Billy Crystal has stepped up to the Oscars microphone more times than anyone of his generation. His work in 'When Harry Met Sally', 'City Slickers', 'Analyze This' and a string of other films has endeared him to millions. Before movies, he was already a wildly successful stand-up comic and TV star. Next year, he'll bring his Broadway show, '700 Sundays' to Australia, reliving his childhood on stage every night.
ANDREW DENTON: Please welcome, via satellite from America, Mr Billy Crystal.
ANDREW DENTON: Billy Crystal, welcome, thank you for taking time away from your family to be with us tonight.
BILLY CRYSTAL: Andrew, is your head that big?
ANDREW DENTON: Sadly, yes.
BILLY CRYSTAL: From the opening, you've got a big head.
ANDREW DENTON: People say that about lots of parts of me, actually. Thank you for noticing. Billy, your family background, you sort of had a show biz up bringing. Your uncle ran a - was a record producer, and your dad ran a record store, booked jazz acts for New York. Can you tell us about the day you were introduced to the movies?
BILLY CRYSTAL: Well, it's also a scene from the show. The show, '700 Sundays', is really about my life with my dad, and my uncle is a big character in the show. This little music shop that you referred to, it was called the Commodore music shop, and it was in the centre of New York, and really in the 30s, 40s and 50s it was the centre of jazz actually in the world. My uncle created this little jazz label called the Commodore Jazz Label, and one of the stars of the label was a wonderful woman and singer named Billie Holiday. My dad produced some of her concerts, and when I was about five years old, I went to see my first movie, and she took me, and I sat on her lap and we saw the movie 'Shane', which is a classic Western. That's when I realised I wanted to be in the movies.
ANDREW DENTON: What a remarkable story, because Jack Palance, who became your co-star many years later was in that film, wasn't he?
BILLY CRYSTAL: It was the first movie I saw, and he was actually known as Walter, Walter Jack Palance, and in the movie he was Billy. Later, of course, we did 'City Slickers' together, and he won an Oscar, I didn't. That's the night he did the one-arm push ups on stage and actually gave me the greatest set up that anybody has ever had to do jokes on the Oscars, so, Jack, wherever you are, thank you for that.
ANDREW DENTON: We're going to see a little bit of 'City Slickers' later. What I'd like to show now is a little bit from '700 Sundays'. This is you talking about one of your great loves and object sessions as a kid - baseball.
BILLY CRYSTAL: I hope it's me, because there is no understudy.
ANDREW DENTON: Here we go.
ANDREW DENTON: When you were about eight years old, your dad took you to Yankee Stadium, he filmed it to immortalise the experience. Was it the sort of religious experience he made out it would be?
BILLY CRYSTAL: You know, it's an interesting thing, because I'm not sure it's just an American thing, because I've talked about this all over the world, and people seem to understand about baseball and fathers and sons and Yankee Stadium. It was, it was that once in a lifetime experience. Whatever you do for the first time, you remember it, and if it happens to be with your dad, then you write about it. It's actually a very vivid scene in the show.
The show, the background of it is a lot of home movies that my father took, so throughout the show you see these actual movies that he took. The set of '700 Sundays' is the house I grew up in. So the front window of the house and other windows become projection screens, so all of these movies that he took and family pictures come on to the house itself, so it becomes like a living documentary.
But going to Yankee Stadium for the first time still is one of the great remembrances I'll ever in my life. You know, they call it - baseball stadiums they refer to as cathedrals. To me, it was the biggest synagogue of baseball I've ever seen in my life.
ANDREW DENTON: You wanted to be a baseball star, but about the age of nine you thought, "No, no, no, comedy for me".
BILLY CRYSTAL: Plus I stopped growing.
ANDREW DENTON: Yes, outwardly, anyway. A couple of years ago, Mel Brooks was on this show and he referred to himself as the 'King of Corner Shtick', that he did all these routines on the sidewalks of Brooklyn. Who did you practice your routines with?
BILLY CRYSTAL: Well, it was the relatives, it was the family. Our house was the Comedy Central. Everybody was always over, it was an eclectic group of strange and interesting and funny people who loved to be entertained. So I'd have 40 or 50 over every weekend, so that to me it meant show time. My room was always the room where the hats and coats were put, so that made it the wardrobe room. So I would wear their Persian coats and their hats with the veils, and they always wore like this animal around their necks, it was some kind of ferret or a weasel, and they had claws and glass eyes, it was terrifying. The clasp was this animal biting its own foot. So I would perform for them and imitate them, and that's where it really started for me.
