Andy Kaufman.. Just mention of the name alone in a conversation would bring either scorn, fascination, or merely indifference from those whom one would converse with. And that’s just how Andy would have wanted it. A curious oddity in show business history near the end of the 20th Century, Kaufman was one of the early performance artists with nowhere to showcase his bizarre method of professional entertainment except a comedy club stage. Often mistaking his act for “bad stand-up”, most patrons couldn’t take what the seemingly fresh and untalented young man had to offer. Be it posing as an eager young foreign immigrant who did not know how to tell jokes or do impressions properly, lip syncing along with records as if he were a talented tenor (pausing to sip a glass of water during the instrumental break in order to soothe his throat), simply coming out on stage with a sleeping bag and laying in it while sleeping for the entire set, or even showing a film clip of a reenactment of President Lincoln’s assassination from D.W. Griffith’s controversial “The Birth of a Nation” by projector and claiming it was actual footage of the event filmed by an early fictitious filmmaker.
The crowd reportedly actually fell for it and were in tears by the end.
Needless to say, Kaufman was both a master manipulator and entertainer, as evidenced by his routine of the immigrant switching into an amazing Elvis Presley impersonation.
During these appearances in clubs, Andy would meet up with another struggling comic and writer named Bob Zmuda, who saw a kindred spirit in the anti-establishment tone of Kaufman’s routines. The two became fast friends and quickly began to collaborate.
Sometime in that period, Kaufman developed an obnoxious, washed up old lounge singer character named Tony Clifton, who would belt out off-key renditions of crooner standards whilst the crowd heckled him, throwing things at the stage. Kaufman, ever the showman, would revel in moments such as these, reminiscent of the “heel” wrestlers he admired as a child, such as “Classy” Freddy Blassie and “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers.
At first, the wardrobe makeup and wig appliances for the character were basic, allowing audience members to easily identify him, such as in this HBO special appearence in 1977. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Jbu5x2Z-U0
Eventually, Kaufman was hired by the producers of the network sitcom, Taxi. He agreed to take the role of the foreign character adapted as “Latka Gravas” if the Tony Clifton character was granted eight guest appearances in the shows run. The producers agreed to these terms.
Kaufman realized in order to make the Clifton character believable as a separate entity, he would require professional help. He found it in Hollywood makeup artist, Ken Chase, whose prosthetic age work on the miniseries, “Roots”, had won him great praise.
Upon applying the false wig, sideburns, mustache, jowls, nose, dentures and sunglasses, Kaufman was hardly recognizable at all. His subsequent appearance and behavior on the Taxi set is well chronicled.
It was at this point that the Clifton character began taking on a life of his own. Obtaining his own agent, club owners realized that he was far cheaper to book than his alter-ego. Thinking they were nabbing Kaufman for a bargain, the managers would eagerly sign him, unbeknownst to them, Kaufman would usually have the last laugh, dressing Zmuda or his brother Michael in the getup, and sending them out to irritate the crowd.
After his legendary 1979 performance at Carnegie Hall, stand-up comic and National Lampoon writer Ed Bluestone approached Kaufman with the proposition of writing a screenplay about the character. It involved Clifton as a washed up lounge act who sees his life evaporate before his eyes, losing his family to a rival, successful singer (who would’ve also been played by Kaufman), and marrying his male manager, before dying.
Kaufman loved it, but Zmuda was less enthusiastic, since he was Kaufman’s writing partner, he felt it proper to collaborate on the script with Bluestone with his own input, something Bluestone was not keen on, so Zmuda fired him, and began to collaborate with Andy on another concept. What followed was one of the most unusual and surreal unrealized screenplays to bounce around the Hollywood studio system.
The script begins in a seemingly unrelated setting, the steamy jungle of the African Congo. A tribe of VERY stereotypical looking natives, Ubangi lips and all, dance around a pot of boiling water, as the Chief uses a magic spell to cause a plane crash for their dinner. In the wreckage, the natives come across a talking Frank Sinatra cardboard cutout that had been intended for a record store. This scene, which will also set up a later event, seems like Kaufman and Zmuda’s usual impish behavior, leading the audience to wonder at first if the projectionist was playing the wrong movie.
