Depending on whom you ask, Andy Kaufman either died on this day 29 years ago, or he sure fooled us. As evidence for the latter, they'll point to his career. Not the obvious one -- his "Taxi" gig or his quick-flaming stint on "Saturday Night Live" (which ended with the audience voting him off the show as part of a stunt he suggested, not thinking it would go that way). Even at the height of his success, Kaufman told any reporter who'd listen that all that flashy stuff was just to support his real work: his high-concept live act.
It's a long and sublimely silly list. Take the times Kaufman read The Great Gatsby aloud until the audience hissed and booed. "Would you rather listen to a tape?" he'd ask (they always said yes). But the tape simply turned out to be a recording of him reading The Great Gatsby. There was his Carnegie Hall special, after which he invited the entire audience -- all 2,800 of them, including Andy Warhol -- to a meticulously planned snack of milk and cookies.
Even a reasonable fan might have seen in the scope of Kaufman's lunacy a promise that he'd someday try the ultimate prank.
Today there's evidence to the contrary. A death certificate, for one. For those who can't make it to the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services to see the document in person, the Smoking Gun posted an image online in 1999 to counteract a flurry of rumors the website ascribed to "guerilla marketing" for the release of the Milos Forman biopic, "Man On The Moon," which stars Jim Carrey as Kaufman.
"In this case," admonished the writer, "it seems rather cynical, since Kaufman most certainly died on May 16, 1984 in Cedars Sinai Hospital, as this copy of his death certificate shows."
So there lies Kaufman, for all intents and purposes. (As well as under a "slab of granite" described by the Village Voice in a 1999 dispatch from Section One-4 of Beth David Cemetery in Elmont, N.Y.)
Still, a subset of fans remain convinced that Kaufman faked his death. These few, who refer to themselves as "the disciples," await their hero with the grim determination of Pentecostals counting down the days until rapture. They've kept the faith even after moments of supposed return came and went. Their mythology is murky, and their methods are questionable. Step one foot into their world and the floor collapses into a rabbit hole.
Kaufman, if he were (is?) alive, would surely approve.
ACTS OF GENEROSITY
The disciples meet less regularly these days than they once did. But the point of contact hasn't changed. The clubhouse is online, at AndyKaufmanLives.com, the highest-trafficked Kaufman conspiracy website, registered since 2003 to a Stephen D. Maddox of Greenwood, Ind.
The original community was small but diverse. "There was this girl from Croatia, a guy from the Netherlands, a guy from Gibraltar," said Frank Edward Nora, the host of talk radio podcast "The Overnightscape." Nora, who runs the podcast from his house in New Jersey, says he was "drawn in briefly" to the site out of journalistic curiosity, long enough to become a disciple.
Posters shared one thing in common, he said. "They'd all made this almost supernatural connection with Andy Kaufman, for whatever reason."
Talk to the disciples though, and you'll find they fixate on someone else equally. That's Maddox, the site's founder and bestower of the title "disciple," an enigmatic figure who claims to be a descendant of Kaufman's, and who some disciples believe is closer than that.
Jack Bristow, a 27-year-old writer in Albuquerque, N.M., starts off his Maddox story in the site's early days in 2003. Back then, Bristow was a skeptic. He'd question the death hoax theory on the site's forum, which was moderated by a woman with the punny, fake-sounding name of Claire Channel.
"Some of the posters seemed to get a bit angry," Bristow wrote in an email to The Huffington Post. But "Claire would never get mad."
In 2004, Kaufman's longtime partner-in-crime Bob Zmuda organized a tribute night at the House of Blues in Los Angeles. The event piqued the interest of everyone at AKLives. Kaufman reportedly once teased that, if he died, he would return 20 years later. And Zmuda's show, "Andy Kaufman: Dead Or Alive," was scheduled for May 16 -- 20 years to the day since Kaufman left.
Bristow wanted to go but didn't have the cash. Then came an email from Channel, asking if he was attending. When Bristow wrote back, he says she returned with an offer: "I have a few spare tickets lying around." Overjoyed, Bristow started packing. He says he later found out his two $175 tickets weren't Channel's only gift; she apparently also covered tickets, airfare and hotel rooms for others who posted to the site.
About a year later, Bristow got another email from Channel, a confession "that she was not a girl at all, but that she was, in fact, Stephen Maddox." The ruse, coupled with Maddox's generosity, struck him as meaningful.
