Back in Tampa, FL, I lived near wrestling manager Jimmy “Mouth of the South” Hart, who managed Andy Kaufman during his brief spat as a professional wrestler. On the eve of Jim Carrey’s Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon, I may have been the only person who realized Jimmy Hart was not in the movie, despite his having played a huge part in Kaufman’s wrestling career. So I hung out with Hart for a couple days and got his take on Kaufman. On a side note, this was during the time that Husker Du and Sugar frontman Bob Mould had just started writing scripts for World Wrestling Entertainment, and so I had the occasion to explain to Jimmy Hart how Mould was important and “famous,” despite his never having a radio hit — that’s not in the interview. Also, before we parted ways, Hart showed me a big folder of original, never-before-seen photos of he and Andy Kaufman, and he gave me one as a gift. It hangs in my daughter’s room to this day. Below this video of Hart wrestling Kaufman after they turned on each other, is my FEED interview with The Mouth of the South:
Jimmy “Mouth of the South” Hart has been part of the fantasy world of wrestling since the brutes were referred to as “rasslers.” For 18 years, sporting flashy blazers, a mullet haircut, and megaphone, Hart has played along, straight-faced, throughout every surreal moment of his pro-wrestling career. He’s hosted a talk show with a 400-plus-pound gay wrestler who sprayed perfume in the face of his enemies; he’s managed an Elvis-impersonator, a pre-“Hulk” Terry Bollea, and the present Governor of Minnesota. He’s been publicly pantsed more than anyone in history. It’s no wonder he thinks little of having managed Intergender Wrestling Champion, Andy Kaufman, during 1981 and 1982.
As the Andy Kaufman revival reaches critical mass — with Milos Forman’s bio-pic, Man on the Moon, Bob Zmuda’s book, Andy Kaufman Revealed! and Bill Zehme’s Lost in the Funhouse — the comic is being deified. Stilted readings of Kaufman’s intent characterize him as a Marcel Duchamp, his quirks attributed to artistic vision and vice versa. But Jimmy Hart never saw Kaufman as an artistic prophet. Wrestlers like old school manager “Classy” Freddie Blassie, who starred in Kaufman’s indie flick Breakfast with Blassie, thought of Kaufman as a “goofball pencil-necked geek.” Most of Kaufman’s mystique comes from the same source as wrestling’s: real or fake? serious or tee-hee? Before they were forced out of the “sports-entertainment” closet, wrestlers were so in on the joke that they never bothered to acknowledge the joke at all. The wrestling world was a playground where everyone played very seriously. And as an adult, Kaufman found what every child desires: perfect playmates, in Jimmy Hart and the cast of Midsouth Championship Wrestling.
In conversation, sans megaphone, Hart and his southern accent are not consistently histrionic, but lapse into cartoonish exaggeration often enough to remind you who you’re dealing with. He carries with him a huge Sharpie marker for the benefit of the many people who recognize him on the street and ask for his autograph. He is sincere like a used car salesman might be with his mother, and he references Elvis often. When FEED recently met up with Hart in Tampa, he spoke about the hate Kaufman stirred up in Memphis, the days of wrestling before cable TV, and the dangers of dinner with Latka.
FEED: How did your experience with Andy Kaufman begin?
HART: Through a guy named Bill Apter. He was the big deal in the wrestling magazines. He still is. The first person Bill went to with this idea of Andy doing some stuff was Vince MacMahon. Vince was just starting to put together his [WWF] empire back then. Vince turned the idea down. Bill Apter was good friends with Jerry Lawler, who was running our Midsouth Championship Wrestling in Memphis, and said, “Hey, we’ve got a chance to do something with Andy Kaufman. He loves the rassling. He’d love to come to Memphis and participate.” Of course we jumped at the chance. Here we were, a small local territory and having a star of his caliber come down. So we jumped on it. That was back when we were getting paid a percentage of the house.
FEED: Did it seem crazy to you that he wanted to wrestle?
HART: I think it started out as a great skit for his comedy act but the more he did it the more he really liked it. He always loved the rassling very much. Half the time we wouldn’t even have to pay him for coming down. That was crazy. He talked to me so much about the rassling: always asking about who I’d managed, my experiences. I’d tell him funny things that would happen on car trips with the rasslers. He loved it. He loved rassling and he seemed to like the girls very much. He also loved Elvis stories. I’d met Elvis twice so he’d have me tell him about that. But Andy was always very serious about getting together and learning what we were gonna do in the ring. It wasn’t like normal where you’d have to call and see if he’s ready. He’d be calling all the time, “What are we doing, what are we doing?”
FEED: Was he as irreverent as he’s made out to be? Did he throw a lot of
HART: I had to calm him down when we’d go in somewhere to eat. He’d do that foreign accent and act like he couldn’t speak English and point at the menu until the waitress would get really frustrated. I’d tell him, “Don’t play your character cause I don’t want there to be a big clumper or a booger in our food.” In Memphis it was really amazing if anyone wanted our autographs cause they all hated us so much. But Andy didn’t like signing autographs and the way he’d get out of it was, “Look, if I sign your autograph will you buy me a meal?” They’d go, “No, I’m not gonna buy you a meal.” The reason he gave was, “If I sign your autograph, I’m gonna have to sign one for everybody in here which means my meal will get cold and I don’t want to eat a cold meal.” And of course people would be like, “You son-of-a-bitch!” and cuss us both out.
