Thursday, May 8, 2008

"Two Stories"

Writing about my experiences on Taxi reminds me of two stories, one heartwarming, and one notorious.

I’ll tell the heartwarming one first. I like it better.

As I mentioned when I was working at Studio Center, I enjoyed getting my hair cut by the studio barber. The barber – Sol – had worked on everyone. It tickled me knowing that the guy who had cut Desi Arnaz’s hair was snipping away at mine.

And the price was right. Studio haircuts were considerably cheaper than their counterparts on the outside. Sol would actually ask me how much I wanted to pay. That never happens in regular hair salons. Sol also gave me lemons from his tree. Outside hair salons didn’t even validate my parking.

When I changed studios to do Taxi, I introduced myself to Paramount’s hair cutter. Nat. Nat was a virtual duplicate of Sol, same age – late sixties, early seventies – same kind of stories. Once again, I was home and happy in a studio barber chair.

Not long after I arrived, however, as he was dusting me off with a powdered brush, Nat told me the bad news. The barbershop was closing, and Nat was retiring. I stood there in shock.

“What’s going on?”

“They’re tearing down the barbershop, so they can expand the commissary. There’s nowhere else they can put me, so I’m going to retire.”

“Do you want to retire?”

“What can I do? I have no choice.”

And that was that. Nat’s barbershop was, in fact, situated next to the commissary. If they wanted to expand the dining facilities, the barbershop had to go.

I was crushed. No more studio barber. No more stories from show biz past. From now on, I’d have to get my hair cut on the outside. And pay substantially more.

I handed Nat an extra large parting tip, said thanks and goodbye, and walked gloomily into the future. I’ve never been a fan of the future, and this certainly didn’t help.

A few weeks later, I’m heading to a story conference. The office I’m going to is on the second floor of a building on the other side of the lot from my office. When I reach the building, I casually look through an open ground floor door.

And there’s Nat.

Cutting someone’s hair.

I excitedly race in. There, in a closet-sized room, is a freshly painted, fully equipped barbershop.

“What happened?” I ask.

Nat tells me this story.

He’s in retirement, sitting in his house. He gets a call. His pals from the studio want to take him to lunch. Nat says okay. He arrives for the lunch, but before they go into the now-expanded commissary, his buddies say they want to show him something.

They walk Nat to this building, they open the ground floor door, and there it is.

A brand new barbershop on the Paramount lot.

“Welcome back, Nat.”

What had happened was this. All of Nat’s studio friends – the carpenters, the painters, the electricians, the set decorators, the prop men – had gotten together, and decided that Nat’s forced retirement was a disgrace. They scoured the studio, discovered an unused space and, unbeknownst to Nat, they pooled their resources, and at their own expense, transformed a storage room into a barbershop.

With the help of his buddies, Nat, the barber, was back in business. And he remained so for quite some time.

Okay. Now, the notorious story.

The cast of Taxi was the most talented sitcom ensemble I ever worked with. And the nicest. No outsized egos, no outrageous demands. Everyone worked hard, enjoyed each others’ company, and collaborated on some of the best half-hour comedy ever produced.

So I was understandably surprised when someone ran into my office one afternoon and yelled,

“You got to get to the stage. It’s crazy down there!”

I quickly headed to the stage. Now, remember, though I wrote scripts for the show, I was not part of the Taxi writing staff. I wasn’t involved in the script readings, or the rehearsals. I was pretty much out of the loop.

What I was about to witness caught me totally by surprise.

For the first time on the Taxi stage, there was chaos. As I later learned, Andy Kaufman, who played “Latka” on the show, had a contractual arrangement, stipulating that the comedian’s “alter-ego”, “Tony Clifton”, had to be cast in a specified number of Taxi episodes per season. The movie, Man In The Moon, indicated that that was the only way Taxi’s creators could get Kaufman to play “Latka.”

The contract further stipulated that, when “Tony Clifton” was working, no one was to refer to him as Andy. “Tony Clifton” had to be treated like a totally different person. He was “Tony”, not Andy.

(I’m not going to use quotes around the names anymore. It’s too much work.)

Holed up writing in an office, I had little personal contact with Andy Kaufman. My only extended one-on-one was when we were seated together at a Jim Burrows birthday party dinner.