"Most of the people ... who claim to be dead celebrities are usually scam artists," Bristow wrote. "But Maddox has never asked anybody for money, as far as I know. Instead, he spends money generously on Andy Kaufman fans. And Andy was famously generous with his fans."
That the dead celebrity in question was a no-show in L.A. didn't shake Bristow's new faith. Kaufman wasn't dead after all, he reasoned. He was living in Indiana, running a website.
HOW TO FAKE YOUR DEATH
In 1981, not long before his death, the real Andy Kaufman met Alan Abel, a professional hoaxer who'd managed the impossible the year before.
"I had my own obituary in The New York Times," Abel, now 82, told The Huffington Post by phone from his home in Connecticut. "I got eight inches of space, which is two more than the guy who invented the six-pack got. Only he actually died that day."
The meeting of Kaufman and Abel capped off of one of those series of events so guided by chance, those involved call it fate. On the streets of New York, Kaufman was approached by the host of a public-access TV show on the martial arts. He wanted Kaufman to make a cameo, but on a Saturday rather than Thursday, when the episode would be overrun by serious martial artists who wouldn't like hijinks. Naturally, Kaufman took the warning as reason to come on Thursday.
In the building was Bob Pagani, a hoaxer and Kaufman acolyte who happened to have just mailed a letter -- a shot in the dark, as he described it -- asking the comic to appear on his show, which filmed in the same studio, that week (Pagani said Kaufman insisted he never saw the letter).
After introducing himself, Pagani asked Kaufman to do double duty; Kaufman said yes, with the caveat that his parents join the bit, too. The sequence -- in which a pair of actors play a moralizing couple railing at Kaufman for ruining America -- is now required watching for diehard fans. "More people have seen that silly show in the last few years than ever saw it when it aired on public access in Manhattan," Pagani claims.
Afterward, Pagani said he told Kaufman about Abel and the latest hoax in a career that stretched back to the '50s: bamboozling the normally infallible Grey Lady into proclaiming him dead.
"[Kaufman] was incredibly open for a celebrity," Pagani said. "He gave me his number. I called Alan and said, 'What are you doing tomorrow?' He said, 'Nothing.' I said, 'We're meeting Andy Kaufman.'"
The trio met in the plush lobby of the Hilton on 53rd Street, where Kaufman was staying. By Pagani's account, Kaufman was "extremely interested" in Abel's death hoax. "He was asking Alan all about how he did it."
Abel said he told Kaufman everything, that day and during the friendship that followed: how he put his "team" to work, setting up a fake funeral home in a trailer in Orem, Utah, and reserving All Souls Church in Manhattan for the funeral. Then there was the critical dispatch -- an actress friend with a gift for weeping on cue, who arrived at the Times office an hour before deadline, and that too, on a Sunday, when the second stringers were in charge.
"She could shed tears at the sight of a bumblebee falling down dead from the sky onto the sidewalk," Abel said of the actress, who pretended to be his widow.
The disciples treat the meeting between Abel and Kaufman as an origin story. The bulk of it, they learned directly from the source.
Curt Eric Clendenin, a longtime AKLives poster and former child actor (he played an orphan in "The Blues Brothers"), says he hunted like "freaking Sherlock Holmes" for the two hoax artists.
"I got an email out of the blue from [Clendenin] telling me that he's been following the stuff I've done over the years, that he's a big fan," Pagani recalled, in the bemused tone of someone who doesn't hear that often. "I was like ... okay!"
Pagani recited everything he remembered about that day, and the two struck up an online friendship.
But Pagani can't bring himself to accept Clendenin's premise. The conspiracy theory, Pagani said, betrays not just his better judgment but that of most of Kaufman's nearest and dearest.
"I know people at the wake in Long Island literally leaned over the casket and said, 'Andy, if you're faking, please stop,'" he said. "I wish he had been faking, but I just don't think it's possible."
"Unless he, Elvis and Jim Morrison are all giggling up their sleeves somewhere," there's no reason to believe he's still alive, says Merle Kessler, a hoaxer who guest starred on a variety show with Kaufman in 1976. "What would be the point of it?"
A LIVING LEGACY
The point, the disciples claim, is that Kaufman wanted less fame, not more. To understand why and how he did what they insist he did, they'll tell you to first understand Maddox.
