Billy Crystal is sitting in the front row at a game between the New York Knicks and the Philadelphia 76ers. It’s a barn burner, tied up, into the second overtime. Now with maybe seven seconds left and a chance to win a big game in a losing season, the Knicks’ Bernard King steps to the freethrow line. The 76ers’ Mo Cheeks lopes up from back court, sweaty from a game’s worth of action. King bounces the ball once, twice. But Mo cheeks sees something on the sideline, something more important than a seesawing ballgame.
“Yo, Bernard!” he cries, as 22,000 people in Madison Square Garden strain to see what’s going on. “It’s mahvelous!” he shrieks, shaking a finger at Billy. “It’s the mahvelous guy!”
Fernando Lamas, deeply brown and gallantly dressed, sat down one night on The Tonight Show and, slightly skewing the vowels toward Spanish, told Johnny Carson, “You know, it is better to look good than to feel good.”
For Billy Crystal, that was the starting point: he made up an unctuous host of a smarmy gab show called Femando’s Hideway, a silver-haired Latin who always flatters his guests with the gooey line, “You look mahvelous.” And now every room the comedian enters, every lobby, every airplane, every restaurant, you hear this murmuring, this vaguely accented greeting: mahvelous, mahvelous mahvelous.
Seizing the moment, Crystal cut a record this summer as Fernando, a tune written on a tablecloth over an Indian dinner with Paul Shaffer. A novelty song with a killer mix, “You Look Marvelous” is doing pretty well, dangling in the middle of the pop chart. Most of the rest of Mahvelous!, the new album it’s on, is a live recording of his nightclub show. Tanned, in shades and Reebok sneakers, and slipping in and out of his repertoire of characters all the time, Crystal traveled to Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Atlanta and Chicago over five days in August to promote his first record.
In Philadelphia, he sits down with a perfectly blowndry TV guy to tape an interview with him for the night’s newscast. Billy wears a cornflower-blue silk T-shirt and a white jacket pushed up his forearms. The news guy’s in a navy blazer, leaning earnestly across a table, smiling stiffly. It goes okay until he asks, “And what does Fernando Lamas think of you?”
Billy makes a stop-in-the-name-of-love gesture at the cameraman. “Cut the tape. Just stop it,” he says, very quietly. “Fernando Lamas is dead.” A creepy, embarrassed feeling still hangs in the air as Billy brushes along the corridors and back out to the limousine. “I had to do that.” he apologizes. “You know, that’s exactly what Phyllis George asked live on The CBS Morning News.” He slowly cracks a smile, and the whimpering voice of the self-torturingWillie comes out. “Ooh,” he whines, “I hate when that happens.”
Chevy Chase, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, Jane Curtin, Laraine Newman, Garrett Morris … and Billy Crystal. That’s the way the lineup looked on October 11th, 1975, as NBC prepared to lift the curtain on its new late-night comedy show, Saturday Night Live. Crystal would have six whole minutes of his own on the first show! Six minutes to do a bit where Don Pardo smashes potato chips offstage for junglemovie sound effects while Billy plays Victor Mature saving Rhonda Fleming from a spider. Not offered a place in the regular cast, Crystal’s told by the producer, Lorne Michaels, “This’ll be better for you. Nobody’s really gonna emerge from this company.”
Then things get gruesome: He’s scheduled to go on last, just before one in the morning, and they want him to trim the piece to under two minutes. At ten o’clock on Saturday night, he’s cut from the show entirely. He rides a train back home to Long Island, slumped with his head bumping against the dirty pane, hopeless, like a scene out of Midnight Cowboy.
For nearly ten years after that night, Billy waited for his moment in the sun, watching almost every person in that first SNL cast go on to major fame. For years, he toyed with that scenario, trying to figure out the Big Mistake: was it cosmic goof or human flaw that could allow a person to brush right up next to stardom then walk away empty-handed? If you were going to make The Billy Crystal Story, this part would be about wanting something so bad that not having it gnaws at your stomach so you can hardly enjoy what you do have.
A select Billyography of the years between that first episode of SNL and last year, when, in a soulsatisfying twist, he became a huge star on the very same show, includes:
- playing bills as a stand-up comic with acts that ranged from Melissa Manchester to Susan Anton, from Sammy Davis Jr. to Barry Manilow. “He has never had a bomb show,” says concert promoter Larry Magid, who used to book Billy and his first comedy group, Three’s Company, into a little club in Philly called the Bijou Café, back in the early Seventies. “I’ve never seen him in a situation where he didn’t go over. In Atlantic City, he’d agree to coheadline with anyone, even the Landers Sisters.”
- playing the first network gay person, a guy named Jodie, on a weirdly funny half-hour sitcom called Soap, from ’77 to ’80. The show was so popular in Israel that he was invited to fly in the cockpit on a flight from Tel Aviv to Paris. (Apparently an international symbol of acceptance, this very same thing happens in August on Piedmont Airlines from Newark to Boston.)
