Billy Crystal Finds Fun In Growing Old (But Still Can't Find His Keys)
Originally published on Mon December 2, 2013 10:04 am
This interview was originally broadcast on Oct. 17, 2013.
Billy Crystal isn't happy about turning 65, but at least he's finding a way to laugh about it. His memoir — Still Foolin' 'Em: Where I've Been, Where I'm Going, and Where the Hell Are My Keys? — is on the best-seller list.
Crystal got his start in standup comedy, and in 1977 he landed a leading role in the sitcom Soap — playing one of the first openly gay characters on TV. In 1984 he joined the cast of Saturday Night Live and went on to star in the films When Harry Met Sally, City Slickers and Analyze This. He's hosted the Oscars more times than anyone except Bob Hope. In 2007 he received the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. His autobiographical one-man show 700 Sundays won a Tony in 2005 and reopened on Broadway earlier this month.
On how his show business family brought him to comedy early
[I did impressions] of relatives because I heard so many different sounds. You know, my dad was in the music business and of course my uncle was a giant [music producer], but my dad in particular had the house filled with these Dixieland jazz stars — really the best of them, Henry "Red" Allen, Willie "Lion" Smith, Buster Bailey, Cutty Cutshall, Tyree Glenn, Zutty Singleton, these are big names in the Dixieland world. It was mostly African-American [musicians] and my Jewish Eastern European relatives.
The house as I say ... smelled of brisket and bourbon, so you could hear that. I started imitating them. Phrases came out of that, "Can't you dig that?" "I knew that you would." We were at [Passover] Seders and they were confused with the bitter herbs, "Do we smoke these or do we do we dip them in salt water?" "We dip them in salt water, well that's gonna kill the vibrancy of the weed, you know." So that's what I was around. So I would imitate them. That's where it all started.
On losing his father at age 15
At the time it was devastating, of course. My two older brothers were both out of the house and in college, and I was left alone with [my mom] and we developed this incredible bond where I could not let her get too sad, [even] when I felt it in myself. It was a hard thing to juggle. I never felt like I could have a weak moment, I had to always be there for her and keep her up. ...
I'd try to make her laugh, and try to do things with her. ... She is the greatest hero I'll ever know because she kept us all together, she made sure we all graduated college. She always believed in us no matter what we do. My older brother Joel became an art teacher; my brother Rip ultimately became a television producer and singer and actor himself.
For me, it was always, "Whatever you want to do, I'm there for you." I never stopped believing in us and I never felt like I was wanting for anything, except for my father, and that was not going to be. I describe in the book [that] I don't think I ever felt young again in that way. I never felt I had my 15, 16, 17 kind of years the way I maybe should have. It's a huge dent in you that it's hard to knock out and make it all smooth again.
On his early standup days opening for Sammy Davis Jr., who used to lie to the audience about their relationship
I have 40-something intros [that Davis Jr. did]; all are different, none of them happened. And it was hilarious. ... [He did it] because it was show business. Because I think he thought he was doing a good thing for me and for him. He created this whole wonderful fantasy world for the two of us that was part of the show. I was OK with it. I thought it was really fascinating.
I loved him. Every time I was with Sammy it was like going to the show business museum because the stories were so extraordinary, and I didn't care if they were true or not after a while. ... I don't know if he really got high with Humphrey Bogart or not. It didn't matter because he was painting these fantastic pictures.
On playing Jodie, one of the first openly gay characters on television, in the show Soap in the late '70s and early '80s
We were in front of a live audience and I would be acting with the man who was playing my lover, and we used those words, and the audience would titter and laugh, and make me uncomfortable doing the scenes. ... I wanted to sort of stop and yell at them, "What's so funny? What's the matter with you people? Grow up!" It made me very self-conscious at times.
I think back to what we did and the things we talked about, all these years ago, and I'm so proud of what we did. I think it was in the third season Jodie was confused about his sexuality and he has a one-night stand with a woman and she gets pregnant and has a baby. ... Now I have to raise this little girl and so we go to court [to determine] who is going to get custody of the child. ABC did a poll and the poll at that time said 3 to 1 that the country wanted Jodie to get the baby. And I thought, "OK, we did good here."
On hosting the Oscars
I love doing it because I love the danger of it and you have to come through and think on your feet. That's why that show, no matter who hosts it, it really should be a fast-thinking comedian who is really quick on their feet that can handle situations that happen, or somebody with that kind of mentality that can capitalize on something.