In 2008, Kaufman was again supposed to surface. This time it would be at an "Andy Kaufman Press Conference" in a hotel in Jersey. Maddox, who planned the conference, asked Nora, the podcaster, if he would host.
A few invites went out to the press (to those on the "weird" news beat, Nora said). Before the proceedings, someone knocked on Nora’s room door. A man walked in wearing a monster mask. He introduced himself as Maddox.
"He didn't want anyone to see his face," Nora said.
The masked man led Nora into the conference room. The conference itself, which can be viewed online, went as bizarrely as you might expect, with a puppet show mixed in with the playing of unintelligible audio tapes. For most of the viewers, the scene was simply live comedy. (Fittingly, the reporter there for Weird New Jersey, Chris Gethard, later landed his own Comedy Central show, "Big Lake.")
But for the disciples and their ilk, the stakes were high.
"People were accusing me of being in on things," Nora said. "This was all being watched on the Internet by a small group of dedicated people."
Once again, no Kaufman. After the event, the AKLives members seemed to lose hope. The forum turned less wild, focused on Kaufman's legacy in creating a "trickster archetype," as Nora puts it, with little debate about whether the man was actually alive or dead.
Then Maddox re-emerged. In an email, he told the disciples he wanted to explain everything. According to several disciples who said they were on the call, he gathered them over the phone and unwound a far-fetched story now repeated as gospel: that he is Andy Kaufman's son, that his mother and Kaufman were teenagers when he was born, and that his maternal grandparents raised him as his parents.
In Maddox's telling, in the '80s, when Kaufman's career declined and his devotion to Transcendental Meditation reached new highs, he wended his way back to the woman who'd had his first child. What Maddox said happened next is straight out of a fairy tale, or a thriller: Kaufman was fed up with his life and so he swapped identities with the man to whom Maddox's biological mother was married. That man, who was ill at the time, made use of Kaufman's bank account to pay for his health care, Maddox told the disciples. Meanwhile, Kaufman got a second life with a woman he loved.
In this story, the cancer-ridden body in the casket, which mourners whispered pleas to at the wake, was not Kaufman's, but that of the husband of Maddox's mother. Both families -- the Kaufmans and the Maddoxes -- were supposedly in on the plot. As for AKLives, Maddox said he'd designed the website as a beacon to lead Kaufman back to him.
Maddox told the disciples he'd only just learned all the details from his family. After the press conference, he said, a relative gave him Kaufman's current address, leading to an apartment complex in New Mexico.
No one at the other end of the line asked for proof of any kind. The story, Clendenin told HuffPost, simply made sense. When asked how he could judge its veracity, he said, "Steve Maddox told me that Kaufman is still alive. In fact, he told me where he is."
If there’s anything close to an objective party, it may be Nora, who mined his experience as a disciple for his talk show without getting emotionally tied to Kaufman's state of being. And yet, while Nora agrees that all of it -- the website, the lurid backstory, the monster mask -- seems to point to Maddox as some Kaufman fan gone haywire, he said he remains perplexed.
Maddox didn't seem to be "doing this for a lark," in Nora's estimation. He nurtured the website for too long and with too much devotion. Neither did he seem unhinged. "He was mostly just sad," Nora said.
After the phone call, Maddox more or less vanished. He occasionally tweeted or emailed provocative updates: that he'd moved to the complex where Kaufman lived in Albuquerque. That Kaufman admitted everything. That he took the name Lynne (which happens to be the first name of Kaufman’s last girlfriend, Lynne Margulis) and works the cash register in a convenience store, and has a second family. That Kaufman, or Lynne, wants nothing to do with Maddox.
But even those sporadic missives have died of late, and Maddox seems to have made himself unavailable. "He isn't answering his emails," Clendenin said. "What I thought was his phone number is not accepting calls."
Emails sent to several possible addresses obtained by The Huffington Post went unanswered.
For now, Nora entertains two possibilities, and neither involve Maddox pulling the wool over anyone's eyes. Maddox sincerely believes in a fantasy, or the fantasy is true.
Or, the disciples were duped, in which case, one point stands: Kaufman seems to have something like an heir.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misidentified the location of the Andy Kaufman Press Conference, and the status of the Comedy Central show "Big Lake." We apologize for the errors.
This story appears in Issue 53 of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, in the iTunes App store, available Friday, June 14.