For years, conspiracy-minded comedy fans have maintained that the late great guerrilla comedian Andy Kaufman, who died of lung cancer in 1984 at the age of 35, had actually faked his death and is living somewhere in Elvis-like seclusion. Well, as far as Hollywood is concerned, Andy has re-entered the building.
Although still in its infancy, a biopic on the life and times of the former Taxi star has already begun to generate major buzz. To be directed by Milos Forman and written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski — the team responsible for The People vs. Larry Flynt — the film comes with the built-in advantage of a coveted lead role. ”Somebody could make a real name for himself in that part,” says Kaufman’s Taxi costar Tony Danza. ”Andy meditated in his car, lived on seaweed, and rehearsed only on Tuesday afternoons. But he was one of the most brilliant comedians ever. Who wouldn’t want that part?”
Officially, Forman and the writers maintain that the Universal Pictures project is too germinal to think about casting. But according to Alexander, ”the four biggest actors in Hollywood have all called.” While the screenwriter won’t elaborate, one highly placed studio executive puts Tom Hanks, Jim Carrey, Nicolas Cage, and Edward Norton — fresh from his much-lauded turn as Flynt’s attorney Alan Isaacman — on the short list. (Spokespeople for the actors either declined or were unavailable for comment.)
Alexander adds that there’s been plenty of interest from the lesser-knowns as well: ”One comedian we’ve never heard of sent us this tape saying ‘I am Andy Kaufman.”’
There is one star who will definitely appear in the film: Kaufman’s old Taxi mate Danny DeVito, whose production company, Jersey Films, is making the movie. So far DeVito has only committed to playing Kaufman’s manager, George Shapiro. (”I don’t want to put down Brad Pitt, Harrison Ford, or Kevin Costner,” jokes the real Shapiro, who is also executive-producing the film. ”They’re all fine actors, but Danny has the warmth and humor that fits for me.”) Whether or not DeVito or any of the old Taxi cast will appear as themselves has yet to be determined.
Alexander and Karaszewski, who have been toying with the idea of a Kaufman biopic for several years, have painstakingly sifted through the strange details of the comedian’s life. They’ve collected 11 crates of videos, 20 hours of interviews, and four boxes of articles. ”We have to be careful the movie doesn’t become Andy’s greatest bits,” Karaszewski says. ”It can’t simply be a string of his funny sketches.”
Of course, with Kaufman — a conceptual comic who made a name for himself with such zany bits as lip-synching Mighty Mouse’s theme song on Saturday Night Live, offering $1,000 to any woman who could take him down in a wrestling ring, and his injury-inducing feud with professional wrestler Jerry Lawler — life was often part of a comedy routine. That off-kilter style goes a long way toward explaining why Kaufman still has ardent fans today, ranging from David Letterman to R.E.M., whose 1993 song ”Man on the Moon” was a tribute to Kaufman. In addition, Shapiro says, ”younger people are seeing reruns of Taxi [on Nick at Nite] and SNL [on Comedy Central], so the interest in him has kept going.”