“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.
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.