A Phony Feud with Wrestler Jerry Lawler Preceded Andy Kaufman’s Tragic Death
As brilliant as he was in doing television comedy and his quirky version of stand-up, Andy Kaufman missed his calling. By only dabbling in the sport via a feud with Jerry Lawler instead of diving in head-first years earlier and sticking with it, Kaufman missed an opportunity to take professional wrestling to a whole new level.
Kaufman feuding with Hulk Hogan or managing The Moondogs would have been a license for everyone involved to print gobs of money.
Andy Kaufman’s character on ‘Taxi’ was memorable
After scoring his big break with sketch work on Saturday Night Live, Andy Kaufman gained widespread attention for his portrayal of mechanic Latka Gravas on the acclaimed TV comedy Taxi. The idea of ensemble casting is to make the sum greater than its parts, and Kaufman did his part by milking scenes for huge laughs from 1978-83.
When not taping the sit-com, Kaufman worked the comedy-club circuit, oftentimes as alter ego Tony Clifton, a full-of-himself lounge singer. Audiences found themselves repulsed and amused all at once, which is why the man also renowned for his Elvis Presley impersonation considered himself to be a performance artist rather than a comic.
And Kaufman would keep his audience off-balance even after his performances ended. He once invited a Carnegie Hall crowd to join him for milk and cookies at a nearby school.
Tragically, however, Kaufman reigned at the top of his profession for a short time. Kaufman died from lung cancer at the age of 35 in 1984. The combination of his quirkiness on stage and revelations of how he’d often spoken of faking his own death led to years of speculation that Kaufman remained alive.
Andy Kaufman gives professional wrestling a try
Making his club performances even more unconventional than they already were, Andy Kaufman began challenging women in the audience to wrestle him for a $1,000 prize and what he claimed was the Inter-Gender Wrestling Championship. Most of the matches were hoaxes, though some combatants took the challenge seriously.
Witnessing the resurgence in pro wrestling’s popularity in the early 1980s, Kaufman approached the World Wrestling Federation, which later changed its name to the WWE. Though rebuffed there, Kaufman connected with legendary wrestler Jerry Lawler to launch one of the most memorable phony feuds ever.
Kaufman turned on the hype machine by insulting residents of Memphis, which was Lawler’s home base. It led to Kaufman and Lawler squaring off in an April 1982 match before a packed arena, where Lawler subjected his opponent to repeated pile-drivers. Kaufman was taken from the ring by ambulance and milked his relatively minor injury for months by wearing a neck brace.
A memorable joint appearance on late-night TV
With the alleged feud generating phenomenal publicity, Andy Kaufman and Jerry Lawler continued to play their roles to the hilt. It culminated with them appearing together in August 1982 on Late Night with David Letterman, where the two did a long segment answering questions from the host, who wasn’t fully in on the joke.
Kaufman said he wanted an apology for the pile-drivers from Lawler, who fired off several zingers during the interview. Instead of apologizing, Lawler swatted Kaufman off his chair. Kaufman completed the charade with a profane rant as he stormed off the set. He later filed a $200 million lawsuit against NBC that was quickly dismissed.
Lawler would confess years after Kaufman’s death that the entire feud was contrived and that the two were actually friends.