On his proudest Oscar moment
I was introducing [director and producer] Hal Roach — Mr. Roach was 100 years old, he was one of the fathers of early days in films, he put Laurel with Hardy, he created the Our Gang kids, and all these silent movies he did — he was a giant. I think it was his 100th birthday and he was just supposed to take a bow. So I'm at center stage and I say, "Ladies and Gentlemen, one of the fathers of this industry, he's 100 years old, Mr. Hal Roach." Big hand, he stands up. And he starts talking and he has no microphone. ... And it's getting restless in the audience and they're all looking at me going, "What are you gonna say?" And I see the red light is right on me, and I looked at the audience and lines are flying through my head and one settled like a slot machine, three cherries, and I said, "Ladies and Gentleman, it's only fitting because he got his start in silent films." It took the pressure away, and that's one time I will pat myself on the back.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Billy Crystal recently published a bestselling memoir called "Still Foolin' 'Em." Now he's back on Broadway with his autobiographical, Tony Award-winning one-man show "700 Sundays." His memoir finds him looking back on his life after turning 65. Last month I had a chance to look back with him and to play him a short excerpt of an interview I did back in 1979 with his uncle, Milt Gabler, who was famous in the jazz world for producing recordings by Billie Holiday, Jellyroll Morton, Eddie Condon and Lester Young on his Commodore Record label.
Billy Crystal got his start doing standup. In 1977 he landed a leading role in the sitcom "Soap," playing one of the first openly gay characters in a TV series. In 1984 he joined the cast of "Saturday Night Live." Crystal starred in the films "When Harry Met Sally," "City Slickers" and "Analyze This." He's hosted the Oscars more times than anyone except Bob Hope.
Billy Crystal, welcome to FRESH AIR. So you turned 65 in March, and you talk about growing up around older, complaining people.
GROSS: What were some of their favorite complaints?
BILLY CRYSTAL: Well, I mean, the original title of this book was "Everything Hurts."
GROSS: And that was pretty much them, everything hurts. It was just, it was like walking into the Mayo Clinic with phlegm, basically.
CRYSTAL: Basically it was just the Mayo Clinic with phlegm. That was them. And it was always - everyone was always not well. And I think a way to combat my sort of fear of what would eventually happen to me, because you understand, as I say in the book very early, that nobody gets out of this alive, that I would imitate them and, you know, make jokes about them. And so I think it was a way to make it a little easier.
GROSS: When you were doing standup in the era before you were on "Saturday Night Live," you - I guess you opened for Sammy Davis, Jr., at Harrah's in Tahoe, and you tell this hysterical story. You know, one of the things Sammy Davis, Jr. was always famous for was saying about everybody that they were a great humanitarian and they were such a wonderful person, he really loved them. And he kind of did that for you. But tell the story.
CRYSTAL: Well first of all, I love this guy. I, you know, I thought that...
GROSS: Don't go sounding like Sammy and talking about (unintelligible)...
CRYSTAL: No, I know, I know, I know. No, and I mean that. This is one of the ultimate cats. He was so extraordinary. You know, in his height, when, you know, we would grow up and watch him, and my uncle produced his first gold record, which was a song called "Hey There" from "The Pajama Game," and...
GROSS: This is your uncle Milt Gabler?
CRYSTAL: Yes, and so my uncle Milt Gabler was a gigantic force in the music industry, Grammy Hall of Fame, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, produces "Rock Around the Clock" and old Billie Holiday's "Great Things" and so on. So that's - so he kept telling me about Sammy Davis, Jr., watch him, he does all these great things. So now I got a chance to open for him.
And I was in a good groove, you know, where I was, and now I get a chance to do 28 straight nights with Sammy Davis, Jr., at a fantastic nightclub and hotel in Tahoe. And we meet. I've got to say it's thrilling. There he is. I mean, he's an iconic figure. And I do 30 minutes on the button. It's the first time we've worked together.
I finished, got a great hand from the audience, I walk off in the wings feeling really good about myself. Sammy just walks out behind me, he's not even introduced. The band plays him on. He just follows me right on. He says to the audience: Isn't he an extraordinary young man? Let me tell you something about this cat. Last year, when I was so sick and had pneumonia in Reno, young Bill comes to the hospital, holds up a sign that says get well, Sam, can't headline without you. That's the kind of man this kid is.
Big hand, big hand. It never happened.
GROSS: I love that.
CRYSTAL: Second show, same night. I do my thing. Again, everything goes great, go in the wings, Sammy walks out. Is that the white Pryor, or am I nuts?
CRYSTAL: He goes on and on and on, tells this other story, and now I'm going this is like a little crazy. I go to the sound booth, I say to the guy, I said would you do me a favor, would you record all of Sammy's intros? He goes yeah because that was really sweet what you did for him, going to the hospital. I said OK, well, you know, that's who I am.