- playing Meathead’s best friend, Al, on All in the Family, in 1976. Though Billy appeared on only one show, he and Rob Reiner became best friends, and remain so. “We play on a softball team, the Coney Island Whitefish, go out to dinner, talk on the phone all the time — the things friends do,” Reiner says of their lives at home in Los Angeles. In 1984, Reiner put Crystal in his hilarious phony documentary of a heavy-metal band, This Is Spinal Tap. “There was a scene with a big send-off party for the band with a catering service that only used mimes to serve the food. The name of the company was Shut Up and Eat. Billy played the mime,” Reiner recalls. “It was his idea. He said that when he used to say he wanted to be an actor, his father would say, ‘Shut up and eat.”‘
- starring in the Joan Rivers-cowritten and -directed flop Rabbit Test, a 1978 movie with the nauseatingly cute premise that Billy is the first man to get pregnant. “Hey, Paul Newman did Quintet,” Billy offers. Asked if he thinks Joan Rivers is funny, he pauses a long time and says, “It’s a kind of comedy I’m finding less and less attractive. Am I trying to be diplomatic here and not say I hate her?”
- starring in The Billy Crystal Comedy Hour, an NBC project, circa 1982. Six shows were taped, only five were shown. (The likelihood that we’ll see the Lost Episode increases in direct proportion to Billy’s stardom, sort of a good-news, bad-news situation.) “They wanted me to be Carol Burnett,” he says. “One time, we had a big fight over who should be on: Susan Sarandon or Vicki Lawrence.” His friend Paul Shaffer, of Late Night with David Letterman, kindly says, “I thought he was doing pretty perceptive stuff, but it was a prime-time format, and the two things never jelled. I did like the theme song, though. It was by Van Dyke Parks.”
During these years, when he was living in what he calls What-If Land, Crystal made only a couple of appearances on The Tonight Show; he says Johnny Carson doesn’t like him. “It’s been a big pain to me,” he says, hesitantly. “On the air, I always made him laugh, but then I couldn’t get on again. This ‘What did I do wrong?’ drove me crazy all those years.”
He finally found an outlet on Letterman, a show that’s become far hotter for hip comics than The Tonight Show. And he made a pair of well-received HBO specials. Then, last fall, he joined the promising new class at SNL, which included the chameleonic Martin Short and the hilarious Christopher Guest, whom Crystal had known since their college days at New York University.
When Billy was tinkering with his stand-up act in the early Seventies at a Greenwich Village club called the Bitter End, Bill Cosby (whose advice was “Just talk”) and Chris Guest were among his fans. “I wasn’t into going out to watch stand-up comedy,” Guest recalls, “but Billy was an actor acting out parts rather than telling jokes. And he was very funny.” Guest, who’d considered SNL before, accepted last fall when he learned the cast would include Crystal and Short. (None of the three is returning to the show this year.)
Billy got off to a bad start: after the first show of the season, TV critic Tom Shales called him a Vegas-style comic who groveled for laughs, the sort the show made fun of. Heartsick, Crystal closed himself in his office. “I said, ‘I gotta be crazier.’ I always felt the one thing that was wrong with what I do is there’s too much control. That week, I wrote all new stuff, including this thing with Lou Goldman, an old Jewish guy doing weather, that was more outrageous. I felt I was on my way.”
Marty Short says that in the ensuing year, “Every week felt like final-exams week.” In adjoining offices, Short and Crystal worked late into the night, hammering out sketches, with Maalox as their only drug, and testing bits on each other. “When Billy’s just sitting in an office improvising, he makes me laugh the most,” says Short. “And he loves to laugh. He’s very generous with his laughter, which is actually rare for a comedian.”
Crystal and Guest paired up as the mincing Minkman Brothers, the bowlers Ricky and Phil, the two old black ballplayers “King” Carl Johnson and Leonard “the Rooster” Willoughby and the self-abusing Frankie and Willie. Alone, Crystal scored with deadly sendups of Sammy Davis Jr. (“Billy is a brilliant, brilliant performer,” Sammy says) and Prince, and he reprised a character who’d earlier appeared on the ill-fated Comedy Hour: Fernando.
He says, “This is the first time I was in the right place at the right time.”
In the course of his minitour, Billy’s interviewed by the twelve-year-old host of a kiddie video show; a DJ with a red toupee and a garland of gold neck chains; a man named Buzz who’s the host of a TV show called People Are Talking; New York radio host Howard Stern (whose booth Billy leaves saying, “That was like a seder gone wild”); and a slew of morning radio jocks with exactly the same voice. To a guy wearing lots of silver jewelry, he says, “What happened, did Arizona throw up on you?”
The only interviewer who gets Billy’s back up is a VJ in Atlanta known only as Butcher, dressed in black and sporting a spiky hairdo. “What is tish Liza Minnelli thing you do with your hair, Butcher?” Billy asks, in his Fernando voice.
What Butcher wants to know is, “Are you rich now?” This time, Billy doesn’t summon one of his voices, Sammy or Ricky or Fernando, to cover for him: he just points a finger and says, “You’ve gone over the foul line of life.”
