Bob Zmuda Interview

07 January 2009

Andy Kaufman's best friend celebrates the biopic 'Man On the Moon' with behind the scenes stories

Andy Kaufman's best friend celebrates the biopic 'Man On the Moon' with behind the scenes stories

(Some questions in this interview may have come from other journalists present for the Q&A.)

Bob Zmuda never tires of talking about Andy Kaufman. Enthusiasm leaps around behind his wild but benevolent, bespectacled eyes with every question he hears about the madman comedian and legendary hoaxter, who was his closest friend from Kaufman's early stand-up days until his untimely death from cancer in 1984.

Kaufman gained fame in his sitcom role as the sweetly meek immigrant Latka on "Taxi," but outside the TV studio, this patron saint of the practical joke became infamous for his experimental, audience baiting routines, many of which Zmuda helped him develop.

Now a producer, Zmuda -- who looks like a well-to-do Dead head when I meet him, holding a cell phone up to his ear under a cascade of graying hair -- went on to make a name for himself behind the scenes in showbiz (he created the annual Comic Relief charity event), and these Andy Kafuman stories are his favorite memories.

The release of "Man On the Moon" -- a Kaufman biography starring Jim Carrey, himself one of today's most off-the-wall comedians -- has given him the opportunity to extol about his close friend to his heart's content.

Directed by the superlative Milos Forman, who demonstrated his biographical proficiency in 1996 with "The People vs. Larry Flynt," "Man On the Moon" focuses on Kaufman's celebrity years, when "Taxi" gave him the freedom to get away his ambitious and insane hoaxes, like his fallaciously funny foray into "inter-gender" wrestling and the advent of his most infamous alter ego, the vulgar, paunchy, chain-smoking, hard-drinking, rabble-rousing lounge singer, Tony Clifton -- a character Kaufman would utterly disappear inside of when it suited him.

Today Bob Zmuda is in San Francisco to celebrate the release of the movie -- and his new book with the tabloid-like title of "Andy Kaufman Revealed: Best Friend Tells All" -- by regaling the press with an ebullient dam-burst of behind the scenes anecdotes about Kaufman (like the fact that it was really Zmuda who played Clifton half the time) and about Jim Carrey's incredibly authentic performance.

Q: Have you seen Jim Carrey since filming the movie?
A: I was with Jim and Milos Foreman last night at Jim's house. We were looking at 120 hours of footage myself and (Kaufman's girlfriend) Lynn Margulies -- who Courtney Love plays in the movie -- shot of Jim losing his mind, playing Andy and Tony Clifton for the 85-day shoot. We put this together and just showed it to Milos Foreman last night at Jim's house.

How did it go over?
Whooo (he rolls his popping eyes). Very strange stuff. Very odd stuff. Jim Carrey is like the biggest Andy Kaufman freak in the world. He's very influenced by him...and Jim approach to the role almost as if Andy had left a blueprint. He said, "How would Andy Kaufman approach this?" And seeing that this is how (Kaufman) approached the role of Tony Clifton, Jim made the decision to approach this role just as Andy did.

So we shot for 85 days. Jim Carrey was only there for two days. The rest of the time he was either Andy or he was Tony. One day was two half-day shoots. One half of the day was Tony Clifton, the other half was Andy. Next think we knew, Andy showed up on the set with a bloody nose, saying he had passed Tony Clifton and Tony punched him out. And I don't know if it was real blood, if it was stage blood, if the actor hit his head on something, or what.

Carrey was incredible, but why him? I know Nicolas Cage, Kevin Spacey, Edward Norton and other were interested.
Milos did a very smart thing when he cast this movie. He said he wasn't going to make it unless (affecting Forman's deep German brogue), "who evah plays Andy makes audition tape." Well, I'm not going to give you the names, but a few of those guys went (now in a grumbly voice), "I'm not making no audition tape."

So my phone rings one day (and it's Jim Carrey). He says he's made an audition tape for Milos and will I come over to his place to see it. I must tell you, I was not a believer in the beginning. This was before "Truman Show," by the way, so I thought he was going to be eating the scenery. (But) the tape is not on for one minute and I'm crying like a baby. If somebody had given me this tape and not told me it was Jim Carrey, I would have thought it was Andy. It was remarkable. (During) filming, he started exhibiting Kaufman-esque behavior that none of us had told him about, which freaked us out. It really freaked out Lynn.

Did Carrey have trouble coming down from the character because of this approach?
He was just telling Milos last night that he had a really hard time shaking the Tony Clifton personality. He'd wake up in the morning and he'd be Tony, and wonder where his life had gone. I mean, he's cool now, but he definitely lost it for a little while, but that's what he wanted to do.

Well, he pulled something of a Kaufman stunt at the MTV awards, showing up completely incognito as some whacked-out, Jim Morrison kind of hippie guy.
Totally an alter ego. Totally a Clifton-esque kind of thing.

And a great practical joke! I mean, you saw the audience reaction to that. They didn't know what to do with it.
People didn't even know it was him! He was telling me that he was back stage and that character was hitting on Courtney Love for two hours in the green room and she didn't even know it was him! She was so appalled by this guy's (affecting a stoner voice) "Hey, pretty lady, whatcha doing?" She was just, "Ewww!" Until he went on stage!

