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Having Struggled From Warm-Up Act to Headliner: BILLY CRYSTAL

11 minute read
Margaret Carlson/Los Angeles

ASK BILLY CRYSTAL HOW HE GOT STARTed, and he will say in the living room, where as the youngest and shortest of three boys, he was also the loudest. “After dinner, we would perform for 20 or so relatives impressions of Aunt Rose with the sagging upper arms and Uncle Max with the pants the size of New Jersey.” He learned show-biz patter, pulling his chair alongside the old Magnavox TV and pretending to be the next guest on the Jack Paar show, peeking down Jayne Mansfield’s dress and rolling his eyes, flacking his latest gig. “You know, Jack, I’m really looking forward to eighth grade. A lot of interesting transfers, some hot new teachers — it’s going to be a good year.”

He graduated to stand-up after listening to comedy albums his father would bring home from his job at Commodore Music, a record label and store in Manhattan. For visits to Grandma’s house on Thanksgiving, Mom packed a suitcase with costumes: the three Crystal Boys would do Ernie Kovacs’ Nairobi Trio and take turns as Mel Brooks’ 2,000-Year-Old Man.

His wonder years in Long Beach, on Long Island, N.Y. — the loud relatives, the overtanned mah-jongg ladies at the swimming pool, the horseradish and stuffed cabbage, the vacations in the Catskills — are at the heart of his new movie, Mr. Saturday Night, which he wrote, directed, produced and starred in, quite an achievement for someone who didn’t know what a key grip was seven years ago. Crystal set out to portray someone who embodied the idols of his youth — Milton Berle, Jack E. Leonard, Alan King — yet exuded the fear of failure that makes some comics do themselves in, onstage and personally, instead of waiting for life to do it to them.

Crystal says he is not Buddy, although he makes him so instantly recognizable in his Nipsey Russell loungewear and pinkie ring, in his scathing put-downs and maudlin sentimentality, that the character seems to come from the inside out. Crystal says he only wanted to show “the terrorist inside each of us, who can ruin things at any moment.” But like many people for whom affection comes easily, Crystal may have felt driven to test his positives. “It was easy to like Harry ((in When Harry Met Sally . . .)) and Mitch ((the mid-life ad guy in City Slickers)), but not Buddy. I wanted to elicit the complex affection for someone who does rotten things but who is not a rotten man.”

It may only have been possible for Crystal to portray this wrinkled, self- absorbed baby with a cigar once he was safely beyond such a fate himself. At 44, he is now at the top not only professionally — considered in the same breath with Steve Martin and Robin Williams — but personally as well, uncommonly secure in a business where ego tremors routinely register 9.8 on the Richter scale. He has lived in the same house in Pacific Palisades, Calif., for 12 years, been married to the same woman for 22. He has scarcely missed a volleyball game of either daughter: Jennifer, 19, who is now studying acting in London; and Lindsay, 15. An exciting Saturday is when his good friends, director Rob Reiner and his wife, come over, or when he goes to root for Los Angeles’ basketball underdogs, the Clippers. “For a star,” says Reiner, who directed him in Harry, “he’s the most normal man in America.”

Crystal attributes his contentment to Janice Goldfinger, the hometown girl he married in 1970. “I fell in love with the right person, a person I knew and who knew me. I still want to make her laugh.” He was a full-time father before it was fashionable, changing diapers during the day and playing clubs at night, while Janice worked as assistant to the dean of theater at Nassau % Community College on Long Island. “I loved those years of being Mr. Mom. One of the saddest days in my life was when Jennifer said, ‘Dad, I can wash my own hair.’ “

His hunger for family comes in part because when he was 15, his father dropped dead after bowling a 200 game on lane 13. “All the fun went out of the house then,” says Crystal’s brother Rich, a producer at Hearst television. “My mother adored my father, and she could barely manage.” From then on, part of what propelled Crystal was the desire to make his mother happy again. He became the school comedian, memorizing Bill Cosby’s routines and performing them so well at assemblies that when classmates heard the actual recordings they joked that Cosby was stealing Crystal’s material. The three brothers, including Joel, the oldest, who teaches at the high school they all attended, did the old routines at a surprise 75th birthday party for their mother back in their Long Beach living room.

For years after that, it looked as if Crystal, like Buddy, might never break into the big time. He started out in a group called 3’s Company, which appeared in between folk singers doing whaling songs at coffeehouses and never attracted much of a following. In 1974 he earned so little and had such high expenses that the IRS came calling. The auditor found the $2,200 in travel receipts in order but asked Janice why in the world he kept at it for only $4,000 a year. “It’s in his blood,” she sighed.

A rare shot at instant stardom — an appearance on the season premiere of Saturday Night Live in 1975 — misfired when producer Lorne Michaels cut his spot from six minutes to one and Crystal pulled out. “It was awful,” says Crystal. “Gilda ((Radner)) walked me to the elevator. I was crying all the way home on the Long Island Railroad, the tears running down the makeup.” While friends Chevy Chase and John Belushi went on to become household names, he had to settle for a spot on ABC’s wacky series Soap, playing television’s first prime-time homosexual. Then came the ill-conceived Billy Crystal Comedy Hour in 1982, which NBC promoted as a male version of the Carol Burnett show. “We were up against The Love Boat and first-run movies without much network backing,” Crystal remembers. “I learned in the trade press that the show was canceled after only two episodes.” He scraped himself up off the floor and went back on the road. He appeared in a few successful HBO specials, was a guest host on Saturday Night Live. He became a headliner instead of a warm-up act, sought after for his character turns rather than his one-liners.