He records all of Sammy's intros. Terry, I have, what is it, 40-something intros. All are different; none of them happened. And it was hilarious. I had Bill's daughters on the lake today, and we're skipping stones, you know, throwing rocks and watching the, you know, watching how the ripples go. And, you know, they're asking me, say, Uncle Sam, how does that happen? They love to call me Uncle Sam. It never happened. It never happened.
GROSS: Why did he do that?
CRYSTAL: Because it was show business, because it was - I think he thought he was doing a good thing for me and for him. He created this whole wonderful fantasy world for the two of us that was, that the audience - that was part of the show. And I was OK with it. I just thought it was - I thought it was really fascinating.
So closing night - and I never said a word about it. Sammy never used to watch me. He would come down just at the last second, but he would always listen to my show in his dressing room. And I come out onstage, it's closing night, and I'm actually sorry that it's ending because I had a blast. It was sold-out crowds every night.
I'd come down early, meet Sammy in the dressing room. We'd talk about all kinds of stuff. He'd tell me these amazing stories. And that's how I started to imitate him, because when you're in the room with him and you're just playing backgammon or, you know, just hanging out, you can't not want to sound like him while you're talking to him. And that's exciting.
And it was so great. So I come out, and I hear him as I'm greeting the audience. I hear him stamping and laughing in the wings. And I look over, and there he is, and he's pointing to the monitor, which is in front of me, which was - he had two sound monitors and one that was a crawl that had the lyrics of the songs in case he forgot the lyrics of the songs.
So it was working on a, you know, videotape crawl, a prompter. So I'm looking at it, and it's a porno movie.
CRYSTAL: I mean a really rough porno movie. And it played the whole 30 minutes that I'm on, and it was really rough going. It was hilarious. And that was sort of his wrap present for me was to do that.
GROSS: Wow, that's hysterical.
CRYSTAL: Oh yeah.
GROSS: But you know what I love about that story is that there's a certain of disingenuous affection that is sometimes expressed in show biz.
GROSS: And so the story just kind of epitomizes that, yet at the same time it makes you feel very affectionate toward him.
CRYSTAL: I loved him. I mean, I just - every time I was with Sammy, it was like going to the show business museum.
CRYSTAL: Because the stories were so extraordinary, and I didn't care if they were true or not after a while because if he was skipping stones on the lake with my daughters, I don't know if he really got high with Humphrey Bogart or not. You know what I mean?
GROSS: Right, I get it.
CRYSTAL: But it didn't matter because he was just painting these fantastic pictures.
GROSS: What's the secret to doing his voice?
CRYSTAL: I think you have to have a little nasal thing, and you have to just sort of study his face and how he held his jaw and place it in a place, and sometimes the voice may not be perfectly accurate, but the inflections will be. And then Sammy liked to throw Yiddish in to me. He would throw - which I started to do when I started doing him on SNL.
You know, I've got a little shpilkes, which is I'm nervous.
CRYSTAL: You know, when I watch you, I actually kvell, which was you mean you feel proud. So he would throw those things in, which I absolutely - it was so crazy to me.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Billy Crystal, and he has a new bestselling memoir called "Still Foolin' 'Em." So somebody else who you used to do on "Saturday Night Live" was Fernando Lamas, and your impression of him originated as a telephone prank.
CRYSTAL: Yes, yeah, a lot of my verses...
GROSS: First of all, you need to go back, for people who don't remember who Fernando Lamas was.
CRYSTAL: I first - Fernando Lamas was a - well, I'm going to say it respectfully, like a B actor, in a good way because he was very good, Latin, very handsome leading man, who was married to Esther Williams, who was a fantastic Busby Berkeley actress-swimmer, Olympic swimmer, I guess.
And I would watch Fernando Lamas on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny, and Johnny just liked him to come on because he just was this Latin lover guy, very handsome, and they would just talk about women and things, and I just thought he was like the coolest guy, and - but very ripe for parody.
So one day, my manager David Steinberg(ph), who was a very funny guy, and I called his office, and his assistant got on the phone, and I said hello, this is Fernando Lamas, I'd like to talk to David Steinberg please. And she went, what is it in reference to? He'll know what it's a reference to, darling, this is Fernando Lamas. She had no idea it was me.
CRYSTAL: And David gets on, hello. Hello, Dave, you know - and now as soon as I did that, he knows it's me, and he starts feeding me because he's a very good improviser. And he starts going so where are you. I'm in Del Rey. I like to go to the races. Esther and I like to go. How is Esther? She looks marvelous. And that's how it started.
