By Roger Wolmuth
June 04, 1984 12:00 PM

He stood beside a pair of conga drums, wearing a rumpled Hawaiian shirt and a look of panic. Andy Kaufman was clearly bombing, and on the very stage of New York’s Improvisation, where Richard Pryor, Freddie Prinze and other comic greats had once plied their craft. Hampered by some sort of pidgin Serbian accent and the comic timing of a bad watch, Kaufman botched jokes and jumbled punch lines until the late-night crowd began peppering him with hoots and catcalls. Some of us in that audience back in the early ’70s squirmed with embarrassment for this poor slob who plainly had no business being there.

Suddenly Kaufman stopped the jokes and began to apologize for the dreadful performance. He was sorry to have wasted our time, he said piteously in his broken English, adding that all he’d ever wanted since childhood was to entertain. He began to whimper, softly at first and then in breathy sobs. As the patrons shifted uneasily, he reached toward the drums and began to beat softly in time to his crying. The sobs and pounding quickened, and before long Kaufman’s arms were flying as he tattooed the congas like a crazed Xavier Cugat. Suddenly the rhythm turned into a rock beat, and the once weepy comic was magically transformed into a sneer-lipped Elvis Presley double. The crowd, realizing they’d fallen for a masterful put-on, answered with applause that even a Pryor or a Prinze would have relished.

Kaufman’s foreign man character would later evolve into Latka Gravas, the stumble-tongued “mirage mechanic” of Taxi fame. Yet the innocent immigrant, forever mumbling “tenk you veddy much” to his cabbie co-workers, was only one of the fictive characters that Kaufman packed through life like lightweight luggage. The abusive lounge lizard, the wide-eyed kiddieshow emcee, the sexist woman baiter—all were part of a cast that Kaufman delighted in playing both onstage and off. His refusal to break character, to give the audience a nudge in the ribs, to let it know it was all a gag made him a Picasso of put-on artists, and when he died in Los Angeles of lung cancer this month, there were many who dismissed his death report as just another send-up.

Intimates, however, had known of Kaufman’s battle with a rare form of large-cell carcinoma since its diagnosis in January. In March the 35-year-old entertainer turned up at the L.A. premiere of My Breakfast With Blassie, his spoof of My Dinner With André, showing the effects of both radiation therapy and his disease. Later that night friends gathered for a bon voyage party as Kaufman prepared for a trip with girlfriend Lynne Margulies, Blassie’s film editor, to the Philippines in search of a psychic healer.

In many ways that final quest was no more offbeat than anything else in Kaufman’s bag of shticks. As a performer he reveled in pushing the parameters of comedy—and taste—to the limit. “He wanted to make audiences work, to rethink the obvious,” says comedienne Elayne Boosler, Kaufman’s longtime friend and former lover. “He would set something up, they would accept it, and he would do a 180-degree turn. He really knew how to take an audience on the cyclone.”

To some, the roller-coaster ride wasn’t always a laugh. An Indiana audience once went to a concert expecting comedy and was treated to an all-night reading from The Great Gatsby. In L.A. Kaufman dumbfounded patrons by bringing a portable dryer onstage and doing his laundry, and on another occasion he spent 10 minutes of his act lying motionless in a sleeping bag. Such stunts might inspire anger or bewilderment but never the passive complacency that Kaufman detested. “He was like avant-garde theater transported to a nightclub stage,” marvels fellow comedian Richard Belzer.

Offstage Kaufman practiced an improvisational comedy that sometimes bordered on guerrilla theater. “Pure entertainment,” he once said, “is not an egotistical lady singing boring songs onstage for two hours and people in tuxes clapping whether they like it or not. It’s the real performers on the street who can hold people’s attention and keep them from walking away.” On the streets of New York Kaufman often did just that, staging mock curbside arguments (with accomplices) or turning into one of his many characters during trips to Times Square.

His most durable double was Tony Clifton, a foul-mouthed lounge singer that Kaufman affected with help from a terrible toupee and a bordello sport coat. Kaufman used Clifton as his own opening act and adamantly refused to admit that he and the loathsome singer were one and the same. When Kaufman joined the Taxi cast in 1978, he demanded—and got—a separate contract for the mythical Tony. The latter lasted only a few days; his boorish behavior quickly prompted the producers to call in studio guards and have him removed from the lot. Clifton was fired, but Kaufman, professing his own innocence, returned to work a day later.

