My name is Jack Bristow — AKA, the guy who was interviewed by the Huffington Post about Andy Kaufman being alive and well in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Though the interview took place 2013, May 15, I am still tweeted and e-mailed all kinds of questions to this day. The biggest question I receive, however, is if I still believe Andy Kaufman is among the living. I’ll answer that question for everyone reading this — yes, absolutely, I do believe Andy Kaufman is still alive. And I will elaborate on my reasons for believing so later.
First, though, I would like to fill the readership in on who Andy Kaufman was/is.
Andy Kaufman never considered himself a comedian — he was a song and dance man, he insisted to anybody who would call him a comedian. Unlike many entertainers of his era, Kaufman was completely aloof. He didn’t care if people laughed at his act, lunged bottles at his head, or booed him off stage. Sometimes, it seemed like he preferred hostility instead of a warm reception to his work. All he wanted to do, he would explain to his friends, was evoke genuine responses from people. He wanted to elicit real gut-reactions from his audience and nothing more. And if they happened to laugh, that was great. If they were on the verge of mass hysteria and rioting and demanding for Kaufman’s head, that was even better.
Andy Kaufman’s biggest claim to fame would probably be his work as the innocent foreign cab mechanic Latka on the hit ABC sitcom Taxi. But people like me — freaks, weirdos and nutcases — best admire him for his more bizarre antics, characters and bits: Tony Clifton, his abrasive lounge singer character; Andy the Wrestler, a creepy misogynist who giddily hurled demeaning insults out at wrestling fans in Memphis; Andy’s Funhouse host Andy Kaufman, who berated and screamed at his stagehands when he thought the camera was off, and was sweet as pie when he believed the camera was on.
Audiences really did not know what to believe; they did not know what was real with Andy’s act and what was sheer put-on. They did not even know who the real Andy Kaufman was — was his personality more like the wrestler character? Was he more like Tony Clifton? Or was he more like the nice Carnegie Hall Andy who had gone out and bought his entire audience milk and cookies? Was he the Andy Kaufman who had selflessly abandoned his job at Taxi and traveled all the way to Matoon, Illinois, to cheer up a 13-year-old fan that was dying of leukemia? “He stayed with the girl for several days and nights until she died. Meanwhile, Taxi was without him. When he returned to LA and explained everything to the producer he was still docked 10,000 dollars for that week he was absent,” said Alan Abel, one of Andy’s old friends.
Abel was in many ways a lot like Andy Kaufman: a professional put-on artist. He had been pulling wool over the public’s eyes for many years and, if anything, he could teach seasoned veterans like Andy Kaufman a thing or two about some good old-fashioned Tom Fuckery. Abel told me how a man named Bob Pagani had first introduced him to Andy. And that they had hit it off immediately. There was one hoax Abel pulled that Andy was particularly obsessed with. On January 1, 1984, Abel had somehow tricked The New York Times into publishing his obituary. He had hired a skilled actress to come in to the offices of the Times to play the part of Grieving Widow. Nobody there questioned what she was saying — that Abel had died the day before of a heart attack at an upscale ski resort in Aspen — and one of their journalists printed up his obituary, post-haste.
“Andy was extremely fascinated with my obituary in January, 1980, and insisted on knowing every single detail of my plan that worked so well. I became a bit annoyed at his persistence,” Abel told me.
Mr. Abel is not the only person who Andy Kaufman discussed faking his death to. “If I do go through with my plan, I will do so by pretending to have cancer,” Kaufman told a friend from his Saturday Night Live days, Mimi Lambert. Other people who he had told his plan to was girlfriend Lynne Margulies; Andy’s best friend and writer Bob Zmuda; John Moffit, producer of the weekly comedy show Fridays. And, if you’re into that whole evidence thing, there was also an album released last summer, titled, “Andy and His Grandmother.” On the last track, there is a part where you can hear Andy talking about his fake death with Bob Zmuda. “But won’t people hate me when they find out that I’m still alive?” Kaufman asked Zmuda.
The strangeness didn’t stop there.
