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Jim Carrey attacked at press conference

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Mar 19, 2001 | 11:50am EST

By now, you'd figure that Jim Carrey would be used to being attacked. Attacked by harsh critics. Attacked by autograph-seeking fans. Attacked by ex-wife Lauren Holly (alimony, anyone?). Still, he looked stunned and confused when Las Vegas singer Tony Clifton, dressed in full lounge lizard regalia, attacked him Saturday.

Carrey was responding to questions during a press conference for his upcoming Universal biopic "Man on the Moon" (named for the hit REM song) about the life of comedian Andy Kaufman. Clifton spray painted "Tony on the Moon" on the walls of the elegant Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills after making his way through a crowd of confused reporters. He voiced his contempt for the actor/comedian who he referred to as Drew Carey. Drew Carey?

Clifton then confronted Jim Carrey and defiantly poured water over the head of the star who earns up to $20 million per movie. Carrey countered with a pitcher of iced tea. They began to fight until the intruder was placed into a headlock by Carrey and escorted away by security. The question on everyone's mind: "Who was that lunatic?"

"Tony Clifton" is one of Kaufman's many personas. The Kaufmanesque event is just the last phase in a filmmaking experience that can only be called surreal. It seems Carrey has been having problems figuring out where Kaufman ends and Carrey begins.

During filming, Carrey had a three-month bout of what he calls "selective schizophrenia." He says he stopped existing as Jim Carrey and instead started thinking and acting solely as Kaufman.

"I even went to bed as Andy", said Carrey. The lines between Kaufman and Carrey often blurred during shooting, leading to several well-publicized incidents of Carrey acting as Kaufman long after the cameras stopped rolling.

"The experience itself was so incredible and still to this day I tell myself 'this is never going to happen again,'" Carrey reflects. "It was an odyssey for everybody. It was really like Andy was around. Andy was directing. Every decision was made on that basis."

To add to the identity crisis, Carrey shares a birthday with Kaufman (Jan. 17, for those who want to send cards).

One thing Carrey is certain of: It was he, not Kaufman, who was snubbed at the Oscars last year for his dramatic turn as media victim Truman Burbank in "The Truman Show." Could "Man on the Moon" be Carrey's vindication?

When asked about his Oscar odds, Carrey said, "The experience was so incredible that if something like that happened on top of it, I don't know what I'd do. I'd have a heart attack or something. It'd be ungrateful to sit here and expect something else to come my way from that. It would be a wonderful thing, no question about it." One question remains: Who was that playing "Tony Clifton" at the press conference? Angry journalists wanted to know who to blame for their broken tape recorders (victimized during the confrontation). Seems as though Kaufman's longtime collaborator (and "Man on the Moon" co-executive producer) Bob Zmuda was the man Carrey mentioned as the culprit, though both men seem determined to keep Kaufman's characters, as well as his spirit, alive.

"If you explain Andy Kaufman, you've killed him," said Carrey earnestly. "The triumph of his life is that he beat death because he can't be explained. Nobody knows if it's for real or not. That way he's immortal. If I ever did win an Oscar, I wish he'd come up and grab it out of my hands."

"Man on the Moon" hits theaters Dec. 22.

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