Finally in 1985, he was invited to be a regular on SNL. It was the turning point of his career. His Fernando character set a new indoor speed record for trajectory from late-night sketch to universally understood wisecrack. Today people still beg him to flash the insincere smile of the fading, macho heartthrob of the ’50s and intone, “You know, dahlings, it is better to look good than to feel good.” By Monday morning, from junior high cafeterias to white-shoe law firms, “Excuuuse me” had been replaced by “You look maaahvelous.” He also struck gold with Willie, the nerdy messenger with a knack for misfortune, who wails in a high voice, “I hate when that happens,” and with Ricky, the hapless Vietnam vet who never escapes the neighborhood, for whom everything is “unbelieeevable.”

“That season,” Crystal says, “lifted an anvil off my heart. It made other things possible.” Like working his way up the emcee ladder from the Grammys to the Oscars. The Oscars were thrilling for the kid who once sat glued to the black-and-white set with the family, shrieking, “There’s Loretta Young! Look, over there, Alan Ladd’s getting out of that limo!” His mother Helen remembers Billy grasping his toothbrush like a mike, “thanking all the little people who made this possible.” In the morning, she would put notes under the cereal bowl — “Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird” — for the Oscars awarded after he fell asleep.

It is Crystal’s ability to think funny that makes him the perfect Oscar host. After Jack Palance was named Best Supporting Actor for City Slickers and broke into a he-man display of one-handed push-ups, Crystal kept a tally through the evening of Palance’s imaginary aerobic progress (“Jack has just bungee-jumped off the HOLLYWOOD sign”). Following a huge production number from the movie Hook with dozens of children suspended from the ceiling, Crystal remarked, “You know, Palance is the father of all those kids.” Reacting to the biggest glitch — when 1920s director Hal Roach, instead of just taking a bow, stood at his seat with no microphone and gave a long, inaudible speech for his Honorary Award for lifetime achievement — Crystal gracefully joked, “The reason we couldn’t hear Mr. Roach is that he is used to working in silent movies.”

For a hugely successful comedian, Crystal is singularly without attitude — not as angry as Richard Pryor, nor as frantic as Robin Williams, nor as – political as Jay Leno, not alienated or crude or macho. His humor bursts the bubble of ego without destroying anyone’s dignity. He doesn’t seem to have an enemy in the business, which partly accounts for the success of Comic Relief, his annual TV show with Whoopi Goldberg and Williams, which raises millions of dollars for the homeless.

He proved that his comedy was universal in Midnight Train to Moscow, the first TV comedy special of the glasnost era, a one-hour pastiche of sketches taped live at Moscow’s Pushkin theater and interspersed with his search for his Russian ancestors (he finds and dances with his Aunt Sheila.) He wins over the audience, even getting them to stand and sit in an approximation of the human wave that could pass muster on a bad night at Shea Stadium. He mimes a debate between Gorbachev and Yeltsin, offers a tribute to Charlie Chaplin set to Tchaikovsky and, in general, plays on the small-world theme. “I was raised thinking you were the enemy,” he tells the Russian audience. “You were raised thinking I was the enemy. We were both wrong. ((Pause.)) It’s the French.”

FOR SOMEONE SO PREOCCUPIED WITH AGing and loneliness, Crystal doesn’t have to worry about either. Offstage, he cuts a youthful figure in his uniform of jeans and T shirts, with his impish face and wiry, still athletic build (in high school he won two letters in baseball and one each in basketball and soccer). With the success of his movies, particularly the box-office smashes Harry and City Slickers, he may never have to go back on the road, which he found unbearably lonely. “There’s a scene in Mr. Saturday Night where Buddy is having dinner with his wife in the hotel bathroom, the toilet seat covered with white linen and crystal, while the baby sleeps in the next room. That’s Janice and me.” When the girls got older and Janice couldn’t go along, he would drive all night to get back home. “Doing stand-up, you live for 8:05 p.m. The rest of the day is waiting. Some of my worst moments were being alone in the room and the phone at home is busy.”

Playing Buddy Young put him face-to-face, literally, with his older self, at least for the 53 days he was in old-age makeup. The transformation was so complete that for Janice, who was with him on location for much of the shooting — including the five hours each day getting into the makeup and the two hours getting out — Buddy Young became as familiar as Billy. After he had finished another 20-hour day of filming at the boat pond in Manhattan’s & Central Park, Janice came up behind him and protectively took one arm in hers and slipped the other around his shoulder. They looked for all the world like an old couple walking off into the sunset.

That’s what Crystal wants now. “I’m on indefinite vacation,” he swears. He putters in his garden tending the zucchini. He says he never used humor the way Buddy did, as a straight-arm to keep people away, but he admits he once had a craving, now banished, for “that extra hug you can only get from strangers.” Not needing hugs and wanting to be known more for his movies than his stand-up skills have so far kept Crystal from agreeing to be the host of the Academy Awards for the fourth year in a row. “I love being Captain of Show Business for one night a year, but it is hard to keep doing it better,” he says. Gilbert Cates, producer of the Oscars show, says Crystal is “brilliant at it, an absolute joy to work with, and a trouper. He did the show last year with the flu and a fever of 102.” If Crystal does it, he makes Oscar history — the only host eligible to win awards as Best Actor, Director, Writer and Producer. But if he doesn’t win, there’s always next year. He’s considering City Slickers II.

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