So now I started calling him - he would call me, and then other managers would start calling me, and then my friends would call me. It got around. So it became like this wildfire thing, and that's how it really started.
GROSS: So how did you come up with - did he used to say this, that, you know, it's better to look good than to feel good?
CRYSTAL: Yeah, I just changed it a little bit and Johnny said because you look great. Well, that's more important than anything else, isn't it? As long as I look good. So I made it it's better to look good than to feel good.
GROSS: My guest is Billy Crystal. His new memoir is called "Still Foolin' 'Em." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Billy Crystal, and he has a new bestselling memoir that's called "Still Foolin' 'Em." Did you do impressions as a kid"?
CRYSTAL: Yean, well mostly it was - yes, the relatives because I heard so many different sounds. You know, my dad was in the music business. Of course my uncle was a giant, but my dad in particular had the house filled with these great Dixieland jazz stars, really the best of them Henry Red Allen, Willie "The Lion" Smith, Buster Bailey, Cutty Cutshall, Tyree Glenn, Zutty Singleton. These are all big names in the Dixieland world.
And, you know, it was mostly African-Americans and my Jewish Eastern European relatives. The house, as I say in "700 Sundays," my show, the house smelled of brisket and bourbon. And so you could hear that. I started imitating them. Phrases came out of that, you know, can you dig that, I knew that you could.
We were at, you know, Seders, and they were confused with the bitter herbs. Do we smoke these, or do we dip them into saltwater?
CRYSTAL: We dip them in saltwater, well, that's going to kill the vibrance of the weed, you know. And so that's what I was around. So I would imitate them. And that's where it all started.
GROSS: And so, you know, really, like you're from a show biz industry even though your parents weren't performers. But, you know, your uncle, Milt Gabler, was the founder of really like the first independent jazz label in the country, Commodore Records, in the 1930s. Then he moved to Decca. He produced Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" because her own recording company thought it was too political. It's a song about hanging, about, you know, lynching.
CRYSTAL: About lynching, yeah. And, you know, that was almost 75 years ago now, and, you know, he was a giant that way, and he stood up for the right thing, and my family always stood up for the right thing. I mean, the fact that I was raised the way I was, if you were at my Bar Mitzvah, and I'm sorry you didn't get the invitation...
GROSS: Yeah, it must've gotten lost in the mail, yeah.
CRYSTAL: Well, it's the shutdown. The mail is terrible. It was a jam session. The party became a jam session. And, you know, if you're doing one of the (unintelligible), and you're holding hands with Terry Glenn and Willie "The Lion" Smith. I mean that's - we just didn't blink. That was the house, you know.
And so Milt was a huge influence in the jazz world, you know, all of Billie's stuff. He actually wrote "Fine and Mellow" with her...
GROSS: Which is the flip side of "Strange Fruit" and was a very successful song.
CRYSTAL: Yeah, so, you know...
GROSS: I'm going to stop right here because I actually want to play for you and for our listeners a very short excerpt of a 1979 interview I did with your uncle Milt Gabler.
CRYSTAL: Oh really?
GROSS: Yeah, and, you know, because we - I love all the stuff he recorded on Commodore. And so, you know, we were talking about recording Billie Holiday, and he told us a really nice story about getting her to record "Lover Man," and it was before anybody really knew the song, apparently. So this is my guest, Billy Crystal's uncle Milt Gabler recorded in 1979, and I should say he died at the age of 90 in 2001.
So I had asked him here about working with Billie Holiday, and he told this story about getting her to record "Lover Man."
MILT GABLER: I used to always stop into Jimmy Ryan's(ph) to say hello and have a drink, and there was a club next door, I forget the name of it. That's not important. I had my drink, and Billie went on next door, and I went into the room, and she was singing "Lover Man." And I said my God, that's a natural smash hit.
I don't know if you know what a natural hit is. During the year when you're a record producer, an A&R man, working for a record company, if you find two natural hits in one year, a natural hit is a song that you almost cannot destroy, no matter who you give it to, it becomes a - if you sing it going up in the elevator, the elevator man says gee, that's a great tune, you know, that's a natural.
So I walk in, and she's singing "Lover Man," and anybody would know that's a hit. So I said God, I've got to record that immediately before someone steals it from us, some other singer, and it became a standard immediately.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVER MAN")
BILLIE HOLIDAY: (Singing) I don't know why, but I'm feeling...
CRYSTAL: Wow, thank you for that.
GROSS: Oh yeah, so...
