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Bob Zmuda Plays Andy Kaufman Playing Tony Clifton

Tony Clifton introduces the Flaming Lips on the third day of the Hangout Music Festival 2012, on the Gulf Shores of Alabama.

Image courtesy Rock Cousteau (under CC BY-SA 2.0 license)

Long before Sacha Baron Cohen masqueraded as Borat, Andy Kaufman played Tony Clifton, a Las Vegas lounge singer with questionable talent. Or did he? According to Kaufman, he and Clifton weren't just different people -- they were archrivals. According to Bob Zmuda, Kaufman's best friend and co-writer, several people hid beneath Clifton's garish costume and outlandish wig, including Zmuda himself.

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Clifton made several appearances on the TV talk show circuit. He coerced Dinah Shore into singing a duet and then proceeded to dump eggs on her head. On Merv Griffin's show, Clifton performed several songs -- "I've Gotta Be Me," "Volare" and "I Will Survive" -- and then discussed how he lived in a Winnebago in Las Vegas and befriended eccentric aviator Howard Hughes. He also accused Kaufman of stealing his act.

Clifton continued his rant against Kaufman on "Late Night with David Letterman." After singing a few numbers, he complained that Kaufman was using his name without permission. It's unclear whether Letterman believed he was talking to Clifton or Kaufman, but he would have been wrong in either case. In a 2006 interview on the "Opie and Anthony Show," Bob Zmuda claimed he played the role of Tony Clifton, a ruse that Letterman didn't discover until years later.

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