On this day in wrestling history: Andy Kaufman passes away
Controversial comedian–and professional wrestling’s Intergender champion–Andy Kaufman passed away from lung cancer on this day in 1984. Less than two years removed from his memorable performance with Jerry Lawler on the David Letterman show, most of the “Late Night” staff assumed it was a put-on and that Kaufman alter-ego Tony Clifton would be delivering the eulogy at the funeral.
Because Andy was so private, many mourners did not see him as his condition worsened in his final days, leaving many to discreetly poke his lifeless body in the casket at his funeral on May 18. Even some of his closest friends were holding out hope that this was simply his most twisted comic switch to date and that Andy would pop up and break into song and dance. Sadly, it wasn’t a gag.
Those who had spent Thanksgiving with him months before knew just how serious it was when he repeatedly coughed and hacked during dinner. I was only 12 at the time, but I can recall thinking that Andy didn’t look good during one of his final Memphis wrestling TV appearances on the “Jerry Lawler Show” on November 20, 1983. A few weeks later, a doctor informed Kaufman that he had lung cancer, despite the fact that he had never smoked.
Because it was the kayfabe era, when wrestlers stayed in character at all times, Lawler never let on for one second that the hatred between the two was anything but real when besieged with interview requests following his death–besides, that’s the way Andy would have wanted it. (Although Eddie Gilbert claimed that Lawler’s piledrivers likely caused Kaufman’s cancer, a recent study at UCLA confirmed that there is no correlation between the potentially lethal hold and the deadly disease.)
Although Andy confessed to Letterman months later that the Lawler slapping incident was prearranged, he largely kept the secret about his adventures in pro wrestling. Letterman told GQ in 1985 that he was scared to death during the Andy/Lawler segment, thinking the studio crowd was going to riot after the King smacked the “Taxi” star out of his chair.
Even Andy’s parents continued to despise Lawler for years until the King was able to share with them the details of their epic showdown.Honoring Andy’s request, legendary wrestler/manager “Classy” Freddie Blassie joined his family in the pew during the service. Never at a loss for words, Blassie was so distraught that he couldn’t bring himself to speak with reporters afterward.
Rumor has it that near the end, Kaufman slept with his eyes open, hoping that it would prevent the inevitable–when the nurse tried to close them after he passed, they actually opened again. Close friend Elayne Boosler wrote in the November 1984 edition of Esquire that she was reminded of a critic’s review of Andy years earlier: “This guy doesn’t know when to get off.”
He stepped off much too soon.
Let’s play Twister, let’s play Risk. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
See you in heaven if you make the list. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Hey Andy, did you hear about this one? Tell me, are you locked in the punch?
Hey Andy, are you goofing on Elvis? Hey baby, are we losing touch?
For more details on Andy’s Memphis rasslin’ performances, click Jerry Lawler vs. Andy Kaufman.