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?|
|How did it go over?|
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.|
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?|
|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.|
|And a great practical joke! I mean, you saw the audience reaction to that. They didn't know what to do with it.|
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?|
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.|
(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?|
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.|
|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?|
|That'll do it.|
|So now that it's all said and done, are Jim and Jerry friends?|
|Jerry only saw him as Andy?|
|It was like going to a high school reunion.|
|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?|
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The two awards have made for a great 72nd birthday present for the country music icon.