“Andy Kaufman asked me on his deathbed to do two things,” says Bob Zmuda. “One was to write a book about him, the other was to produce a movie about him. He was scared of being remembered as Latka on Taxi. That scared him worse than death.”
So who is Bob Zmuda? When you see the film, you’ll understand. He was Andy Kaufman’s best friend and writing partner (played expertly by Paul Giamatti in the film). He was Employee #2 in a quiet partnership that got its jollies from playing tricks on an unsuspecting public. He was Tony Clifton (q.v.) from time to time. And after Kaufman’s death, he was the creator of the Comic Relief specials, which have raised millions of dollars for the homeless.
On a recent press tour in San Francisco, Zmuda talked about the film, the book, and how Jim Carrey just about lost it trying to get inside the head of the most eccentric comedian the world has ever known.
Zmuda says, “Jim said he would never again approach a role like this. Jim Carrey is the biggest Andy Kaufman freak in the world. If he wasn’t Jim Carrey, he could travel the country lecturing on Kaufmanism. He fought to get this role. He was born to play this role.”
Zmuda continues, discussing Carrey’s preparation to play Andy Kaufman. “Jim said, ‘How would Andy Kaufman approach this role?’ Jim approached the role just as Andy would have. We shot for 85 days. Jim was only there for 2. The rest of the time he was Andy or Tony.”
Who’s Tony? As the film explains, Tony Clifton was the anti-Andy. Kaufman, a die-hard Transcendental Meditation guru, health food nut, and all-around purist, had a dark side. That dark side was Tony Clifton, a rotten Vegas lounge singer that looked nothing like Kaufman and fooled people for years. Clifton would smoke, drink, and whore with the best of them, and that was just the beginning of the ruse. The only problem, of course, is that the guy didn’t really exist. Says Zmuda, “Andy’s contract with Paramount said that Tony Clifton had to have a parking space next to Kaufman’s with his name on it, and he had to have his own dressing room.”
As it turns out, Tony was quite the character, and the personality had a serious affect on Carrey, too. “One day we were shooting half Tony Clifton, half Andy. Next thing we knew, Andy showed up on the set with a bloody nose, saying he had passed Tony Clifton and Tony punched him out. I don’t know if it was real blood, but a real medic was brought in.”
It’s hard to imagine anyone but Carrey in this role, but there was a time when Carrey didn’t have it locked down. “Everyone wanted to play Kaufman. I was not a believer in the beginning. I thought Nicolas Cage looked more like Andy Kaufman. This was even before The Truman Show. Carrey calls me one day and says, Bob, will you come over and see my audition tape for Milos [Forman, the director]? I said sure, thinking this is gonna suck eggs. The tape’s not on a minute, and I’m crying like a baby. It was remarkable. He had the role. There was just something about him.”
And what about the name of the film, Man on the Moon, which is taken from the R.E.M. song of the same name? I had heard rumors that one of Kaufman’s hoaxes was that he thought the moon landing had been faked, but apparently that’s not so. Zmuda explains the name, “R.E.M. were saddened when Andy died. But that whole thing, ‘Is there a man on the moon?’ means… is there a card up my sleeve?” Nothing more, apparently.
Still, Zmuda says, “The hoax and the practical joke are lost art forms.” But did Andy Kaufman pull one last stunt on his deathbed at age 35? No, says Zmuda. “Andy Kaufman is dead. He’s not in some truck stop with Elvis.” While Kaufman tinkered with the idea, tells Zmuda, he never brought it up again. “The only thing that is odd is page 112 of The Tony Clifton Story, a screenplay that Andy and I wrote, that was never made. On page 112, Tony dies of lung cancer at Cedars-Sinai Hospital. Andy Kaufman would die of lung cancer at Cedars-Sinai eight years later. Pretty odd stuff.”
But Zmuda does admit, “Had Andy Kaufman lived, he would have faked his death.”
And what of that grand last scene, which hints at Kaufman’s return? Zmuda describes an encounter with a woman who was begging to know. “'What does it mean? What does it mean?' Look, it’s the monolith in 2001. It’s just there. We don’t know. And if you have to ask, you really don’t get it.”