ANDREW DENTON: Did it ever get you in trouble, the ability to mimic your relatives?
BILLY CRYSTAL: It has happened, but it happened to me, actually, recently, playing in a golf tournament with former President, Bill Clinton, where he was talking throughout the first nine holes, and he just wouldn't stop. He was the most powerful man in the world, but he thought he was the President of Golf, and he just wouldn't stop. So we go into the restroom in between the nine holes, which men our age do a lot, and I was imitating him to the fellow I was playing with. Because Clinton kept saying on every hole, "What you got to do, Bill, is this", "What you got to do is keep your head down", "What you got to do", he kept saying, "What you got to do". My friend is in the bathroom, and I was at the urinal and I go, and I go, "Right, now listen, what you got to do, is just get your legs together", and Clinton walked in, and I know, I know, he heard me, because I'm being audited.
ANDREW DENTON: If I may, I'd like to step through a little bit of your career then talk about some specific stuff of '700 Sundays', because it is a very powerful show. You moved on to a very successful career in stand-up comedy, and then in the mid-70s you got a shot at 'Saturday Night Live', which was the launching pad for so many careers - Chevy Chase, Bill Murray - but, it didn't turn out to be the break that it could have been, why was that?
BILLY CRYSTAL: Well, what happened, Andrew, was on the very - the premier of the show, the first night of 'Saturday Night Live ', I was a guest on the show. There was Andy Kauffman and myself, and we were sort of the 'Saturday Night Live' comedy discoveries, and I was going to do a five to six minute routine. The dress rehearsal the night before, the show was too long, and there were pieces that weren't working. You know, it was the first show. And my thing actually did very well, but they asked me to cut like three and a half, four minutes out of it, which left me with like two minutes to do. I couldn't do that routine in two minutes, because I'd be talking like this, and it just wouldn't work. So I didn't have anything. I ended up getting what they call bumped from the very, very first show of 'Saturday Night Live'.
But nine years later I went back there, hosted the show a few times, and then joined the cast, along with Christopher Guest, Martin Short, and we had one of the best years that SNL has ever had. That first night was a tough thing to get passed for me because I thought this was going to be the beginning of a whole different career, and so I didn't end up on 'Saturday Night Live', but that's when I started doing 'Soap' about a year later after that.
ANDREW DENTON: But then you did make it back to 'Saturday Night Live' to huge success. I have here an extraordinary impersonation from those years. This is you as Sammy Davis Junior.
ANDREW DENTON: That is quite brilliant.
BILLY CRYSTAL: You know, I was Sammy Davis' opening act for a while, so I would come to the show about two hours, Andrew, before I would go on, because Sammy was already in his dressing room, and we would talk and he would tell me all of his stories. You can't leave a dressing room after talking to Sammy Davis Jnr for that long and not feel that you just want to be him, you know, and that's how that thing started, and I mean that.
ANDREW DENTON: He once got your impersonation of him on your answering machine, is that right?
BILLY CRYSTAL: Oh my God, this was weird. Well, once I fell in love with the voice, I started calling people at home, I'd leave messages as Sammy Davis Junior, so I did the show and it went really well, so I came home and the red light was beeping on my message machine. Well the message on my phone machine was me - as Sammy - with some music in the background and you simply heard me say, "Hay, Babes, can't talk right now, I'm in the studio. Peace and love, and I mean that. I'll get back to you". I had pressed the message, and you hear Sammy Davis Jnr actually go, "What the hell is this?" and hangs up. So Sammy called and Sammy answered, and he just didn't know what to do.
ANDREW DENTON: He must have had a total out of body experience.
BILLY CRYSTAL: He said, "Listen, I don't mind you doing it on the show, but just skip it from your life, okay?"
ANDREW DENTON: I want to show another clip of you now. We mentioned Jack Palance earlier and 'City Slickers'. This is a much-loved movie and a great scene from it.
ANDREW DENTON: He's got presence.
