Archive Perspectives: Andy Kaufman as Tony Clifton

December 17th, 2015
Tony Clifton on Taxi

While cataloging interviews for The Archive of American Television, I hear about some topics from different perspectives. For example, we have Meta Rosenberg, Roy Huggins, and James Garner all discussing The Rockford Files. Each gave us a different perspective on the history of the show and what it was like to work on it. Often in those cases a straight narrative develops, but sometimes a sort of  “Rashomon” situation happens with different participants telling differing accounts. It is left to us to decide where the truth lies.

 Tony Clifton began life as an opening act for Andy Kaufman’s stand-up routine. Tony was outrageous, insulting, and offensive to his audience. And he was Andy Kaufman. Andy invented this alter ego as the antithesis of his own shy, quiet persona. As time went on and Tony Clifton’s reputation grew, he began appearing on talk shows like Dinah! (Tony reportedly broke eggs over Dinah Shore’s head during a cooking segment with Charles Nelson Reilly) and Late Night with David Letterman.

In 1977, Tony Clifton was hired to appear on an episode of Taxi. Though the producers were well aware that Tony was an alter ego, Andy Kaufman and his manager George Shapiro insisted Tony be given his own contract.  

While Shapiro had fun with Tony Clifton’s antics on the set of Taxi, others weren’t quite as thrilled with Clifton OR Andy Kaufman. Legend has it that Judd Hirsch became involved in the physical altercation between Tony Clifton and the producers. Andy also had some of the writers perplexed and worried. Another view of the altercation comes from Taxi scribe Barry Kemp. Kemp was new to the business and worried that the bizarre situation might be the norm.

Others in the Archive provide certain details of the "Tony on Taxi" incident. Danny DeVito added to the story that Clifton gave each cast member a small gift and soon the set was overrun with small, loud, yapping toy dogs. When all was said and done, DeVito was so impressed with Andy Kaufman’s unique talent that went on to play George Shapiro in the Kaufman biopic “Man on the Moon.” (A bit of Archive trivia - I believe Danny DeVito is our only interviewee who played one of our other interviewees in a major motion picture.)

Most sympathetic from the Taxi cast was Marilu Henner. She saw in Andy, above all else, a man with heart. She told us her view of Clifton/Taxi story using her well-documented highly superior autobiographical memory.

There you have three perspectives on one of the greatest and oddest talents of the 20th Century. For more invaluable, differing perspectives on Andy Kaufman or any of the shows or people our interviewees have discussed, go to http://www.emmytvlegends.org/ and use the search function. You can easily lose an entire morning, afternoon, or evening on just a single topic! The Archive can be a fun “Internet rabbit hole” to go down.

- by John Dalton
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