Marty Short was kidding him the other day, asking, “Could you be hotter?” Right now, Billy Crystal, 37, five-seven, has all the attention a person could want. Something’s driven him here, the kind of thing that is usually still out of reach when you arrive. And when he describes “the best feeling in the world,” the feeling he gets some nights doing his act before a live audience, he says, “Sometimes it’s like I’m six-two, one eighty-five.”
At the Ritz-Carlton, a many splendored thing that gapes at Atlanta’s tony Lenox Square Shopping Center, a man dressed like a footman from days of yore springs forward to grab the limo door. Inside, a dress code forbids the wearing of faded jeans and name tags that say, HELLO MY NAME IS. There’s a swank gymnasium, and unbothered by fans, Billy spends an hour pulling at sundry Universal weight machines. In deference to the code, he spends the whole evening, capped by a viewing of the Letterman show, in a cozy black sweat suit.
He’s begun a fitness routine to prepare for Running Scared, costarring Gregory Hines and directed by Peter Hyams (2010). There’s a mere two weeks between this record-promotion tour and the first day of the shoot. It’s an action-adventure picture, planned for release next summer, about two undercover cops who are trying hard not to get hurt in their last days before retiring.
Though Crystal has been working hard at rewriting the script, actor Henry Winkler, another close friend, reports that Billy’s priority is his family life: “This is as heimisch a family as you’ll ever meet.” Billy’s been married fifteen years, to Janice Goldfinger, his high-school sweetheart, and they have two daughters, Jenny, 12, and Lindsay, 7. “We’re not the Pat Boones,” Crystal counters.
He grew up in Long Beach, a summer resort community on Long Island, New York. “We were not so well off,” says his brother Richard “Rip” Crystal, a coproducer of Life’s Most Embarrassing Moments. “Our dad was very conservative, very creative. He worked hard, so we didn’t see him a lot. The family was very sports-and entertainment-oriented. We played ball all the time. And every year, we did all the voices to Babes in Toyland. Billy, being the youngest [of three boys], was more the center of attention.”
Their father, who died suddenly of a heart attack when Billy was a sophomore in high school, worked at the family’s Commodore Music Shop and produced jazz concerts. Their uncle, Milt Gabler, produced Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” and Sammy Davis Jr.’s first hit, “Hey There,” among some sixty other gold records on the Commodore label.
“I always think about how odd it was to be a white Jewish kid growing up with all these black jazz players — Zutty Singleton, Henry ‘Red’ Allen — around all the time,” Billy says. One of his characters — the old cat who says, “Can you dig it? I knew that you could” — is modeled on them.
One effect was that Billy didn’t learn much about rock & roll. “I feel out of it sometimes. They’ll go, ‘You know that Sam and Dave tune …’ — like everybody should know it. I don’t know any of these things. I was always listening to Dave Brubeck, other things. I don’t know any Rolling Stones songs very well. Is that bad?” he asks. “I can dance. I’m not an accountant.”
Billy’s collection of autographed baseballs includes a Mickey Mantle, a Stan Musial, a Pete Rose and the latest, a Gary Carter. He remembers that his first date with his wife was on Casey Stengel’s birthday. He thinks guys love baseball because it’s a game your dad teaches you. In every city, he jokes around about the local team, the standings, the latest trades, the dumb plays. In Boston, a kid stops him on the sidewalk for an autograph. “He had me sign a Yankee ball,” Billy says, incredulous. He climbs into the soft back seat of the blue limo and sighs. “This is getting crazy. I signed next to Graig Nettles.”
One hot summer day in New York, he was waiting on a corner when he heard somebody say, “Is the light changed? I don’t see so well.” It was a voice Crystal recognized because he’d been doing it in his act for years. Billy has a great ear for voices. In some ways, this ability to do impressions may have kept him from exploring more off-center comedy and maybe kept him from connecting with the younger audience he finally found this year. So he knew this old black man’s voice. He turned around, and that was the only time he ever met Jackie Robinson.
When Billy’s talking to somebody on the phone and he has to put the person on hold for a second, he says, “Hold still.” Crystal is funny not just in voices of black jazz players and cranky old Jewish men and sleazeball Vegas comics but in a more surreal comedy zone. He’s getting to be comfortable just as Billy Crystal.
“A clue, I think,” he begins, “is that I don’t wear as many tight clothes. It sounds weird. But I would wear things that were very tight It wasn’t until the last two years that my daughter Jenny took me shopping and said, ‘Get some more fun stuff.’ I would’ve never thought to wear what I wore today on a television show. I wore what I thought other people expected me to wear. I let situations tell me what to do.
“I have learned to plug in, not to listen to anything but my own instincts about what’s funny. It’s this feeling of being a little reckless. It’s this feeling of, I can do this.”
And Hollywood is responding with movie deals, Broadway beckoning with a one-man show. Even Johnny Carson’s office is calling. But Billy chooses to head east and do Letterman. Johnny’ll have to hold still.