CRYSTAL: I haven't heard his voice in a long time. That's a real - that's great. That's a real treat. He was a giant for me.
GROSS: Oh, I can see why, and he sounds so much of an era.
CRYSTAL: Yes, he was. And he created an era.
GROSS: Yeah, yeah.
CRYSTAL: He was - when Milt produced records as I - you know, we came - we became very close. He's my mom's big brother. And he always looked at me because he knew I had a little bit of the shine in my eye that this was what I wanted to do. And so as we got closer after my dad died, Milt really took me under his wing a lot, and I'd go to sessions, see Louis Armstrong, he produced Louis Armstrong, let's see, Ella Fitzgerald.
You know, I was around the - it was fantastic how he would place the microphones in the room so the guys could look at each other and play with each other, you know, and solo with each other instead of being in separate places. He worked out these balances on the keyboard and how to mix, you know, really starting from scratch. It wasn't his thing. He just sort of said I want to do this.
And that's why the original Commodores are so - still collectors' items because they have this unique sound. But Milt had a sound to me, which I heard in that interview. You can hear the excitement he had, the love that he had for the artists and the material. And I was very fortunate to be his nephew.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Billy Crystal, and he has a new memoir is called "Still Foolin' 'Em." Early in your career, years before you got on "Saturday Night Live," you did the sitcom "Soap," in which you were - you played the first gay character to be leading role in a TV series. How did you decide how to play him so it wouldn't be an offensive stereotype, and...?
CRYSTAL: Well, you know, it was hard because I think in the beginning...
GROSS: And I ask that because there were so many gay characters depicted in popular culture at the time who were kind of offensive stereotypes.
CRYSTAL: Yeah, and we - you know, I think in the beginning we did offend some people because the first appearance of - his name was Jodie Dallas - the first big scene that he had, he was in his mother's clothes and a wig. He was dressing up. And it was a hilarious scene. She walked in on him and started screaming take off my dress, and then she suddenly stopped and went oh, you wear it belted. Oh, it looks much better belted.
And then we have a discussion about the dress, and it was a brilliant actress named Cathryn Damon, who played my mother. And we just decided - and one of the reasons I decided to do the show was because we could depict this man as a man who just happened to be gay. That's who he was.
Now this is 1977, Terry. This was a long time ago and way before there's been any kind of softening on people's, you know, point of view about gays and who they are in our society and how they feel about them. And, you know, as I look back, you know, there were so many difficult scenes to do because we were in front of a live audience, and I'd be acting with the man who was playing my lover, and we used those words.
And the audience would titter and laugh and make me uncomfortable in doing the scenes where I wanted to stop and yell at them what's so funny, what's the matter with you people, grow up. I mean it was - it made me very self-conscious at times. And I think back at what we did and the things that we talked about all these years ago, and I'm so proud of what we did.
I think it was in the third season, Jodie was confused about his sexuality, and he has a one night stand with a woman, and she gets pregnant and has a baby, and that was my storyline, you know, in the soap opera, which "Soap" was, of course. Now I have to raise this little girl.
And so we go to court, who's going to get custody of the child, and ABC did a poll, and the poll at that time, it said three to one that the country wanted Jodie to get the baby. And I thought, OK, we did good here.
GROSS: We'll hear more of my interview with Billy Crystal in the second half of the show. His new memoir is called "Still Foolin' 'Em." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to our interview with Billy Crystal. He has a recent bestselling memoir called "Still Foolin' Em." Crystal became a cast member of "Saturday Night Live" in 1984. He starred in the films "When Harry Met Sally," "City Slickers," and "Analyze This," and he hosted the Oscars more times than anyone, except Bob Hope. Crystal returns to Broadway with his Tony Award-winning autobiographical one-man show "700 Sundays." His family ran the famous Commodore Music Shop in Manhattan. And his uncle, Milt Gabler, founded the Commodore Records label in the 1930s, and produce great recordings by Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, and many others.
So I want to get back to your uncle Milt Gabler for a moment. Apparently, your uncle transformed your grandfather's hardware store into the Commodore Records shop...
GROSS: ...before starting his record label.
GROSS: So it used to be a hardware store? Like, was it a sudden transition?
CRYSTAL: From what I understand, you know, the way it started was that Milt started to fall in love with jazz. And he started - grandpa sold radios in the store, also. So they had this little summer place in a place called Silver Beach, and at the end of the point, this wealthy guy had an estate and he would hire these Dixieland bands to come in and to play, so his friends could dance and have, at the time, an illegal cocktail.
