Now It Can Be Told
Andy Kaufman co-conspirator Bob Zmuda talks about truth, death, and Tony Clifton.
By Jim Hanas
DECEMBER 13, 1999: "On his death bed, Andy asked me to do three things," says Bob Zmuda, who for a dozen years served as friend, writer, and co-conspirator to the late Andy Kaufman. "Write a book about him, produce a movie about him, and keep the legacy of Tony Clifton alive."
The movie, Man on the Moon (on which Zmuda served as co-executive producer) starring Jim Carrey, is slated for a hotly anticipated pre-Christmas release. The book, Zmuda's tell-all Andy Kaufman Revealed!, is already on shelves. As for Tony Clifton, Kaufman's brash, lounge-lizard alter-ego is hitting the stage at the Hi-Tone Cafe in Memphis.
"So I've accomplished those three things," Zmuda says from a Portland hotel room as he takes a breather from his booksigning tour.
The Kaufman legend is undergoing a transformation, one that may well end it as legendary per se, changing the late comedian's legacy, instead, into biography. Man on the Moon, created by the same writing and directing team that made The People vs. Larry Flynt, reportedly lets loose all manner of behind-the-scenes details about the comic's infamous antics. Meanwhile, Zmuda's book lets slip even more, from the specifics of his friend's, shall we say, active sex life to the truth behind the hoaxes, that, while always presumably just that, have lived on in an ambiguous twilight between fact and fiction since Kaufman's death 15 years ago. Michael Richards knew what was up when Kaufman sabotaged a skit in front of a live audience on Fridays after all, and Jerry Lawler was indeed in on the wrestling scam from the get-go (despite his admirable insistences to the contrary). We already knew this, of course, but without really knowing for sure. Now there is no room for doubt.
"To me, working for Kaufman was like working for Harry Houdini," Zmuda explains. "You have to give away what went on behind the scenes. There's a greater appreciation of Andy if one knows the method behind the madness."
Zmuda worked for the Houdini of chutzpa for over a decade, helping him develop live shows and television specials and a seemingly endless series of carefully choreographed media pranks. He also helped develop Tony Clifton, Kaufman's booze-guzzling, trash-talking has-been -- "The act that couldn't fail," as Zmuda says, "the act that was so bad it had to be stopped by the audience."
When Kaufman signed up as a cast-member on the sitcom Taxi, he managed to negotiate a separate contract for Clifton, whom he always referred to -- as Zmuda does today -- in the third-person. Famously, Zmuda himself inhabited Clifton on several occasions, leaving the likes of Merv Griffin and David Letterman none the wiser.
Clifton was last seen Saturday, when he disrupted a press-conference for Man on the Moon by berating, and eventually getting into a scuffle with, Jim Carrey. Both Carrey and Universal Studios denied any foreknowledge of the fracas, and the leading man even seemed to suggest that Zmuda has gone around the bend.
"He needs to move on," Carrey told reporters, surely with unquestionable sincerity. Andy lives indeed.
"Andy handed the character off to me, and then I loaned the character -- for about 85 days -- to Jim Carrey to play him in the movie," Zmuda says. "As far as who will be at the Hi-Tone Thursday night it could be any three of the above. Tony Clifton is Andy Kaufman's living legacy, the only thing that Andy really has left on this planet Earth."
Presuming he himself is gone, and there are some -- even in Hollywood -- who still do not believe. Kaufman apparently talked a lot about faking his own death, even determining that he would have to stay in hiding for at least a decade before people would truly believe he was gone. In a particularly intriguing twist, Zmuda relates how a 1976 screenplay for The Tony Clifton Story -- penned by him and Kaufman -- climaxed with Clifton dying of lung cancer at Cedars-Sinai Hospital. Eight years later, Kaufman passed away -- same location, same cause of death.
Zmuda does not counsel such speculation, however. "Andy Kaufman is dead," he says pointedly, confirming what may be the ultimate irony of Kaufman's short life. For as his friend and collaborator observes:
"Had Andy Kaufman lived, he would have faked his death."
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