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Friday, July 29, 2016

Review: My Breakfast with Blassie

A Biting Breakfast of Champions

By Chris Sabga

Where do I even begin with the bizarre "My Breakfast with Blassie"? It was, first and most obviously, a spoof of the movie "My Dinner with Andre." It was also a strange piece of performance art from comedian and actor Andy Kaufman, who was always looking for a controversial reaction. And it served as a late-career showcase for "Classy" Freddie Blassie, who was one of the most feared and despised professional wrestling villains of the '50s, '60s, '70s, and '80s.

Some background:

Prior to filming "My Breakfast with Blassie" in 1983, Kaufman made the improbable decision to become a pro wrestler. He first faced women in inter-gender matches, much to the chagrin of just about everyone. A progressive Billie Jean King vs. Bobby Riggs moment this was not – nor was it meant to be, of course. A far cry from the sweet and innocent Latka character he portrayed on the hit television show "Taxi," Kaufman's aim inside a wrestling ring was to anger and incite. That led, naturally, to a match between Kaufman and a male wrestler – Jerry "The King" Lawler – which ended with Kaufman's neck being "broken." Then Kaufman took it a step further by getting into an "altercation" with Lawler on national television during "The David Letterman Show."

All of this would be seen as an obvious show business stunt today, but things were much different back then. While enough people certainly understood that pro wrestling was more entertainment than sport, there were still fans who believed, or at least wanted to believe – and no one quite knew what was real and what wasn't when it came to Andy Kaufman. The actor and comedian even spent several days in the hospital after the Lawler match to sell the "injuries he sustained." To further the illusion, he wore a neck brace on-camera for "My Breakfast with Blassie."

Perhaps Kaufman was inspired by the villainy of Freddie Blassie? At one point, Blassie utilized a "vampire" gimmick where he would grotesquely file his teeth and bite his opponents until they bled. According to pro wrestling lore (and repeated in this movie), so shocking was this repulsive spectacle that it triggered a series of heart attacks and eventual deaths among some of the Japanese fans. I have my doubts, but why let that get in the way of a damn good story?

The movie itself:

"My Breakfast with Blassie" is not pretty to look at or listen to. It was shot on ancient videotape and it sounds tinny throughout. But none of that really matters. After all, no one is watching this curious oddity for its cinematography.

It takes place in California at a diner called Sambo's, which named itself right out of business by evoking harmful racial stereotypes. Somehow, I suspect Kaufman knew what he was doing when he chose the location.

Early on, Blassie paternally rubs a pregnant waitress's belly. However, before you think one of the great wrestling bad guys has gone soft, he cackles that they "don't have to tip her so much when we leave now." He later remarks that she's "another one we're gonna have to feed on welfare." It's a horrible, wince-inducing comment. Was Blassie part of the act, in on the joke, or was Kaufman stringing him along too? Keep in mind that Blassie was a consummate showman himself, and the last thing he would have done in his era was "break character" – especially in front of the camera.

Another great exchange involves wet wipes that Blassie brought with him from Japan (his wife was from there). Blassie tries to persuade Kaufman that they're useful for public bathrooms and dealing with fans. This was in a time before OCD was openly recognized, accepted, and celebrated.  

Even though we know now (courtesy of IMDb and other sources) that all of the "customers" in the restaurant were hired to be there, "My Breakfast with Blassie" still provides an interesting look at what celebrities have to go through day after day. Even something simple as eating breakfast is routinely interrupted by fans seeking autographs or just wanting a few moments of their time. "Don't sign autographs for these ding-a-lings!" Blassie barks at one point.

Two of the people in the restaurant were Lynne Margulies ("Legs"), Kaufman's future girlfriend – they actually met during the filming of this – and Bob Zmuda (as the fan who vomited on the table), his longtime writing partner. They were later portrayed by Courtney Love and Paul Giamatti, respectively, in the 1999 biopic about Kaufman, "Man on the Moon." The waitress, though, apparently really worked there.

Wrestling fans will enjoy hearing Blassie recount stories about his reigns as a "champeen" and matches against legends such as Rikidozan, and Kaufman aficionados will certainly appreciate this intimate glimpse of his creative genius and madness. (Sadly, Kaufman died a year later of lung cancer.)

When I first discovered "My Breakfast with Blassie" two decades ago, probably on Comedy Central, I think I took it at face value much more wholeheartedly. But with age comes wisdom, and my eyes were wide open during my most recent viewing. Still, that in no way diminishes the ridiculous kitsch appeal of what's on display here. While I cannot in good conscience call this a "great movie," if you're a fan of either Andy Kaufman or Freddie Blassie specifically, or Hollywood or pro wrestling in general, this "Breakfast" is certainly worth a bite. But you may need a wet wipe afterward.  

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