So, Milt started falling in love with this music. So now he's working in the store, and he takes one of the radios and finds a station that plays Bix Beiderbecke records, and he loves it. So he takes the speaker and puts it over the transom of the door, and starts blasting the music out onto the street. So people - he was on 42nd Street, right across from the Chrysler building. And people would come walking on the street, hearing the Dixieland. And they'd come in and go, you guys sell these records? And they go to no. So then they started, Milt thinks - he tells his father - we should start selling records. So they start buying up out-of-print records and selling them in the store and reissuing them. And that's how it really started.
CRYSTAL: And then Milt said, I want to make my own records, you know. Yeah. It was Okeh Records - O-k-e-h, I believe they were. And then they started reissuing them. And then Milt said I want to produce my own. And the first records were Eddie Condon - who was a great guitar player - and his band, The Windy City Seven, from Chicago. And it was "Jada" and "Love Is Just Around the Corner," and those were the first records. And you know what? They were a big part of my - of "700 Sundays," my show, and I talk about all of this, and there's vintage photos and all that stuff because, you know, this is how - the spirit of all of this somehow ends up in me, and my dad, his influence on me in pointing me in the right direction.
GROSS: Your father died when you were 15?
GROSS: And he was 54.
CRYSTAL: Yeah. Yeah.
GROSS: And he died while he was out bowling with his friends.
CRYSTAL: Yeah, with my mom. Yeah. It was...
GROSS: Oh, it was with your mother. Oh.
GROSS: Heart attack?
CRYSTAL: Oh, it was awful. Yeah. October 15th will be 50 years, which is sort of incredible to me, and it's part of the reason why I'm coming back to Broadway. There's a symmetry here for me. I'm 65. It's 50 years. Let me bring the show back and pay tribute to him and to her in this last appearance of "700 Sundays." And, you know, at the time, it was devastating and - of course. And my two older brothers were both out of the house in college, and I was left alone with her, and we developed this incredible bond where I could not let her get too sad. I just - you know, when I felt it in myself. It was a hard thing to juggle. And I, you know, I never felt like I could have a weak moment. I had to always be there for her and keep her up. And she...
GROSS: How did you prevent her from getting sad?
CRYSTAL: Well, just, you know, I'd try to make her laugh. I'd just try to do things with her. And I was in school. I was a junior in high school. And, you know, she - she was just about 50. She was 49, and she turned 50 in December. And she is the greatest hero I'll ever know, because she kept us all together. She made sure we all graduated college. She always believed in us, no matter what we'd do. My older brother Joel became an art teacher. My brother Rip became, ultimately, a television producer and a singer and actor himself.
And for me, it was always, whatever you want to do, I'm there for you. And never stopped believing in us, and I never felt like I was wanting for anything, except for my father. And that was not going to be. So I, you know, I describe in the book is I don't think I ever felt - I never felt young again in that way. I never felt like I had my 15, 16, 17 kind of years the way I maybe should have. I don't know. It's a huge dent in you that it's hard to knock out and make it all smooth again, you know. And so, yeah.
GROSS: Well, you know, when your father died when you were 15, this is the period - particularly in the 1960s, when your father died - this was the period when not only as teenagers were young people pulling away from their parents, but many of them were, like, seriously rebelling against their parents...
GROSS: ...and heading in totally opposite directions kind of, you know, culturally and musically, with their clothes, with everything. And did you feel like you didn't really need to, like, rebel against your mother, because you were so close after your father's absence?
CRYSTAL: It's a good point. I've said, I never thought I rebelled. I never - I don't think I've ever had that period. You know, I just had to do what I had to do. You know, I was a good kid. But I, you know, I'd think - I don't know if I missed anything. You know, there's that line in Marlon Brando in the movie "The Freshman," and he's basically playing Vito Corleone again. And Matthew Broderick is a freshman kid, and he's visiting him in his room. And Brando says, so this is college, huh? I don't think I missed anything.
CRYSTAL: So I think about it sometimes with a little bit of, ah, I don't know what I would have done. You know, I don't know what I would have done to rebel. I don't know what I was rebelling against.
GROSS: My guest is Billy Crystal. His new memoir is called "Still Foolin' Em." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: My guest is comic and actor Billy Crystal. He has a new memoir called "Still Foolin' Em."
So, one of the things you're famous for his having hosted the Oscars more times than anybody, except for Bob Hope. So is that eight times or nine times?
GROSS: Nine times.
CRYSTAL: I've done it nine times. Yeah.
GROSS: I know that one of the things you did when you were hosting the Oscars is, you know, come up with new lines in response to things that had happened during the ceremony. So, like, during a commercial break or during someone's like acceptance speech, you're backstage with one of the other writers, maybe, you know, coming up with stuff working off of what happened.