Such devilish pranks sometimes obscured the performer’s gentle private side. To friends, Kaufman’s childlike charm could be disarming. Comedienne Melanie Chartoff recalls a hectic day of work on the TV show Fridays, after which Kaufman invited her to dinner. “I said I had to run first and asked if he wanted to come with me,” she recalls. “It was dark, and he said he’d sit in the grandstand and wait while I ran for half an hour. He sat there and said ‘Hi’ every time I went by. Anyone who was close to him felt enormous love. His hugs were so warm you knew there was somebody in there that just didn’t feel safe coming out.”

The oldest of three children raised in the affluent Long Island suburb of Great Neck, Kaufman gravitated toward show business early. His mother, Janice, told of her 1-year-old reaching out from his crib to work the controls on a nearby kiddie phonograph. Later, while prepping himself to crack New York’s comedy club circuit, he took up Transcendental Meditation. “I knew I had the potential to entertain, but I was too shy,” he once said. “TM really brought the shyness out of me.”

As a kid, Kaufman gloried in the professional wrestling matches he watched with his brother and sister. The villainous Bruno Sammartino or Nature Boy Buddy Rogers seemed the essence of showbiz savvy—actors who never betrayed their roles, even outside the ring. Kaufman later adopted the technique for his own fast-growing cast of characters.

He eventually added wrestling to his own act, taunting women in his audience as weaklings best suited for carrot cooking, and offering $1,000 to any who could pin him. The matches outraged feminists and drew avalanches of hate mail, prompting Kaufman to declare himself the World’s Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion. Friends of the comic could only smile, realizing that Kaufman later dated some of his erstwhile wrestling foes. “He played the ultimate bad guy,” says Boosler, “and he played it well, judging by the way people felt about him.”

Kaufman’s five-year run on Taxi showcased his talents to a wider public, but the entertainer soon tired of TV’s limitations. “We’ve got a nice group of people, but it’s not fulfilling for me to do one character week after week, and I don’t like working with a script,” he confessed during the show’s second season. Still, his two-day workweek on Taxi and the salary he earned made more appealing projects possible. Among these was Kaufman’s 1979 appearance at Carnegie Hall, surely one of the high points in his abbreviated career. On the Carnegie stage he entertained 2,800 fans with some of his most beloved bits, lip-synching the Mighty Mouse theme, imitating Elvis and even showing cartoons. After the show the crowd found 20 chartered buses waiting to drive them to a nearby school cafeteria for free milk and cookies. Kaufman then announced that the concert would continue 12 hours later with a ride on the Staten Island ferry. It did.

In 1982 Kaufman’s career stumbled after his 14th appearance on Saturday Night Live. At the show’s conclusion viewers were asked to call in and vote on whether he should ever be asked to return. Kaufman, whose offbeat absurdist humor never quite penetrated the American mainstream, was voted off the late-night airwaves 195,544 to 169,186. Friends of the comedian say he felt deeply betrayed by the voting ploy.

The setback didn’t slow Kaufman down, and he continued pushing a variety of projects: My Breakfast With Blassie, a wrestling movie, a Tony Clifton special and even an autobiographical book. “I haven’t been sleeping lately,” he noted a while back. “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, he says, get to be that age and never put themselves to bed. That’s me. There’s just too much to do.”

Last month, when the work finally stopped because of illness, the irony was especially cruel. Avoiding the sins of many contemporaries, Kaufman neither smoked nor drank and tried to adhere to a strict macrobiotic diet. His only failing seemed to be his sweet tooth, an addiction that he battled unsuccessfully for years.

As 300 friends gathered in Great Neck for his funeral last week, the thoughts of many drifted back to happier days. For longtime friend Boosler, the memories included a birthday she had celebrated with the entertainer years ago. “I got him a present for each of the characters he played, and he accepted in his characters’ voices,” she remembers. “For the foreign man I got a deed to the Brooklyn Bridge. The cool guy got an extra key to the apartment. We never had so much fun. He called me about 3 a.m. from his parents’ house, crying hysterically. I said, ‘What’s the matter?’ He said it was the nicest thing that ever happened to him, that he’d never have another birthday like that one. I told him there would be many more.”

But there will be no more, and the world of comedy has lost a bit of daring, a bit of genius. For the memories that will survive, perhaps the pet phrase of Latka Gravas speaks most eloquently. Tenk you veddy much, Andy, veddy much indeed.