I became friends with a man named Stephen Maddox, owner of the conspiracy theory website, Andy Kaufman Lives, way back in 2003. I posted there fairly regularly. And it was a lot of fun. The forum was moderated by a woman named Claire Chanel, who claimed to have come to Florida from France. News broke out at the forum that Bob Zmuda was hosting an Andy Kaufman tribute show at the House of Blues in LA, on May 16, 2004. The title: Andy Kaufman: Dead or Alive? The show sounded interesting to me, and I wanted to attend. However, I did not have the funds to go. About a week before the show I received an email from Claire Chanel.
“Hey Jack,” she wrote. “Are you going to the Tony Clifton show?”
“No. I’d love to, but I don’t really have the loot right now.”
“I have two spare tickets lying around. Could you go if I sent them to you?”
“Yes, absolutely,” I responded.
One day later, I received the tickets via a FedEx package. The name on the package was not Claire Chanel, however, it was Julie HP.
The show was a moving tribute to Andy Kaufman. Comedian Bob Odenkirk, perhaps best known as Saul Goodman on Breaking Bad was there. So was Jerry Lawler, whose infamous feud with Andy Kaufman on David Letterman’s late-night show was legendary. Tony Clifton ended the show, singing a surprisingly sweet rendition of Man on the Moon.
After she had sent me the tickets, Claire confessed to me she was not really a “she” at all and that, in fact, she was none other than Stephen Maddox — the mysterious owner of www.andykaufmanlives.com. We became even closer friends after that. I would send Maddox stuff in the mail — usually Kaufman memorabilia — and he would do the same. Around this time Maddox started to tell me about the Nathan McCoy theory. He had always maintained that Andy Kaufman was alive, and insinuated that he was an insider, of some sort, into Kaufman’s life. Now he told me how Andy Kaufman faked his death. While touring hospitals and cheering up the sick as Kaufman always did, Kaufman had come across a homeless Vietnam veteran, ravished by cancer. “We’ll say his name was Nathan McCoy,” Maddox told me. Anyway, according to the story, Kaufman was able to strike up a deal with the dying Nathan McCoy: “Switch identities with me, and I will pay for your health care.”
And that’s what happened. And, eventually, the homeless Vietnam veteran, Nathan McCoy, died in Andy Kaufman’s stead, at Cedar-Sinai Medical Center, on May 16th, 1984. Maddox then went on to explain to me that it was not Andy who had technically broken the law with the fake death but Stanley Kaufman, Andy’s father. Stephen implied to me — though he did not say it outright — that if Andy Kaufman were to return to the public spotlight, he would not be able to do so until after Stanley passed away, lest Andy’s dad be prosecuted.
Fast-forward to 2013.
This was a remarkably fun year for me. I had the opportunity to be interviewed by the Huffington Post alongside my friends Curt Clendenin and Frank Edward Nora about this Kaufman lives madness, and my association with Stephen Maddox, in particular, on May 15, 2013. The article was published online the next day, titled “Andy Kaufman’s Death — And the Faithful Who Say He Faked It.” The article was sarcastic, and I felt it did not competently explore the reasons why so many people believe Andy Kaufman’s death was a sham; it was almost as if the author had adopted the herd mentality, and was too afraid to go against popular opinion and write about the subject fairly and objectively. Which is a shame, because an article — citing the more salient reasons why people believe Kaufman might still be alive — would have been fantastic.
The Huffington Post thing spawned countless other copycat articles about AK being alive, from The New York Daily News all the way to The Daily Mail UK. The Post piece also was to thank for my television interview with channel 13 KRQE news here in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
The press was having a field day with my story but, like most stories, they quickly lost interest, and moved on to other things.
But then, a few months later, things had started to come to life again.
On November 14th, 2013, Michael Kaufman, Andy’s slightly younger brother, grabbed the mic at the Andy Kaufman Awards show in New York City. This was nothing out of the ordinary. Michael hosts the show every year. However, what Michael said next was out of the ordinary. It was flat-out bizarre. He informed the audience that a few days after Andy’s funeral, he had uncovered an essay written by his older brother. In this essay, Michael swore, Andy laid the groundwork for how he was going to fake his death. Andy left instructions for Michael to meet up with him at a restaurant they had both loved and frequented often. Andy’s letter instructed Michael to go to that restaurant and meet Andy there, in 1999. Once 1999 came, Michael followed suit. And, although Andy did not show up, a man Michael had never seen before handed him an envelope. Michael ripped the letter open and noticed his brother’s handwriting. The mysterious man was already gone. The letter began, Michael told the crowd:
I’m assuming, for loving reasons, it’s Michael reading this.
