And Now, for Andy Kaufman’s Next Act: The WWE Hall of Fame?

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“A lot of us who are pro-Andy don’t even care about the WWE, honestly,” Schwent Jr. explains. “It’s to give Andy a boost in the zeitgeist and keep his memory alive.”

According to Michael Kaufman, Andy’s younger brother, pro wrestling was always a defining influence on his brother’s career. As kids, they would attend wrestling shows on Long Island, with young Andy developing a particular fascination with the sport’s over-the-top heels. “My brother learned how wonderful it was to have an audience hate you,” Michael says with a laugh.

Deceiving audiences and making them uncomfortable would become a hallmark of his career, from his crowd-pleasing “Foreign Man” routine to his obnoxious “Tony Clifton” lounge-singer persona. Eventually, he would incorporate actual wrestling into his act in 1979, challenging women at his live shows as the overly chauvinistic “World Intergender Wrestling Champion.”

Longtime wrestling journalist Bill Apter recalls meeting Kaufman a couple of years later at Madison Square Garden during a World Wrestling Federation event. Kaufman, at the height of his Taxi fame, had pitched himself that night as a wrestling heel to the WWF’s then owner, Vince McMahon Sr. – the father of WWE’s McMahon – who politely declined.

“Pro wrestling back then had the illusion of a sacred sport,” Apter says. “Nobody knew it was fake except the people on the inside, and Vince wanted to keep it that way. He thought using a Hollywood entertainer would expose that.”

So Apter connected Kaufman with Jerry Lawler, the co-owner of the rough and rowdy Mid-Southern Wrestling league in Memphis, known for its zany theatrics. “They used to wrestle Frankenstein monsters and stuff like that,” Apter says.

Kaufman and Lawler struck up a quick friendship and began working on an outrageous wrestling plot that would get more elaborate each week. Brian ‘Box’ Brown, the author of Is This Guy For Real? The Unbelievable Andy Kaufman, notes that while most casual fans know about the infamous Letterman appearance, few realize how deeply committed Kaufman was within the Memphis wrestling scene: for the better part of two years, right up until shortly before his death, Kaufman would appear on a near weekly basis at local shows.

Man on the Moon depicted Andy’s foray into pro wrestling as this dumb, short little thing that killed his career,” says Brown. “But the movie doesn’t really show how amazing he was… He came down to Memphis and became the best heel of the territory.”

The stunts came fast and furious: Kaufman filmed multiple promos in which he’d bash the people of Memphis, teaching them how to use soap, mouth wash, and toilet paper. He once spent three days in a hospital pretending he’d broken his neck after Lawler performed two piledrivers on him. He enlisted Jimmy “Mouth of the South” Hart as his manager and hired Jesse “The Body” Ventura as a bounty hunter, and he took a fireball to the face and threatened to sue the league. Just a few short months before his tragic death from lung cancer, Kaufman filmed a Thanksgiving-themed promo in which he was named to that year’s “Turkey list.”

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