BILLY CRYSTAL: That face is so terrifying, even now, and he's the sweetest man. He's well in his 80s now. He still rides horses. I hear from him occasionally. But, especially what we talked about earlier, seeing him in my first movie, and then getting to act with him was a thrill, and the fact that he got the Oscar made me feel even better, because when we were writing the movie, I was very much Jack's voice in the writing room with Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, I would improvise a lot, and I actually wrote that line, "I crap bigger than you". When he said, "Do you think he'll say it?" and he wanted to actually make it worse than it was. We ended up with "crap", but you can imagine.
ANDREW DENTON: Yes.
BILLY CRYSTAL: He was an extraordinary guy.
ANDREW DENTON: Did you tell him about the impact he'd had on you all those years ago when you saw your first film?
BILLY CRYSTAL: I told him about Billy, I told him I'd seen the movie, and he said, "Great, I'd like a Mai Tai".
ANDREW DENTON: Isn't it frustrating that no matter how hard you write, you can't write a line as good as that?
BILLY CRYSTAL: You know, that's what this show is about, it's about their humour, their habits. The show is very much about how you end up becoming who you are. It is not about my career, it's about these great moments with these great people throughout my life.
ANDREW DENTON: Yes. Speaking of which, Robert de Niro, of course, in 'Analyse This', that was probably the first time he was regarded in a comedy sense. What was it like for you approaching him to do that film?
BILLY CRYSTAL: You know, I had written the first draft of the script with a great writer named Peter Tolan. So I call him and I said, "Bob, I got something that might be great for us. Would love you to read it". Two days later he called my office, " Bill, I like this, I like this a lot, I like it a lot, I like it a lot, I like this. I like this, I like it a lot, I like this. I like it. I like it a lot, I like it a lot. Did I tell you that I liked it? I like this. I like it a lot".
So it took me about a year and a half to convince him to do the movie. I was like a pit ball on his pants just, "You gotta do it, Bob, you gotta do it, you gotta do it. You should be funny in a movie, people will love it if you're funny, you know. You're an icon, you're different from us, you've got to do it". He finally said okay, and it was such a real - Bob was amazing to work with. What he does, Andrew, when he's working, he repeats everything when the camera is on him. So, like the camera is on me now, I'm de Niro, you're me, okay?
ANDREW DENTON: Okay.
BILLY CRYSTAL: So his first line was, "Do you know me?" He walks into my office, right? So this it what happened the first day of shooting. "Do you know me? Do you know me? Do you know me? Do you know me? Do you know me? Do you know me? You don't know me. Do you know me?" Now I don't know when to start. So he finished, "Do you know me?" So he gets the one that he wants, he gives the editor about 30 choices, then he sort of nods and goes, "Okay, your turn".
ANDREW DENTON: You must have been so tempted just to say, "Are you talking to me?"
BILLY CRYSTAL: You don't approach him that way. He is a really charming, funny man, and we've been great friends now since those movies that we did together.
ANDREW DENTON: As you say, you've worked with some very intense men. You've said the scariest experience was working with Kenneth Branagh on 'Hamlet'. Was what was the fear there?
BILLY CRYSTAL: Well, listen to my voice.
ANDREW DENTON: It's very Shakespearian.
BILLY CRYSTAL: This is going to be in Hamlet? "Hey, what ho! ".
ANDREW DENTON: Tony Curtis made it work.
BILLY CRYSTAL: That's true. Kenneth asked me to play the grave digger in his rather brilliant production of 'Hamlet', and I was so nervous to do that. Because, you know then you run the risk of sounding like Tony Curtis, you know, in 'Spartacus'? "My name is Antonius. I'm a singer of songs. I also juggle. I love you Spartacus, like the father I never knew".
So, to play the grave digger in Hamlet, every night rehearsing with my wife, she's played every character, because we rehearse together, so she's been Sally, now she's got to be Hamlet and I've got to be the grave digger. For three weeks I wanted to get the Bronx and New York out of my nose, my chops, my everything. I had to get rid of it.
To me, that was terrifying to walk on to that set in England the first day and being in a grave with Yorrick's skull. Because I handed the skull, which he says, "Alas, poor Yorrick, I knew him well". That, to me, was the most frightened I've ever been in my life, to be believable at Shakespeare. Fortunately it worked.
ANDREW DENTON: One of your favourite films is 'Mr Saturday Night', which you wrote, starred in and directed, about an old, old Jewish comedian. Did you ever have a time in your career where you felt as Mr Saturday Night did, that people may not think you're funny anymore?
BILLY CRYSTAL: You mean, like now?
ANDREW DENTON: No, not now. It's all right.
