Question: Another argument question for you. Did Andy Kaufman ever get thrown off the set of Taxi for bringing hookers in with him? A guy I work with swears that's a true story, but I say it was a story Kaufman made up. Jay L., Atkinson, N.H.
Televisionary: Oh, boy. You're gonna draw me into saying definitively what was real and what was merely reported when it comes to the late Kaufman, prankster extraordinaire? I'm not even entirely comfortable with referring to him as "late," since so many people are convinced he faked his own death.
Kaufman, who co-starred as Taxi's foreign-born cabbie Latka Gravas, lived to mess with people's heads (audience and entertainer alike) and subvert the accepted model of performer and audience. So answering your question requires a little explaining.
Kaufman was more of a performance artist than a comedian, though many people tried to fit him into the comic-turned-sitcom-star mold. He created many characters (some would argue that he himself was one of them), but two of the best known were "foreign man" and an obnoxious Vegas lounge singer named Tony Clifton. It was the foreign man character that morphed into Latka on the series, which ran from 1978-82 on ABC and another seven months or so on NBC, after Taxi's creators caught his stage act and hired him. As the story goes, though, Kaufman insisted they also hire his "friend" Clifton, the alter-ego who sometimes performed the same night Kaufman did, for guest-star work.
Kaufman went to great lengths to convince people Clifton was a separate person sometimes his pal Bob Zmuda, who penned a tell-all book about their elaborate mind games, played the character and even showed up for work on the Taxi set in character as Clifton. He set about creating mayhem over a three-day period, taking over the largest motor home, ordering liquor and bringing two "discoveries" who reportedly were prostitutes in with him. Kaufman-as-Clifton then insulted the rest of the cast and became so disruptive that he and his lady friends were tossed off the lot by security.
Never one to let too many others in on the game, Kaufman insisted Clifton was both a real acquaintance he'd met in Vegas and a character he played from time to time. "I'm afraid of Tony. Both Tonys," he told TV Guide in 1981. "When he takes me over all of my characters possess me I don't know what will happen. And lots of times, the real Tony threatens me about what 'my' Tony does. Or I'll get blamed for what the real Tony does.... He might call me up to check on me. He can get mean. I'd better not talk about him anymore."
That just scratches the surface of how far Kaufman went in experimenting with his audience and fellow performers. (For more details on that, rent Milos Forman's Man on the Moon or read Zmuda's Andy Kaufman Revealed!) All along he insisted he wasn't a comedian at all, but was instead a performer testing the boundaries of entertainment. That part was true, certainly. His more infamous bits included wrestling women, reading all of The Great Gatsby to a crowd, doing his laundry on stage and busing a Carnegie Hall audience to a nearby school for milk and cookies. "I invited them back the next afternoon to continue the party on the Staten Island ferry," he recalled. "Three hundred people showed up. I bought ice cream for us all and wrestled some more. It was all a performance, but I wasn't completely pulling the strings. I get lost somewhere along the way, too."
That he did. And exactly where the performance ended and reality began was never clear and still isn't. One thing was certain, though: Kaufman didn't like his day job on Taxi, which he saw as a sin of conformity and selling out. "[I]t's a vehicle, just that," he said. "I only tape one and a half days a week, and my contract specifies a limited number of appearances per season. I push myself with new material, create new forms of strangeness that can't work in a mass-TV format."
Kaufman's attitude toward the series didn't mean he wasn't generous to his castmates, however. When Carol Kane joined the cast as Latka's girlfriend (and eventual wife) Simka, a role that earned her Emmy gold, he took the time to teach her the invented Latka mother tongue. "It's a made-up language," the actress explained in 1983. "Andy made it up and got a very specific sound to it. The script is in English. You just open your mouth and dive in."
Kane found Kaufman to be quite the dedicated tutor: He invited her to dine with him and then told her they wouldn't speak English for the entire meal. But the dedication extended beyond that to places she wasn't prepared to visit. "[H]e offered to wrestle me the first time I came to his house to learn about our accent. He feels you get to know somebody better that way," the actress said, adding that she turned him down. "I don't think I was quite ready for it."
Nor, it seems, were a lot of other people, many of whom didn't get the joke and many of whom did.