The Internet erupted with the buzz after Kaufman’s brother read a letter purportedly from Andy at a comedy club on Monday night and introduced a 24-year-old woman as his brother’s daughter.
But almost as quickly as reports surfaced Thursday, the news seemed to fizzle, with Michael Kaufman telling CNN’s “The Lead with Jake Tapper” that he believes he’s the victim of a hoax.
“Now that it’s Thursday, not Monday anymore, I believe I am part of a hoax,” Kaufman said in a bizarre, rambling interview where he spoke in a monotone not unlike his brother.
“I don’t believe she’s acting on her own, though,” Kaufman said of the woman he introduced Monday night. “But, you know, that’s all I know.”
Tapper pressed him: “Just to reiterate, you now don’t think that it’s true — you think that this is a hoax and you were a victim of the hoax?”
“Correct,” Kaufman said. He denied he was part of the hoax.
The Smoking Gun reported the woman is actually an actress named Alexandra Tatarsky, and her father is a 58-year-old psychologist. The website reported that Michael Kaufman met her earlier this year at a Manhattan gallery and recruited her to pose as his brother’s daughter.
“That is not true,” Michael Kaufman told CNN. Attempts to reach the Tatarskys were unsuccessful.
Asked if he was angry, he said, “I’m still processing it. As Andy’s brother, you learn over the years, you know, to go with the flow, kind of. So I have mixed emotions. I never allowed myself to get too excited, but I was always slightly skeptical.”
Andy Kaufman, the comedic genius, had often talked about faking his death and joked about his eventual return. Sightings of Kaufman’s boorish character Tony Clifton were reported at comedy clubs following the comedian’s death in 1984 from a rare form of cancer at age 35. Even some of his closest friends never quite believed Kaufman died. A cult following ensued.
As the latest reports spread Thursday, the Los Angeles County Coroner took the unusual step of re-releasing Kaufman’s death certificate. “Andy Kaufman is dead,” the coroner’s office said in a statement.
Kaufman’s manager, George Shapiro, was at the comedian’s side at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles on the day he died, May 16, 1984. “Andy’s very much alive in our hearts, but I don’t think his body is around,” Shapiro told CNN Thursday. “He died. I was in the hospital.”
Michael Kaufman told Tapper he, too, was at his brother’s deathbed. “I saw him emaciated. I saw him die.”
The latest story began Monday. In a tale almost as outlandish as his brother’s skits, Michael Kaufman told an audience at a New York comedy club that he received a letter from his brother 15 years after his death. A woman then came on stage and said she was Andy Kaufman’s daughter born in 1989.
Michael Kaufman explained he was going through Andy’s writings many years ago and found a reference to him “talking about faking his death,” including the line, “I will reappear.” It said Andy’s reappearance would take place at a restaurant on Christmas Eve in 1999.
When Michael Kaufman went to the restaurant, he said, a parking attendant gave him a letter purportedly from his brother. Michael Kaufman read the letter to the audience at Monday’s annual Andy Kaufman Awards show.
“It was too much pressure to be Andy Kaufman. I just wanted to be Andy,” Michael Kaufman read. “I think that’s why I got sick. I had to change completely and quickly. I’m extremely very happily married with the most wonderful wife in the whole wide world and with the two greatest kids: a 10-year-old daughter and a son who is 8.”
Michael Kaufman told the audience a woman approached him about a month after his father, Stanley Kaufman, died this summer: “She told me a lot of secrets that Andy and I had together, like our secret handshake, the way Andy made fun of me for being too nice of a guy.”
She then came onstage.
Kaufman was beloved for his portrayal on “Taxi” of Latka Gravas, the wildly entertaining foreigner who struggled with English and multiple personality disorder. Yet to the dismay of the entertainment world, Kaufman started wrestling women in night clubs around the country in the early 1980s.
It was in Memphis, Tennessee, where his wrestling gig hit the stratosphere, challenging local legend Jerry “The King” Lawler in epic matches.
“I would like nothing better than to know that Andy was still alive and been with us all this time,” Lawler told CNN Thursday by phone. “But like anybody else, I really don’t know any more than what I’ve heard.
“It could be a great hoax in his honor, dreamed up by his friend Bob Zamuda and his brother, Michael. That would be something that would be in keeping with Andy’s tradition, but who’s to say. It could really be legit.”
Lawler challenged Kaufman, if he really is alive, to climb back into the ring. “There should be a WrestleMania rematch between Andy and The King,” Lawler said. “We could rekindle the feud with no problem.”
Longtime friend Dennis Raimondi said Kaufman confided in him around 1980 about his desire to fake his death and how he planned to do it.
“It’s certainly something he gave a lot of thought to,” Raimondi told CNN Thursday. “One of his concerns at the time was the reaction of his parents. He cared about them.”
CNN spoke to Kaufman’s father prior to his death this summer. Stanley Kaufman, then 90, said his son had driven him and his wife crazy from a young age — even more so when he entered the wrestling ring.
“My wife and I used to go bananas when we would see what he was doing. We thought: ‘Good God, he’s gonna get killed!'” he said. “But my son was a nut, what can I tell you? He knew what he wanted to do.”
He said he had no doubts of his son’s death and that he missed his boy greatly. “Andy scared the hell out of us,” he said. “In retrospect, of course, I’m so, so very proud of him. But at the time, it was scary. I used to be embarrassed by my son. But he knew everything that he did, everything was deliberate, everything was calculated.
“He did a good job with what he intended to do. I am proud of the kid.”
Kaufman did have a daughter. She was given up for adoption when Andy was 17. For years, Stanley Kaufman wondered about his granddaughter and what became of her, especially after Andy died.
He reunited with Andy’s daughter nearly 20 years ago and the two became exceedingly close. As Stanley suffered from cancer in recent years, she became one of his confidantes. He called it a “beautiful, beautiful relationship.”
“She’s the greatest gift my son gave me,” he said.