BILLY CRYSTAL: You know, I think, Andrew, everyone who does funny runs the risk of that day where you think, "I'm done. Do I have it? Do I have anything to say anymore?" I actually took a 20-year break in touring and doing stand-up from 1986 to when I started preparing to do '700 Sundays'. I mean, I would do the Oscars and I would do other specials, the Comic Relief that I do with Robin Williams and Whoopi Goldberg, and charity events here and then, but not on a steady diet, because I felt I didn't have much to say. And so that kind of writing sort of went into my movie work. That's what I was doing then. So it took that long. I just felt, well, I didn't want to wake up that day and go, "At eight o'clock tonight I have to be really funny". I just didn't like that pressure, so then, as I got older, and things happened and you go through some hard times in my life, which I did, I decided to write about it. That became '700 Sundays', about the loss of my dad when I was 15 and then later my mum in 2001, and that's what the show is about. It's about becoming an orphan in our lives and how we have to end up standing on our own two feet.
ANDREW DENTON: It's called '700 Sundays' because you calculated that's roughly the amount of time you spent with your dad before he died of a heart attack when you were 15. Can you explain what happened that night? You argued with him, didn't you?
BILLY CRYSTAL: Well, my dad had held two, sometimes three jobs, and he ran this music store during the day and did these jazz concerts on Friday and Saturday nights, tonnes of jazz benefits for ailing musicians around the country, so he wasn't home a great deal. He wasn't a workaholic, he just had to. We didn't have much. Sundays was our day alone. When he died, it hit me very hard. I was the youngest. My brothers were away at school. So I had him alone for the first time, and that only lasted a month, and then he died suddenly of a heart attack.
I was in love with this girl. I just loved this girl. I was failing subjects because I just was so in love with this girl, and she had dumped me. We got into an argument about that, about this girl, and he walked out, and an hour later he was gone. And I thought for a long period of time, "Oh, did I make this happen?" When you're 15 and your father dies, you don't know what to think. You're just out of your orbit.
ANDREW DENTON: That's a very tough thing to happen to a young boy or a young man. Did you have any idea how to process that sense of guilt?
BILLY CRYSTAL: Not then, I mean, you don't have the skills. You know, you don't know what to say. I was left all alone with my mum. She was an amazing survivor and taught me how to, you know, get through your grief, and then lead your life and get through it. We had a fantastic relationship, and she kept us all together. But you don't know what to think, and it wasn't until my 30s that I started to slowly undo the knots that had been done to me in my teenage years.
ANDREW DENTON: How do you undo those sorts of knots?
BILLY CRYSTAL: That, you know, you just have to do a lot of introspection. I have a wonderful wife of 36 years, I met her when I was 18, and we have two great kids, and you appreciate what's the best in life. Now we have two grandchildren - I can't believe I'm actually saying that, because I don't even have a walker in front of me. They are the love of our lives, these two little beautiful girls. We're sort of starting all over again. You pick them up, you play with them, and then you hand them back and go to a movie.
ANDREW DENTON: It's absolutely perfect. Just going back to your dad for a minute, after he died, he actually had a heart attack in a bowling alley. You weren't just guilty about it, you were angry that that's where he'd died. Why was that?
BILLY CRYSTAL: You know, you're not talking about a rational person at the time. You're 15 years old and you're mad. It was because it was a tiny little town that we lived in. It was sort of the talk of the town. I think that, you know, one of the feelings is that you want to be there when that happens, if it's going to happen. They were there when you came in, shouldn't you be there when they leave? It's an awful thing, but we all have to face it some day, we say goodbye to our parents. You feel like you want to be there to say, "I'll see you soon, it's going to be okay, and thank you". I never had that chance. It was such an angry ending that, you know, I think that the fact that it was in this public place - he didn't plan it. It was just, God said "Now". So I was angry about that. It was not the way life should be.
ANDREW DENTON: How did what happen with your dad affect you as a parent? Were you shy about shouting with your kids or did it affect your parenting in any way?
BILLY CRYSTAL: I think when it affects your life, Andrew, you say, "Alright", you've got to live every moment to the best it can be because you never know what's going to happen to you. None of us do. You just have to live life to the fullest every day and be as happy as you can and don't let things get to you and just spend as much time as you can as long as it's good time, you know.