And he had fun, because this Kaufman stuff is the hoax, the practical joke, the put-on. It's a lost art form. I think you'll see a lot of that influence in his work over the next couple years because of that experience.

How do you feel about seeing the final product and Carrey's recreation?
I'm suing Universal for my therapy!

Listen, Andy asked me on his death bed to do two things. One was to write a book about him and produce a movie about him. He was afraid of being remembered only as Latka on "Taxi." That scared him to death.

I tried for years to write the book. It was just too painful. If I'd go into a bar someplace and they had a "Taxi" rerun on TV, I'd walk right out the door. I couldn't do it. Thank god the movie came along, because now you have Milos Forman, you have Scott (Alexander) and Larry (Karaszewski) -- who did a great job writing the script -- you have Jim Carrey and (Danny) Devito (who plays Kaufman's agent), all asking me about this guy. So now I'm in a protected environment to do that job.

You're aware, of course, that there are folks out there who think Andy faked his death.
So let me go on the record to say that Andy Kaufman is dead. He's not in some truck stop with Elvis someplace. Andy was told he had lung cancer and four months later, he was dead. It just ravaged the body. What fueled the rumors that he faked his death was that Andy never smoked! He was a health nut. So for this guy to come down with (lung cancer) -- nobody believed him!

(However), had Andy Kaufman lived, he would have faked his death. No doubt in my mind. So it's a catch-22!

How did you actually meet Andy Kaufman?
I was a struggling actor in New York. I went to the Improvisation. I just happened to walk into the right place at the right time. Andy came out (on stage) as Foreign Man (the basis for Latka) and he was sweet as all hell, but he was awful. (Then) he starts crying. He has a nervous breakdown on stage, then he says, (doing the Latka accent) "I would like to do one more impression -- the Elvis Presley." Then he turns around, and the lights change and there's a lot of production, and I'm going, wait a second here! Then he turns back around and does that drop-dead Elvis bit. And I thought, Wow! This guy had us all in the palm of his hand.

So I'm intrigued. I follow him out to what turns out to be his dad's car. And he says to me, (in the accent) "Excuse me, can you help me put the props in the trunk? I have bad back." So I help him. He's got a 16mm projector, he's got a screen, he's got two sets of congos, he's got the record player for playing "Mighty Mouse." He's got all this heavy crap! I loaded that last prop in his car, and he closes the trunk, and he looks at me and goes (in the accent), "Tank you veddy much -- sucker!" and drove away.

(Laughing) Other than at moments like that though, Andy really submerged himself in his characters heart and soul, didn't he? Especially Tony Clifton.
Andy Kaufman was a vegetarian. Andy Kaufman never smoked, he never drank. Holistic medicine, mediated, three hours of yoga every day -- I knew him for twelve years and he never missed it. But when he became Tony Clifton, Andy would drink, he would smoke, he would eat meat -- prime rib, rare. He'd have prostitutes flown out from the Mustang Ranch in Nevada. There was a car he kept in his garage that he only drove when he was Tony. Tony was really quite his own entity.

Did Jim Carrey and Jerry Lawler (a wrestler Andy scuffled with during his long-running wrestling put-on) actually get in a fight on the set, or was that a Kaufmanesque rumor mill gimmick?
It wasn't a gimmick. I'll tell you exactly what happened. Andy thought -- remember at this point, 30 days into production, it's totally Andy (not Jim) -- Andy figured he'd just going to keep the rift going with Jerry Lawler for real. Off camera. Humiliating him. Putting signs on his back (that) said, "Hulk Hogan wannabe." Andy's not letting up between takes. It doesn't stop. This is for weeks! Finally, we're shooting that famous scene where Andy did get hurt by this guy in Memphis years ago -- or supposedly hurt, depending on who you talk to -- and all of a sudden, Jim -- or Andy -- spits on Jerry Lawler. Right in the guy's face.

That'll do it.
All hell broke loose. Jerry put him in a headlock. Now everybody gets into the act, because all this guy has to do is hurt the star and we shut down for two or three weeks. It's bedlam. Jim Carrey's bodyguard jumps in and sees Jim's leg, but he does not see that Lawler has his guy in a headlock, and he starts pulling Jim's leg, and that's what got him the neck injury. It was not serious. He was out of the hospital in six hours, and that was it. But it was real.

So now that it's all said and done, are Jim and Jerry friends?
I don't think they ever met.

Jerry only saw him as Andy?
He only saw him as Andy. He might have met him as Tony Clifton. A lot of people started coming to the set to see Tony. Elton John showed up. It was bizarre. He's a friend of Milos' and Milos said, "You gotta see this!" It was a fun, fun movie to make.

It was like going to a high school reunion.
You got it. Plus, you didn't know what to expect. There was so much mischief going on.

Seeing as you were Andy's partner in mischief, you know I have to ask you this: Are you messing with the press at all on this publicity tour? Making up any behind the scenes stories just for fun?
(Laughing) No, no, no. I'm pretty consistent with my stories. But what's going to be amazing is when this documentary comes out (from this 120 hours of videotaping he did on the set) you'll see. Jim is gone. He's Andy.

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