimate competition. While Kaufman Lawler said the stake drivers injured him, the injuries were unlikely to be so severe that a three-day hospital stay was required.
But Kaufman’s testimony was apparently enough to mislead The New York Times, who reported his recovery as legitimate:
“[Lawler] insisted that the fight was a real thing. It was also … As a result, according to George Shapiro, the comedian’s manager, Mr. Kaufman suffered cuts to the head, tense neck muscles, and a compressed space between the fourth and fifth vertebrae. Hospital officials listed him in good condition yesterday. “
In a 2012 CNN play, author Wayne Drash recalled being a child in Memphis and going to school the day after the fight. A child convinced that Kaufman was really hurt suggested that the class pray for him. He was booed.
Although their rivalry had apparently come to a conclusion, Kaufman and Lawler believed they could continue their feud on a larger stage. On July 28, 1982, the two were booked to appear on Late night with David Lettermanthat only aired since February this year. During the interview, Kaufman – with a frill – continued his vitriol against Lawler, causing the wrestler to hit him in the face while a confused letterman watched.
As with Kaufman’s “injuries,” the mass media was slow to realize that the incident was orchestrated. Kaufman helped legitimize it by filing a $ 200 million lawsuit against NBC and insisting that he would take it over soon and make it an all-wrestling network. Fighting with Lawler continued to draw crowds in Memphis, Indiana and Florida, causing Vince McMahon Jr. to tell Lawler later that he was jealous of Memphis’ wrestling territory. Master Heel Andy Kaufman had it available.
Kaufman never lost his taste for wrestling. It appeared in the 1983s My breakfast with Blassie, a parody of the talkative character piece from 1981 My dinner with Andre, alongside the famous wrestler “Classy” Freddie Blassie. He also played in a ring umpire Teaneck Tanzi, a Broadway musical about a woman (Deborah Harry from Blondie) who wrestles the men in her life. It opened and closed in one night.
Kaufman died of lung cancer on May 16, 1984 at the age of 35. If he had lived, he would probably have climbed further between the ropes. Lawler remembered their time together and once said that Kaufman had expressed a wish. If only he could stop acting, he said, he wanted to wrestle full-time.
Lost in the Funhouse: The Life and Mind of Andy Kaufman.