The Improbable Time When Orson Welles Interviewed Andy Kaufman (1982)

“Sit­coms are the low­est form of enter­tain­ment,” declares Andy Kauf­man as por­trayed by Jim Car­rey in Milos For­man’s biopic Man on the Moon. “I mean, it’s just stu­pid jokes and canned laugh­ter.” The scene comes in the peri­od of Kauf­man’s life in the late 1970s when, grow­ing ever more well-known on the back of acts like his “For­eign Man” char­ac­ter, he receives an offer to take part in ABC’s Taxi. The real-life Kauf­man, even­tu­al­ly con­vinced to join the show’s cast, devel­oped the For­eign Man into the unplace­able mechan­ic Lat­ka Gavras. Quite pos­si­bly Taxi’s most mem­o­rable char­ac­ter, Lat­ka also won the appre­ci­a­tion of no less demand­ing a cul­tur­al fig­ure than Orson Welles.

Guest-host­ing the Merv Grif­fin Show in June of 1982, Welles describes Taxi as a show that has “kept tele­vi­sion from being a crim­i­nal felony” just before bring­ing Kauf­man on for a brief (and unchar­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly straight­for­ward) chat. He heaps praise on Kauf­man’s per­for­mance as Lat­ka, adding, “I want to know why it is that you go and wres­tle with peo­ple when you can act so well.” Kauf­man had shown up wear­ing a neck brace, an acces­so­ry sig­ni­fy­ing the end of his stint as a pro­fes­sion­al wrestler, one of the many inex­plic­a­ble but some­how com­pelling choic­es in a short career that blurred the lines between com­e­dy, per­for­mance art, and life itself.

“Nobody ever came from nowhere more com­plete­ly,” Welles says, draw­ing a big stu­dio-audi­ence laugh with this descrip­tion of not just Lat­ka but Kauf­man as well. Asked how he came up with such a dis­tinc­tive char­ac­ter voice, Kauf­man says only that he “grew up in New York, and you hear a lot of dif­fer­ent voic­es in New York” (“You don’t hear that one,” replies Welles). He also cites the accents of a high-school friend from South Amer­i­ca and a col­lege room­mate from Iran. Less than four years lat­er, both Kauf­man and Welles would be gone (and actor Ron Glass, look­ing on from the oth­er side of the couch, joined them this past Novem­ber).

Or at least both men would be gone if you don’t cred­it the rumors about Kauf­man hav­ing elab­o­rate­ly faked his death. “I don’t know whether it’s the inno­cence of the fel­low or the feel­ing you have that he is not stu­pid­er than every­body, but maybe smarter, that adds to the fas­ci­na­tion,” Welles says. Again he speaks osten­si­bly of Kauf­man’s For­eign Man/Latka per­sona, but his words apply equal­ly to the man who not just played but peri­od­i­cal­ly — and some­times unpre­dictably — became him. 33 years after Kauf­man’s death, or in any case dis­ap­pear­ance from life, that fas­ci­na­tion remains as strong as ever.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Look Back at Andy Kauf­man: Absurd Com­ic Per­for­mance Artist and Endear­ing Weirdo

Orson Welles Meets H.G. Wells in 1940: The Leg­ends Dis­cuss War of the Worlds, Cit­i­zen Kane, and WWII

Orson Welles’ Last Inter­view and Final Moments Cap­tured on Film

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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