GROSS: That strikes me is so risky, because first of all, like, literally, the world is watching.
GROSS: And you don't have time to test it. It's not, like, I mean, you're going to try it out in a small club...
CRYSTAL: But that's the job.
GROSS: ...and that's...
CRYSTAL: Terry, that's the job. That's why - you know, that's why I, you know, I love doing it, because I love the danger of it, and you have to come through and think on your feet. That's why that show, no matter who hosts it, it really should be a fast-thinking comedian who is really quick on their feet that can handle situations that happen, or somebody with that kind of, you know, kind of mentality that can capitalize on something.
For me, you know, my finest moment ever, maybe as a comedian, happened on the Oscars with - you know, I've told the story so many times, but it bears repeating because it was - I'm very tough on myself. I haven't seen any of the shows that I've done. I don't like to watch my work after I do it, because it just, I'll always look at the wrong things.
And I was introducing Hal Roach - Mr. Roach was 100 years old. He was one of the fathers of early days in films. He put Laurel with Hardy. He created the "Our Gang" kids, you know. So he - and all these silent movies he did, and he was a giant. So it was 100 - I think it was his 100th birthday, and he was just supposed to take a bow.
So I'm at center stage, and I go, ladies and gentlemen, one of the fathers of this industry, he's 100 years old, Mr. Hal Roach. Big hand, he stands up. And he starts talking, and he has no microphone. And from the stage, it sounded like this: Thank you very much. Well, you know, what I like about all the people and I can see Laurel and Hardy and Babe, Hope, Babe and Alfalfa and Petey the Dog and Joe Cobb, and we had to keep Joe heavy because, you know, he was a kid who had to play - and go on.
And it's getting restless in the audience, and they're all looking at me, going, what are you gonna say? And I see the red light is right on me. And I looked at the audience and, you know, lines are flying through my head, and then one settled like a slot machine, three cherries, ba-ba-ba-ba boom. And I said: Ladies and Gentleman, it's only fitting because he got his start in silent films. And it just...
GROSS: That's great.
CRYSTAL: ...took the pressure away. It, you know, and that's one time I will pat myself on the back. And I will sound like Sammy to myself and say: That was good. You handled that one good, pal.
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CRYSTAL: Yeah, I was proud of that moment.
GROSS: So did that get him to stop?
CRYSTAL: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. And then he got a hand, and he sat down, and then we were OK. That was particularly thrilling.
GROSS: Well, you've not only hosted the Oscars, you received a lot of awards and honors yourself. But here's one you maybe don't know about. Famous Deli, which is a deli in Philadelphia - it's a very well-known deli in Philadelphia. In the two bathrooms, it has posters on the wall of album jackets and movie posters of, you know, things done by, like, great Jews.
GROSS: So, like, there's a Hebrew cast recording of "Fiddler on the Roof." There's the album cover of "When You're in Love the Whole World Is Jewish."
GROSS: One of Mel Brooks' films. An album cover, Joel Grey sings "Songs for My Father."
CRYSTAL: I don't care about them. Get to me. Get to me.
GROSS: Yeah. And so your "You Look Marvelous" album is up there.
CRYSTAL: Oh, good. But not in Hebrew. I didn't do it in Hebrew.
GROSS: Not in Hebrew. But what leads me to wonder...
GROSS: ...have you been honored by many other delis over the years?
CRYSTAL: The only...
CRYSTAL: I've never been asked that before. The only other one is - there is - is Katz's Deli in New York, which is where we shot the famous orgasm scene in "When Harry Met Sally."
CRYSTAL: The table that we shot at has pictures of Meg and I at that table. And I think you can reserve it when you go to sit - I think they call it the Orgasm Table.
CRYSTAL: That's how good this pastrami is. It'll make you go nuts. And some of you men, all you have to do is eat half.
CRYSTAL: So I didn't get in my pickles yet, and I'm done.
CRYSTAL: You know, so that's the other place that I have been honored by. Yeah. That's so funny.
CRYSTAL: I did not know about Famous. Now I have to go the next time I'm in Philly.
GROSS: So, the orgasm scene in "When Harry Met Sally"...
GROSS: ...what was your role in writing that scene?
CRYSTAL: Well, that's, the scene was actually created in - not even rehearsal. We were just talking. Once Meg and I were cast, Rob and Nora and Meg and I would get together and just talk and go through what was the script and talk about what's - what else can we do? And Nora brings up the fact that, well, maybe we should do something about the fact that women fake orgasms. And Rob went whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. What are you talking about?