Michael, I am so sorry what I put you, mom, dad and Grandma Lily through…
Kaufman then allegedly went on explaining to Michael that there was just too much pressure on him to be Andy Kaufman. He did not crave celebrity or fame anymore, he wrote to his brother. And, for his own sanity’s sake, he had to do something drastic. He had to disappear. He had to fake his own death and get away from it all. The audience was seriously engrossed as Michael read a tiny morsel from the letter to them. Michael then informed the audience that in the letter, Andy also claimed he had a daughter. He told the crowd that just a few weeks ago he had spoken to Andy’s alleged daughter over the telephone. Somber-faced, he said into the microphone: “Is this young lady here tonight?”
“I’m here.” A shy-looking young woman popped her head up from the crowd. Michael invited her onstage. They hugged. And then she talked some about her father, Andy Kaufman. When asked about why Kaufman faked his death, she replied, Andy just “wanted to be a stay-at-home dad, that’s why he wanted to leave the showbiz.”
The audience was eating this all up like candy.
“The entire room was freaked out. I get that it is — could — might all be a hoax…. [but] it was as real as anything I’ve ever seen. There is video. It was chilling, upsetting and absolutely intriguing,” said Killy Dwyer, a contender at the awards show.
The world was really starting to believe that Andy Kaufman might still be alive, after the “daughter” incident. However, not long afterwards, The Smoking Gun website reported the young woman claiming to be Andy Kaufman’s daughter, is none other than New York-based theater actress, Alexandra Tatarsky.
Later that week, Michael Kaufman made two appearances on CNN to discuss the recent rumors about his brother still being alive.
“I have my doubts just like everyone else,” he told the hosts. “And I have a glimmer of hope that he might be the mastermind that is behind all of this.”
While I was watching these interviews I couldn’t help but wonder why the hell the interviewers did not press Michael for more information on the subject. Why do you have a glimmer of hope that your brother is still alive, Michael? There was none of that. Michael then went on to explain that he had nothing to do with hiring that actress. And he admitted: “Even if he’s still alive, I now don’t think that that’s his daughter.”
This all struck me as strange. Just what the hell was Michael trying to accomplish, I wondered, as I watched this painfully awkward interview. Pay tribute to his dead brother? Did he really believe Andy Kaufman was still alive? But then, I remembered what Maddox had insinuated to me years ago — that Kaufman would not be able to return, if he chose to return, until after Stanley Kaufman passed away. I conducted a Google search and discovered that Stanley Kaufman had passed away from natural causes on July 25th, 2013.
And then, a friend told me that Bob Zmuda was writing a book about Andy Kaufman, titled, The Truth, Finally.
According to the Amazon.com page for the book, it reveals what Jim Carrey was like on the set of Man on the Moon. Not really interested in stuff like that, I scrolled down some more, and that is when I discovered this juicy tidbit about the book:
“Finally, Bob Zmuda shares—in detail—the reasons he believes Andy Kaufman did, in fact, fake his own death, including exactly how he did it and why Andy will return.”
This was all very interesting, and hugely significant. A few years ago, during an interview in Christopher Maloney’s documentary, The Death of Andy Kaufman, Michael Kaufman had told the interviewer that Andy was, in no uncertain terms, dead as a doornail. Now, however, right after his father Stanley died, Michael is changing his story. The same thing is happening with Zmuda, too. At first, in all those interviews, Zmuda had claimed Andy was dead. All these Tony Clifton shows at the House of Blues and the Comedy Store were done as a tribute to his late friend. Nothing more. But now, Zmuda, like Michael Kaufman, is doing a complete 180 and changing his story one hundred percent. And the press is not even doing its job; they’re not even asking these two guys what the hell is going on.
So why are Bob Zmuda and Michael Kaufman changing their story now?
Could it be that my friend Stephen Maddox was right all along — could it really be that Stanley Kaufman fraudulently and knowingly signed a death certificate for a dying man that wasn’t his son, Andy Kaufman?
Time will tell.
But it is my gut instinct that, yes: Stanley lied, and Andy Kaufman never actually died.