Janice said to me something - it was part of why I stopped also in 1986 touring around. I was away a lot and on the road, and I was making a nice living and things were good and she said, "You know what? Maybe you should stop touring. You’re becoming Uncle Daddy". And I said, "Okay, I got you". So I just shut it down. So then I never missed a game, I never missed a play, anything like that, I car-pooled. If you met the girls - I hope they are able to come down with me - you'd see why. They've had a very wonderful, normal upbringing because their mother is Janice.
ANDREW DENTON: And their father is you.
BILLY CRYSTAL: You know, I think I value so much the commitment it is to raise a child. It is the toughest take-home exam you'll ever have in your life, to have this responsibility for his human being and raise them well. I think we did a great job, and I haven't missed anything in my life.
ANDREW DENTON: Billy, I can't let you go without asking you a couple of questions about the Oscars. How do you deal with nerves realising that you're about to perform to a billion or more people?
BILLY CRYSTAL: Vodka.
ANDREW DENTON: Excellent answer.
BILLY CRYSTAL: No, back on track. As I kid, I would practice. I would go into the bathroom. I lived in New York, so the Oscars were on very late, and I never realised why this show was so long until I started hosting it. I would have my toothbrush in the bathroom and I would make this speech in the mirror thanking all the little people, of which I was one, and I always remember that this was my Oscar, the toothbrush. The first time I hosted the show, I was in the dressing room, had my tuxedo on and everything, and I was brushing my teeth, the last thing I do before I go out there. I took the toothbrush, and put it inside my tuxedo jacket, and I walked out in front of two billion people - it's not the same toothbrush, I'm doing okay - and every time I fronted the show, I had that toothbrush in my jacket there. I think that calms me down. I get very ready, Andrew, for the show. I walk out with a little bit of nerves, which I like, I think you need a little bit of edge.
ANDREW DENTON: Yes.
BILLY CRYSTAL: And then I'm just sort of at home there. To me, I may be walking out on stage, but in many ways I'm walking into that living room where I started as a kid. I think, you know, the shows that we hosted were relaxed, and making a very uncomfortable crowd comfortable. That's my job on the show.
ANDREW DENTON: You said the Oscars were a long night. I think this was your line, and it's always summed up awards night for me - the Oscars are one hour of entertainment crammed into four hours.
BILLY CRYSTAL: I'm not sure it's my line, but it's a good one, so I'll say it is.
ANDREW DENTON: You go with it. We watch it for the dresses - not me, but a lot of the women - and for the over-emotional speeches. What are the outstanding memories for you of Oscar nights? What are the things you're in it for?
BILLY CRYSTAL: For me, we hope that something bad happens. You hope that something screws up somehow. Hal Roach, who is one of the great, legendary producers who started Laurel and Hardy and the 'Our Gang' kids, and he was the legendary film producer in the beginnings of Hollywood, alongside Charlie Chaplin, and he was 100 years old. He was in the audience at the Oscars, and he was supposed to just wave to the crowd.
So I introduced Mr Roach, "He's a pioneer of Hollywood movies, and here is in the audience. He's 100 years old". And he started talking, but he didn't have a microphone. So he sounded like, you couldn't hear him, and they raced to give him a microphone and I knew the camera was on me, and there's two billion people watching, and I just looked at him and I looked at the crowd and I said, "It's only fitting he got his start in silent films". To me, those are moments that you hope happen, and, you know, that was a pretty fun night.
ANDREW DENTON: As you say in Mr Saturday Night, the sheer power of being up there totally on your game with comedy, being able to drive the audience mad.
BILLY CRYSTAL: It's a great feeling. I have it every time we do it show. I can't wait to bring it to Australia. As you said earlier, I've been there only once. I had such a great time. And when they said, "What do you want to do with this now?" we were on Broadway, we won the Tony as the best show and all of that stuff, and we took it around the country to the best theatre cities in the country, and we thought about going to London and I said, "You know what? I want to go to Australia. I had such a great time there. Let's see if the family values that I talk about, that the relatives that I talk about, these quirky people, does that translate down there?" and I can't wait. The times I was there doing some television, I guess it's about 10 years ago, I had a wonderful time. The people are great, it's beautiful down there. I'm very excited that we're bringing the show there.
ANDREW DENTON: We look forward very much to seeing it. Billy Crystal, it's been charming. Thank you very much.
ANDREW DENTON: Thank you Andrew, goodbye everybody.