FEED: Did he ever try to pull anything like that with you?
HART: That’s one of the reasons Lawler had me at ringside. We were always worried that if we were getting ready to do something and he backed out of it, we’d be up shit creek. That’s the last thing you want in front of 10,000 people. With us he was always very down to earth. He was never acting silly or stupid like his characters on TV. I think he respected us enough and appreciated what we were doing. I think he was really sincere about rassling. Plus, if he made a wrong move, one of those guys would kill him. Nowadays the writers put stuff together and make part of the show funny and some of it serious. But back then the planning was pretty much Lawler and myself. We gave Andy complete freedom. He’d go out and get the mike and do whatever he wanted to do with it. Sometimes he’d draw it out pretty long and you could feel the audience starting to die with him.
FEED: Which was his deal — pushing it to a point where people couldn’t stand it anymore.
HART: Yeah, but rassling fans aren’t like people who come to a comedy club. They’re really brutal. Any given night you’re showered with beer, gum in your hair, people spitting on you all the time. He couldn’t get out there and spend 20 minutes on the floor going, [singing] “I’m the king, I’m the king of Memphis, Tennesseeeeeeeee!” For the first minute it was funny. Finally Lawler would go, “Go get him and tell him to get his ass back in the ring.” And I’d go get him and Andy’d go, “One more, one more.” Sometimes I’d have to just run and jump in the ring to start it myself. I’d take a few bumps cause we couldn’t just get up there and keep on dancin’ and singin’ all night.
FEED: How did the local Memphis fans react to having a national TV star coming to their local gathering every week?
HART: It was a big deal that Lawler was going to be on “David Letterman.” But Vince has recently come out and said it’s entertainment to kind of get out of commission taxes. Now people know it’s written and choreographed. But people back then really believed it more. People in Memphis already hated me. When I was fighting Lawler, and Andy and me were together my mailbox would be torn down every two months. They’d toilet paper the house. We’d have eggs thrown all over the cars. When my oldest son was in school, the kids pushed him down the slide and broke out three of his front teeth and broke his arm, ’cause his name was Jimmy Hart, too [snicker]. Andy was always knocking Memphis about hygiene saying, “I’m gonna give everybody in Memphis a role of toilet paper cause I know you’re using corn cobs!” Both of us together had to be really careful…wait till everyone had left the arena before we could come out. We’d have police escort us. Andy and I aren’t real big so everybody thought they could whoop us, which they probably could have.
FEED: What about the other wrestlers?
HART: [Some wrestlers] thought it’d hurt the territory eventually to have someone out there making a jackass out of themselves and out of the business. There’s a lot of jealousy. Even today, [the wrestlers] hate to see anyone coming from entertainment, rockstars or anything, and getting a lot of the glory when they haven’t been beat up every night or taken their bumps or been hit with tables or chairs. But no one ever confronted Andy about it cause he was making money for the company. And it was in his contract that no one was allowed to hurt him cause he was on “Taxi” at the time. He had a million-dollar insurance policy.
FEED: How would Andy have faired in the wrestling world of today?
HART: I think he would have been a great manager. We have guys fighting women in our territory now. So, I think Andy was way before his time as far as getting the men and women wrestling thing started. But weight wise he’d never have been able to get up there and take the physical abuse night after night. Me being a manager for 18 years: I’ve had a broken jaw, 30 or 40 stitches in my forehead, muscles pulled away from my ribcage… Especially with these “hardcore” matches we’re involved in: canes and tables and chairs being bashed on you night after night. And these aren’t breakaway chairs and these aren’t canes you see in Hollywood. When you get hit, you really get hit. A couple guys I manage have had concussion after concussion and have had to take plenty of time off.
FEED: Was there anything he wouldn’t do?
HART: There was one time Lawler was going to pile drive him off the ropes. He was scared of that. We made sure we never hit him with any canes. We didn’t want to scare him off.
FEED: Are you in the movie coming out?
HART: Jerry Lawler is with WWF and our companies aren’t on the best of terms. There’s a lawsuit pending between the two companies and our people felt like if I participated in the film with Jerry Lawler and played my character I played in Memphis, it’d be a conflict of interest. So I lost my big part. Maybe Tom Cruise played it. Probably Danny DeVito. They’re playing up the rassling angle in the trailers and things but rassling fans are going to be disappointed. They’ll go thinking there’s gonna be a lot of rassling in the movie but it’s only like one scene. The real tapes on Comedy Central show more of Jimmy Hart, Andy Kaufman, and Jerry Lawler than the movie. So, I’m not really that upset about not bein’ in the movie.
FEED: Did you think he was funny?
HART: Yeah, but he’d make me laugh over things he’d say about what was going to go on in the ring like, “Who’s the babyface and who’s the heel?” We were always the heels. But despite all the “This is a toothbrush,” stuff he said about Memphis, once me and Andy went to fight each other, people still liked Andy more than Jimmy Hart. All of a sudden people loved him and he didn’t understand that. Andy would ask me things like, “If I do this or this, am I gonna be a babyface?” He didn’t want to be the good guy.