My memory of Andy Kaufman is that he was very quiet, and he really liked chocolate. All he ate was an enormous slice of chocolate cake accompanied by two big scoops of chocolate ice cream, all slathered in a thick, rich chocolate sauce. My skin itched just watching him wolf it down.

At work, Kaufman was soft-spoken and respectful. His pixieish, slightly otherworldly character, Latka, was a gentle soul, becoming a chatterbox only when he was berating himself in an undecipherable language.

Tony Clifton was Andy’s opposite in every way.

Rude. Abrasive. Profane. Clifton arrived at the studio, sporting a screamingly loud jacket and slacks, and a flashily dressed hooker on each arm. Unlike the introverted Andy, Clifton pinched the female production staff and boorishly insulted the men. Tony Clifton was one other thing Andy Kaufman was not. Tony Clifton was strikingly untalented.

My trip to the stage took place on a Wednesday afternoon. The filming would be the following Friday, which meant there were only two days left before the show. On normal weeks, the episode would be coming together. But this wasn’t a normal week.

Work was at a standstill. Tony Clifton was unprepared, un-cooperative, and terrible in his part. Time was running out, and the atmosphere was getting tense. The Executive Producers came down to restore order, but chaos and confusion continued to reign.

I have to admit – and not proudly – that I found the entire situation hilarious. There’s something funny about watching other people in a pickle, especially a pickle of their own making. By agreeing to Kaufman’s contractual demands, the Executive Producers had made a deal with the devil, and now the chickens were coming home to roost. (That’s my cliché quota for the entire year.)

Everyone was trying to handle things as best they could. Except Tony Danza. Danza had had enough; he was unwilling to continue the charade. He refused to call Andy, Tony, and, reverting to his pugilistic past, he was very close to hitting someone. Danza summarized the situation with the words:

“That’s it! This is f-in’ nuts!”

Only he didn’t say “f-in’.”

The other actors, though lacking Danza’s Vesuvial intensity, were understandably frustrated. These people were professionals. Professionals in a weird situation. They were required to work with Tony Clifton, but because of Clifton’s disruptive antics, a show they cared about was going down the tubes.

Only Judd Hirsch, playing the grownup in the show and in real life, retained a cool head through the insanity. He remained calm, called Andy, Tony, and tried patiently to get the rehearsal back on track.

And failed miserably.

Things were becoming serious. An episode would be filmed Friday night in front of a live studio audience, the production was currently a shambles, and if things continued that way – and they seemed like they would – the show would not be ready. A decision had to be made. And finally, it was.

The Executive Producers fired Tony Clifton.

Was it over? No.

Tony Clifton refused to leave the stage.

A studio Security Guard was called. Tony Clifton threatened the guard. He also threatened the Executive Producers with a huge lawsuit for breach of contract.

The production remained at a standstill. Something had to be done. Once again, the “grownup” took the initiative.

Judd Hirsch raced up behind Tony Clifton, wrapped his arms around him, lifted him in the air, and carried him off the soundstage.

A real actor was rushed in to replace Tony Clifton, and the show went off on schedule. When Andy Kaufman came to work the following week, it was as if nothing had happened.

Okay, it’s a memorable story. But does it really match Nat’s studio friends creating him a barbershop?

7 comments:

karyrogers said...

Two great stories, I really enjoyed both of them. That Kaufman story, just...wow.

Love reading these days-of-yore stories just like you enjoyed hearing them from Sol and Nat. Do you cut hair also?

Mark said...

I wonder if this was the "Andy Kaufman" Tony Clifton or had Bob Zmuda taken over by this time?

They both played the "role" and I believe actually appeared together once.

Great stories! I believe Nat's daughter is cutting hair one day a week at Paramount now. Met her 3 years ago when I was working there.

Max Clarke said...

Both stories read fast, well done.

There's a public radio show, Studio 360, which did a tribute show to The Great Gatsby. They mentioned that Andy Kaufman would go on stage at some of his shows and read the entire novel, or try to get through it all. People would go along at first figuring there would be a laugh, but no laugh, Kaufman was reading The Great Gatsby.

north dakota rulz said...

I'm agreeing with them, two great stories. You could tell me three unmatched stories and I'd gobble them all up. I look forward to your site everyday.

a new one said...

'nite Unkie.

Rydra Wong said...

Earl Pomerantz...

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