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ANDY KAUFMAN TRIBUTE REVEALS A COMIC UNLIKE ANY OTHER

Andy Kaufman was an original who marched to the beat of his own bongos. His comedy routines were deceptively simple but always unique. He didn't tell jokes but offered offbeat routines which included an uncanny impression of Elvis Presley (The King once said that Kaufman's impersonation of him was his favorite).

On his very first appearance on "Saturday Night Live," Kaufman brought out a phonograph and played a children's recording of the theme from "Mighty Mouse" mouthing only one line of the song three times -- it brought the house down. Kaufman's voice and mannerisms for his Foreign Man were refined and became Latka Gravis in "Taxi," which earned Kaufman his biggest exposure and fame.

In 1984, at age 35, Kaufman died of cancer. It seems very unlikely that we will see another talent quite like his on the comedy scene.

NBC offers "A Comedy Salute to Andy Kaufman" at 10 p.m. Wednesday on Channel 2. It's a wonderful collection of bits and pieces from Kaufman's numerous TV appearances with Johnny Carson and David Letterman, plus clips from his TV specials and, of course, scenes from "Taxi." It is a very funny hour, but actually it is also more than that: It provides an insight into the comic genius of a man whom some labeled slightly insane.

In 1980, when "Taxi" was riding the crest in the ratings, I met Andy Kaufman on the set of the popular TV show. While waiting for him to come out of wardrobe and makeup, I spoke with some of his co-stars. While they were very complimentary about their fellow actor, they also smiled in a strange way, asking me if I was prepared for the experience of interviewing Andy Kaufman. Tony Danza and Danny DeVito both shook my hand and said I was a brave man. All this good-natured ribbing made me a bit apprehensive, but it didn't prepare me for what was to come.

Kaufman arrived in his white overalls, which was his Latka uniform as the mechanic for the taxi company. We went to a small room in the back of some unused sets. Although 15 years have passed since my encounter with Kaufman, I remember all of it vividly.

Kaufman sat across from me at a long table and stared into space for what seemed to be an eternity. I chuckled thinking he was being esoterically funny, but there was no response from the actor. I asked a series of questions, all about his character of Latka, and still no response. Just when I was ready to get up and leave, Kaufman answered every question I had asked in sequence, without missing a beat. I sat down and started taking notes.

After the initial outburst, Kaufman seemed relaxed and even forthcoming. We talked about the popularity of Latka and the made-up language he employed as the character. I then ventured into a more personal area and asked him about his childhood.

Once again, Andy retreated for a minute, but when he focused again, he was telling me about performing at birthday parties when he was a kid. At this point, he held up his hand as if there was a puppet attached and went into a long routine, playing various characters, putting up his right hand and then his left when he changed character voices. I remember thinking at the time, his routine could have been called "Sesame Street Meets the Grand Guignol."

After the birthday party entertainment, I mentioned how good his Elvis Presley impersonation was, and he thanked me. I took this as a cue that the interview was over, but at that point, Kaufman jumped up on the table and became Elvis Presley, playing air guitar and singing not one but three of Elvis' hits, including "Blue Suede Shoes." The table shook and I was certain it was going to collapse under Kaufman's gyrations. I was getting a stiff neck from bending back to watch him. He finished, climbed down, smiled at me and left the room.

I have never had an interview with any other celebrity that can compare with the 45 minutes I spent with Andy Kaufman . . . and I expect I never will.

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