Billy Crystal turned 70 years old in March, but don’t think that means the actor-writer-director-comedian is slowing down. “I remember when they asked George Burns if he would ever retire. He said, ‘To what? What would I do?’” Crystal says with a laugh. “That’s how I feel.”
Far from retiring, Crystal is “busier than I’ve been in a long time,” he says, with projects including a movie premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival, a musical version of his film “Mr. Saturday Night” and plans to step behind the camera to direct his first film since 2001’s acclaimed drama “61*.”
One can forgive those who want to reflect on Crystal’s long and storied career, as he is set to receive the quintessential Hollywood honor on April 12, when he imprints his hands and feet at the TCL Chinese Theatre alongside other screen greats (check back here on Friday to watch the full live-stream event below). The event is coupled with a screening the previous evening at the TCM Classic Film Festival of “When Harry Met Sally…,” marking the film’s 30th anniversary. Crystal will be joined by director Rob Reiner and co-star Meg Ryan on a panel before the screening.
“I’m very excited about it,” Crystal says. “It’s one of those things, when you start out in your career, you have hopes you’re going to do some good work. This is when you start thinking, ‘My parents were right, it all goes so fast.’ I’m feeling nostalgic and like it’s all falling into place now.”
“I think it’s long overdue,” says Reiner, who will be speaking at the ceremony — a nice full-circle moment as Crystal spoke when Reiner and his father, Carl, had their imprint ceremony in 2017. “This is a man who is loaded with talent — he can do standup, he can direct, he can write. And in addition to all that, he has amazing relationships in his life. He’s been with his wife, Janice, since he was 18, they have two great daughters, four grandkids, and he has this incredibly full life.”
In many ways, Crystal in the inverse of Buddy Young Jr., the self-destructive, washed-up (or never-was) comedian estranged from his family that he portrayed in his directorial debut, 1992’s “Mr. Saturday Night.” After a brief introduction on “Saturday Night Live” when he was a cast member, Crystal brought Young to the big screen, where he played the character from his 20s to his 70s.
“It was a 72-day shoot and 53 of those days I was in old-age makeup, so that meant getting to the studio at 2 a.m. and sitting for six or seven hours of makeup, then directing all day in that stuff,” Crystal recalls. “But it was an amazing experience and probably my favorite movie.”
Things are again coming full circle as Crystal is now working on a musical of the film with the Nederlander Organization; the creative team includes Jason Robert Brown (“Parade”) and Amanda Green (“Hands on a Hard Body”) along with the film’s co-screenwriters Crystal and Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel. A workshop is set for this May. “It’s a great character and now I don’t need the makeup!” Crystal jokes. “It’s coming along very well. The funny is always there but the depth and the humanity is even stronger, based on what we learned from the reaction to the movie over the years.”
Crystal has long excelled at combining humor with heart, mixing comedy and drama. His Tony-winning one-man show, “700 Sundays,” details his life growing up in New York and his family —- his father was in the music business and his uncle Milt Gabler produced Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” and the singer babysat a young Crystal— particularly the tragedy of losing his father at age 15.
Always serious about acting, Crystal studied at the prestigious HB Studios, where his teacher was Oscar nominee William Hickey — Crystal later cast him as his father-in-law in “Forget Paris.” He studied at NYU under Martin Scorsese, which he says “was intimidating even back then.” He adds, “When I see him now, I say, ‘I just have to ask you one question … why’d you give me a C?’” Asked about Scorese’s response and Crystal launches into a perfect imitation of the fast-talking filmmaker: “ ‘I don’t even remember, how do I remember anything?’”
He got a big break with a 1976 appearance on “Saturday Night Live” called “Face” that was also an early indicator of how expertly he could weave together laughs and pathos; in the bittersweet monologue, he played an old jazz man recounting his glory days. In 1977, he found fame on the subversive NBC comedy “Soap” playing TV’s first openly gay character, Jodie Dallas.
Crystal established himself as one of the most respected standups around, but it would be “Saturday Night Live” that gave him a second wind when he joined the cast for the 1984-85 season. With imitations of everyone from Howard Cosell to Muhammed Ali, Crystal became one of the season’s breakout stars. He would go on to play leads in films including “Running Scared” and “Throw Momma From the Train” — plus a scene-stealing turn in Reiner’s “The Princess Bride” — before “When Harry Met Sally …” solidified his star status.
Crystal’s name also became synonymous with the ideal host. First with Comic Relief, the charity organization that has raised more than $80 million to provide services to the homeless, he began hosting the event with Whoopi Goldberg and Robin Williams in 1986. Then, beginning in 1990, he started a run as the host of Academy Awards that has set the bar for all others, hosting nine times through 2012.
One can’t help but ask what he thought of this year’s hostless Oscars, to which he quips, “Oh, the Oscars have been on? I didn’t know!” Joking aside, Crystal says, “I thought it was a really good show, some really good moments,” he notes. “But there’s the chance to lose some spontaneity — there are times you want a host to capitalize on it when something happens in the room. I’m not saying that happened, but some of my favorite moments were when I could make things that happened in the room part of the show.”
He points to when his “City Slickers” co-star Jack Palance won supporting actor and began doing one-armed pushups on stage, which Crystal then referenced the rest of the night at the 64th Oscars. Or a moment in which producer Hal Roach spoke without a mic and couldn’t be heard, leading Crystal to improvise, “I think that’s fitting because Mr. Roach started out in silent films.”
Crystal cites “700 Sundays” as the “most magical” of his career, perhaps because it combines laughs with personal drama. Originally produced in 2004 as part of La Jolla Playhouse’s “Page to Stage” series, it went on to spawn two Broadway runs, a worldwide tour, a book and an HBO special. The title refers to the 700 Sundays Crystal spent with his father before he died.
While rehearsing for the La Jolla premiere, Crystal remembers asking director Des McAnuff and co-writer Alan Zweibel if the audience would find this interesting. “I kept saying, are they going to care?” He got his answer in the first performance. “They stood up before the show was over in a key moment and cheered at moments I didn’t expect. To sit in a lawn chair alone on stage and have 1,500 people in the audience and you can’t hear a sound … it was the most powerful acting moment of my career. It was a crowning achievement for me.”
On screen, he will next be seen opposite Ben Schwartz in “Standing Up, Falling Down,” premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival in April. “It’s an interesting character, I play an alcoholic dermatologist who’s treating a failed comedian and they help each other. It was one of the better parts I’ve been given, so I’m excited about that.” He is also close to finalizing a deal to step behind the camera again to direct a script he co-wrote with Zweibel. “I can’t wait to get behind the camera again,” he enthuses. “It’s been way too long.
Asked if he has any words of wisdom in sustaining a long career in the industry, Crystal pauses. “There’s a quote from my grandfather: ‘If you hang around the store long enough, once in a while they’ll give you something.’”
To read Crystal and Reiner’s reflection on “When Harry Met Sally…” click here.
What: Billy Crystal Imprint Ceremony
When: 10:30 a.m. April 12
Where: TCL Chinese Theatres