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Tony Clifton is a character created by performance artist Andy Kaufman, who also portrayed him in the late 1970s. Characteristic of the many elaborate hoaxes and practical jokes Kaufman concocted, Clifton was not exclusively portrayed by Kaufman. Others, mainly longtime Kaufman friend Bob Zmuda, also performed the role.
Kaufman would sometimes claim that Tony Clifton was a real lounge singer whom Kaufman encountered in the International Hotel in Las Vegas in 1969. He was waiting for Elvis Presley to arrive so he could meet him. Kaufman may have seen Clifton as the antithesis of the sweet, gentle "Foreign Man" character he was best known for (which was later adapted into Latka Gravas, Kaufman's character on Taxi).
His gaudy attire, fake sideburns, padding to look fat, odd walk and badly executed suave behavior; all resemble Guy Gadbois a disguise Peter Sellers used as Inspector Clouseau in the 1975 film The Return of the Pink Panther.
Clifton would often attempt to improvise comical lyrics that were intentionally unfunny before giving up entirely without seeming to care. Clifton also tended to randomly insult patrons, passing off the abuse as the "comedy" portion of his act. Adding to Clifton's annoying and unappealing presence was his tendency to rhyme various words at random in the middle of conversations. Many people misunderstood Kaufman's intent, focusing on the character's foul language and prima donna antics while failing to appreciate the fact that Clifton was meant to be the comic antithesis of the typical lounge singer: a bland, genial entertainer designed to add a touch of class to a hotel and make guests feel welcome.
For a brief time, it was unclear to some that Clifton was not a real person. News programs interviewed Clifton as Kaufman's opening act, but the interviews invariably would turn ugly whenever Kaufman's name came up. Clifton claimed Kaufman was using his name "to go places." Actually, in many cases, Andy Kaufman played Clifton. Promoters who thought they had caught on to the joke would hire Clifton because he was cheaper than booking Kaufman. However, Kaufman had the last laugh, enlisting his brother Michael or his showbiz partner Bob Zmuda to play the role, with Kaufman making unannounced appearances onstage during Clifton's act.
Rodney Dangerfield was a big fan of Andy Kaufman, and hired Clifton to open for him for two shows at Bill Graham's famed Fillmore West. After a disastrous first show, where Clifton took the stage with Tony Bennett's famous "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" and was summarily booed, he reappeared on the second night in riot gear amid a shower of rotten vegetables and other detritus.
Tony Clifton still makes occasional appearances, most notably in the days leading up to May 16, 2004, the twentieth anniversary of Kaufman's death. It was announced on May 16, 2008 that Comic Relief, in recognition of the 24th anniversary of Andy Kaufman's departure, would present "The Return of Tony Clifton", with his Katrina Kiss My Ass Orchestra. The national tour kicked off June 27, 2008 at the Georgia Theatre in Athens, Georgia, and benefited Gulf Coast musicians, dancers, and singers affected by Hurricane Katrina. Clifton fronted the Katrina Orchestra along with the Cliftonettes. Later dates included August 15 at Chicago's Chopin Theatre. In 2011, Tony and his orchestra were featured headliners as part of the annual Hangout Music Festival in Gulf Shores, Alabama, on May 21. Later that month he began hosting the Tony Clifton Revue at The Comedy Store in Los Angeles. He was interviewed on the 284th (May 31, 2012) episode of Marc Maron's WTF podcast as promotion..
Clifton was hired to appear on an early episode of ABC's Taxi. In 1977, the producers of Taxi saw Kaufman's Foreign Man act at The Comedy Store, and offered him a role in their show based on the character. Kaufman wasn't a fan of sitcoms, but his manager, George Shapiro, convinced him that this would propel him to stardom, where he would make a lot of money which he could then put into his own act, which became Andy's Funhouse. Kaufman agreed to appear as Latka Gravas in fourteen episodes per season, approximately half of the entire series, if Tony Clifton was also allowed to guest star in the series. The producers were well aware that "Clifton" was an alter ego of Kaufman, but went along with the fiction that Clifton was a separate actor. They signed Clifton to a separate contract, and announced to the cast that Clifton was being hired to portray the character of Louie's brother in the series 13th episode.
However, after the first day of rehearsal, the producers felt Kaufman-as-Clifton was not up to the acting challenge of playing the offered role. Informed of this, Kaufman asked that "Clifton" be fired in public, ostensibly for coming to rehearsal late. Clifton then showed up on set for the next day of filming, and was demanding, boorish and obnoxious. The producers not only fired Clifton in front of press and network executives (who had gathered on set to witness the promised spectacle), but threw him off the set after he caused havoc and enraged series stars Judd Hirsch and Jeff Conaway. The role was hurriedly recast, and when Kaufman (as himself) returned to work for the following episode, he acted as if nothing had happened.
Sam Simon, a season 5 writer and showrunner for Taxi, revealed in a 2013 interview with Marc Maron for the WTF Podcast that the story of Andy (as opposed to "Tony Clifton") having been generally disruptive on the show was "a complete fiction" largely created by Bob Zmuda. Simon maintained that Zmuda has a "vested interest" in promoting an out-of-control image of Kaufman. In the interview Simon stated that Kaufman was "completely professional" and that he "told you Tony Clifton was him", but he also conceded that Kaufman would have "loved" Zmuda's version of events. However, while many Taxi staffers have corroborated the story that Clifton was a disruptive presence during his brief time on set, Simon himself had no association with Taxi during its first season when Clifton made his appearance, and was not a witness to this specific event. Simon did not join Taxi until two years later, during the series' third season.
Clifton (played by Zmuda) appeared once on Late Night with David Letterman, where he was interviewed and sang a medley with the band. In 1982, Clifton also appeared on The Fantastic Miss Piggy Show as the host's "new discovery," although the other Muppets and host George Hamilton remained skeptical of Clifton's talent.
Perhaps the biggest myth surrounding Tony Clifton's TV appearances comes from Dinah Shore's daytime talk show Dinah & Friends. According to legend Clifton arrived for the taping "drunk" and then pressured Shore in front of the studio audience to sing a duet with him although he had been previously told that she had a sore throat. In reality it was a pre-arranged bit, which featured messages from the producers telling the viewers at home that this was a "put on". The myth continues that after dumping eggs on Shore's head that the show's producers quickly cut to a commercial as Clifton was escorted out of the studio, and the tape of the incident was "destroyed". In reality the footage has been lost and, as with all Kaufman's appearances, the entire event was staged.
Tony was also a heckler on The Green Room with Paul Provenza and was escorted out of the room.
Kaufman and Zmuda wrote a screenplay for a Tony Clifton biography. However, the plan was sidelined after the box office failure of Kaufman's first major motion picture Heartbeeps, in which he co-starred with Bernadette Peters as a robot who falls in love. In the screenplay Clifton dies at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles from cancer. Five years later, Kaufman died at the same hospital from lung cancer.
Kaufman's Tony Clifton character has influenced other "anti-comedy" acts, notably stand-up comedian Neil Hamburger and singer/comedian Unknown Hinson. Maren Ade's Toni Erdmann, the protagonist in the 2016 Oscar-nominated German movie of the same title, was influenced by Kaufman concerning appearance, humor and first name.