The film would then shift to show a middle-aged, yet unknown Clifton working in a salt shaker factory in Philadelphia. He dreams of stardom and love. Despite a surly co-worker, Tony’s other friends, including Bugsy Meyer, a role played by Zmuda during actual Clifton appearances, are easier on him. Clifton then decides to go out for a night on the town at a disco, where he comes in contact with a black dwarf men’s room attendant who sells him a bottle of “Purple Passion” cologne, the putrid stench of which drives everyone away. (A side note, Kaufman had intended the film to be shown in an interactive “Stink-O-Vision” format in theaters that would fill the room with the foul cologne’s odor whenever Tony splashed it on.)
Tony then wanders over to a massage parlor where a kindhearted, hooker named Anna (Inspired by an actual lady of the evening Kaufman was fond of.) promptly de-virginizes Clifton. Tony, now inspired, takes to Tinseltown to find his fame and fortune. We then transition to Andy (playing himself), about to perform in a dead-end club, with his usual routine. We establish him becoming famous, and then have him coming upon a struggling Tony selling autographed photos of himself. Andy, seeing a business opportunity, offers to manage his career. We would then see a montage of Clifton’s rise to fame, while at the same time, see his yearning for Anna.
After a disastrous performance at the White House, Andy, whom we now see as an even more ruthless version of Colonel Tom Parker, arranges to pay Anna for returning into Tony’s life, as well as portraying his own legitimate belief in meditation as a sham in order to seduce women (complete with a revolving room with two purposes).
Tony, after watching a late night showing of Laughton’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”, proposes the idea of starring in a remake. Andy, seeing dollar signs, sets it up at Universal Studios. The ensuing premiere is a disaster, with Clifton portrayed as a ridiculous looking hunchback with an eye on his forehead, and elephant tusks, which the audience finds hysterical, to Tony’s horror. Tony then rushes out to the office and confronts Andy, who, in a cold, calculated voice, explains the “facts of life” to Tony, and that he has conditioned the audience to consider Clifton a clownish buffoon, no matter what he does he says. He then proves this during Clifton’s attempt to plea for the audience’s understanding, only for them to laugh at him and pelt him with tomatoes, which are supplied by Andy.
Tony, covered with pulp, then tells the fans that he doesn’t blame them, and that they won’t be kicking him around any more, then, as he heads for the exit, the full extent of Kaufman and Zmuda mindscrew comes into effect, the camera zooms out to show the crew filming the scene, and then freezes and zooms out to show the scene being run on an editing table manned by Andy, who then informs us that with only a few scenes left to film, Tony abruptly died of cancer at Cedars Sinai Hospital. (Coincidentally the exact same fate that would befall Andy four years later. Which gives fuel to the “Andy is Alive” conspiracy theories.) Andy then took it upon himself to play Tony’s part for the remainder of the film, but now, it looks nothing like him. Obvious facial makeup, lack of fat padding, etc. He steals a private plane, crash lands on a tropical island where the natives from the beginning have brought him. His quoting of Sinatra gains their favor and their worship.
Meanwhile, Andy is in full exploitation mode, is now dedicating a spectacle filled outdoor memorial service. Suddenly, “Tony” and his army of natives crash through the gates, with Tony riding on an elephant! He knocks out Andy and is prepared to kiss Anna, when all of a sudden, the “real” Tony storms onto the set, demanding an explanation on why Andy told everyone that he had died, to everyone’s confusion, except Andy, who tells the crew to keep the cameras rolling excitedly. To which Tony ignores him, before approaching Anna and proposing to her, resulting in a Busby Berkeley style happy ending, complete with dancing bottles of Purple Passion!
The proposed story was to be an immense exercise in Kaufman’s typical game of comedic subversion, outrageous situations and who-do-you-trust characters. In true Kaufman fashion, Kaufman put out statements to the press that should the movie be produced, he and Clifton would have separate contracts, separate dressing rooms, etc.
And in typical Hollywood fashion, Universal exec Ned Tanen put out a statement that they were passing on the project as they couldn’t agree on certain aspects of the story, specifically the elements where Andy portrays himself as a villainous manager, and Clifton as am unlikely hero. Kaufman wouldn’t go down easy and although he tried various other gimmicks such as including the Foreign Man character and changing evil Andy to a different character named Norman who would have both Andy and Tony institutionalized in yet uncovered subsequent drafts, nothing would pan out. Kaufman would go on to die of lung cancer in May of 1984 and his deranged vision would go unproduced.
However, for those whose curiosity is piqued, you may read the second draft of the screenplay on my friend Don Alex’s site here: https://subcin.wordpress.com/2014/05/03/the-tony-clifton-story-andy-kaufman/