By Richard J. Gerber
Today would have been Andy Kaufman’s birthday. He was born 68 years ago on Jan. 17, 1949. Sadly, he passed away 33 years ago on May 16, 1984, at age 35. I was fortunate to know Andy, sharing classrooms with him from kindergarten at Saddle Rock Elementary School in 1954–55 through 10th grade English in 1964–65 with Carolee Kamin, our teacher at Great Neck North. Ms. Kamin was interviewed about Andy in the Nov. 9, 1999, issue of New York’s Village Voice newspaper. She and other teachers we had have been invited to attend our Class of 1967’s Fiftieth Reunion, which will be held at the Inn at Great Neck from June 9 to 11.
During our junior and senior high school years in Great Neck, Andy Kaufman and I were never best friends, but we were friends. He lived about three blocks away from me and, during that time, I heard about many things that Andy did, like conducting wrestling matches in the basement of his parents’ house. But, generally, I did not participate.
Our families belonged to a summer pool club, Wildwood, located about halfway between his home on Grassfield Road and mine on Cow Lane. Sometimes, Andy and I would meet at the entrance to a wooded area at the end of Blossom Road, through which a dirt path led to the pool. Pale and thin, he would always greet me with a mischievous half-smile and, as we walked through the woods, he would keep up a steady chatter about important things—school, life, girls. Andy’s perspectives on such matters were funny. He would kid me about his being 12 days older than I was. In those days, Andy carried a copy of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road in the back pocket of his jeans; he would remove the paperback and read portions out loud at a moment’s notice.
I recall one summer afternoon in 1963 or 1964 when we were 14 or 15. Andy and I met at the entrance to the woods and, on this occasion, he was carrying a stack of papers. During our walk, he asked if I would read his novel, but I declined. However, he was persistent and, by the time we reached the pool and settled into lounge chairs, he began reading his text aloud to me. I don’t remember much about Andy’s book, but I think it included an alien abduction scene. After listening to a few pages, I fell asleep. The novel, The Hollering Mangoo, remains unpublished.
After high school, I followed the beginning of Andy’s public career and remember seeing him for the first time on television; I think it was on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in the early ’70s. I also saw him on Saturday Night Live. I remember watching him lip-synch the Mighty Mouse theme song, which was pretty funny; I think I also saw him wrestle a woman on TV. However, I don’t believe I ever saw a complete episode of Taxi, although I have seen clips and know that it was widely popular and considered quite humorous. I did, however, read the show’s press clippings. Latka Gravas was a great character, although I understand that Andy felt typecast by him. I also thought Andy’s Elvis impression was spot on and, apparently, it was Elvis’s favorite, too (Andy claimed he sought and received The King’s approval). Like most of his high school friends, I always marveled at the variety of Andy’s achievements and remain astonished to this day that he is our most famous classmate. When asked about him, I usually feel obligated to explain that there were actually two Andy Kaufmans in our class—the other one was not Latka.
Fast forward 20 years to the summer of 1983. It was more than 15 years since I had last seen Andy in person. I was back in Great Neck visiting my sister and brother-in-law who lived in town. My brother-in-law, Ira, and I decided to go to Friendly’s on Middle Neck Road in the New Village for lunch. It was located where the Capital One bank branch now stands.
As we entered the restaurant, I spotted Andy, seated alone in the first booth, his back to the front door. He looked pretty much the same; perhaps a little more pale and thin. It seems he had wrapped up his run on Taxi. He also, probably, had his diagnosis of lung cancer, even though he never smoked cigarettes. He had less than a year to live.
I identified myself, and Andy remembered me right away. I introduced Ira and asked if it would be OK if we sat down and joined him. He said, “Sure.”
Andy had a cup of coffee or tea in front of him. When the waitress came over to take our order, he did not order anything more. As we waited for our sandwiches to arrive, we chatted. I told him that I had never actually seen much of Taxi, but had heard that he was great as Latka; he half-smiled. Ira told him he loved Taxi, and Andy seemed pleased. We reminisced about old times and I mentioned our walks together through the woods to the pool. Andy remembered them, too, but I did not ask about his novel. As we talked about this and that through our meal, he seemed to be enjoying himself.
When lunch ended, Ira and I both stood up to go; we shook Andy’s hand and wished him well. He was still nursing his drink and said he would stay a while longer. As we prepared to part, Andy gave a quick wave. It was the last time I saw him, but I will always remember all of our times together.
Before walking out, I leaned into the booth and said, “Great to see you.” Flashing his mischievous smile, Latka replied, “Tank you veddy much!”
Formal invitations to the GNN Class of ’67 Fiftieth Reunion will be sent to all class members via email. To be added to the list, email firstname.lastname@example.org.