HomeEntertainmentOn This Day: Comedian Andy Kaufman Dies of Cancer in 1984

On This Day: Comedian Andy Kaufman Dies of Cancer in 1984

by Jon D. B.
(Photo by Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)

One of the most controversial figures in comedy history, Andy Kaufman‘s life would end tragically young after a battle with lung cancer.

On May 16, 1984, iconic, “offbeat comedian” Andy Kaufman died at the age of 35. But if you clicked on this article, chances are you’re aware of the confusion – and urban legends – surrounding the star’s untimely death.

Kaufman did, after all, often speak of faking his own death. For him, it would be the ultimate “grand hoax”. In fact, many trades refused to believe the comic was dead in 1984, as do swaths of Hollywood conspiracy theorists to this day. Several resurgences of this myth – with one as recent as 2013 – forced the Los Angeles County Coroner to re-release Kaufman’s death certificate to the public to prove that he was, in fact, dead.

In addition, the official website of Andy Kaufman‘s estate once included a photo of his death certificate. They did so to combat the persistent “urban legend,” as they called it. The site is, however, long defunct, with mentions of this remaining only on Britannica and other categorical websites.

Though Kaufman would still manage to prank the world posthumously. His most infamous character, the lewd, obnoxious Tony Clifton, would continue to perform for years after Kaufman – the actor who originated the crooner – died of cancer.

If you’ve seen Man on the Moon (which this author highly recommends), then you know Kaufman’s close friend, Bob Zmuda, would also perform Clifton. According to the film’s star, Jim Carrey (who plays Andy Kaufman and Clifton astoundingly), it was Bob Zmuda who continued performing Tony Clifton after his friend’s death to help sell the “grand hoax.”

Andy Kaufman’s Death “Hoax” Perpetuated By Bob Zmuda

Yet there’s plenty of reasons, still, for people to doubt Kaufman’s death by lung cancer.

In 2014, Zmuda would co-author Andy Kaufman: The Truth, Finally, with the last girlfriend of Andy’s life, Lynne Margulies. Together, the pair would write that Kaufman’s death was, in fact, a prank and hoax. The Truth, Finally states that the comedian would make his triumphant return “soon”. The “upper limit on his “prank,” the authors said, was three decades.

Looking at the final performances of Andy Kaufman, however, tell a different tale. His January 1984 shows were performed by a gaunt, skeletal shadow of the star’s former self. Cancer was taking its toll.

In his last months, Andy would try everything from radical diets to radiotherapy to cure himself. The cancer, however, had already spread to his brain.

Whether or not you believe it, the man we knew as Andy Kaufman died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, California on this day, May 16, in 1984, tragically young. If you take his death certificate at word, that is.