CRYSTAL: So she says, well, Rob, women have faked orgasms. He goes, come on. They haven't faked it with me. Which becomes... a line in the movie. And he couldn't believe it. He just couldn't believe it. And so Meg then says, well, you know what? We should do a scene where I fake one. And I went, yeah, like in a public place, like a restaurant, real crowded, and you just go crazy, have a huge one. And everyone's laughing and laughing. I said, and Rob, then we cut to a woman, an older woman, and she'll say, I'll have what she's having.
And that's how it happened. And that woman became Rob's mother in the movie. The woman who says that is Estelle Reiner, Rob's mom. And that's how it happened. It happened in Rob's office in California, and then we wrote up the scene and showed up that day and did it. Meg was very nervous in doing it that day. She didn't like what she was wearing, so - she's actually wearing one of my sweaters in that scene. She didn't want this. She didn't - and she was nervous. And I understood why. She was about to have 50 or 60 orgasms in a day. That's a lot of work. And in front of strangers. I think it was, you know, she was a little self-conscious. First rehearsal, it was OK. It was an OK orgasm. Second one, sort of like you're married 10, 15 years kind of orgasm.
Then it went on and on and on. And then Rob said - no, no. I want you to do it this way. And he got a little impatient. He said, no, no, no. Like this. Now, Rob is a big bear of a guy and, you know, 220, 230, big beard and baseball hat. And he sits down opposite me and, you know, now it looks like I'm on a date with Sebastian Cabot.
CRYSTAL: And he starts - he has an orgasm that Mighty Joe Young would envy. He's pounding the table, screaming and yelling, and it's huge. It's gigantic. And the place goes crazy. All the extras, they give him a big hand. And he pulls me aside, and he goes I shouldn't have done that. And I go, no, Meg is OK. I was watching. She's OK. He goes, no. I just had an orgasm in front of my mother.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Billy Crystal. He has a new best-selling memoir which is called "Still Fooling 'Em." One of your issues is that you have insomnia. What do you do when you cannot sleep?
CRYSTAL: I basically have been up since I was circumcised.
CRYSTAL: I was - my first seven days on the Earth, I slept great. It was, like, 20 hours, then somebody with bad breath and a beard cut off the tip of my penis. I've been up ever since looking for this guy. I - what I, you know, I'm like a - and all of my friends are the same now. I get like - I have no trouble falling asleep. Staying there is a whole different ballgame.
You know, it's like three hours straight, and then it's up and down, up and down, oh, find this place, find that place. Roll on your back, roll on your side. So I've just - now what I do is I just sort of rest, and I think through what I have to during the day if I'm not going to fall asleep. And I'm trying everything to calm my mind, to just calm it down.
It's actually particularly bad now, because I'm leaving home at the end of this week to - we open in Minneapolis on October 22nd for six days with "Seven Hundred Sundays," and my mind's racing through not only all the changes we just made to "Seven Hundred Sundays" but, oh, what I've got to do. I've got to pack this, pack that.
And I'm missing the kids before I'm going. You know, I have four grandchildren now, and I'm not happy about that. And so my mind is very stimulated. I just lay there and I try to - sometimes I fake nightmares to wake Janice up.
CRYSTAL: Put that - put - put that - put that - put that down. Put that down. And she: You OK? Yeah. No, I'm - whoo, that was scary. You want to play cards? What - what do you want to do? I just try to rest.
GROSS: So let me ask you. When you're on the road, I know you probably stay in very fine hotels. Do you ever worry about bedbugs? Do you, like, do what you're supposed to do, like, take off the sheet and check the mattress around the creases to see if there's any eggs or bugs there?
CRYSTAL: You know, I have done that.
GROSS: It's another reason to not sleep if you're in a hotel. Another reason to be awake.
CRYSTAL: Yeah. No, but I have done it. But, you know, we do check out the places before and make sure that they have not had any kind of notice, you know, that this has happened there. So, yeah. I'm not that crazy.
GROSS: You're not?
GROSS: Billy Crystal, it's really been a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.
CRYSTAL: I was really - you know, I had told you before we got on the air, you - you know, you said - you started to introduce yourself. I said I know you. Everyone knows you. So you have a big following, and a bigger one from me now.
GROSS: Oh, well, thank you so much.
CRYSTAL: Yeah. And I'll see you in the men's room at Famous.
GROSS: Two unisex bathrooms. So I can see you there.
CRYSTAL: We'll keep the door open, so nobody will talk.
GROSS: All right. Take care.
CRYSTAL: All righty.
GROSS: Billy Crystal, recorded in October. He's now back on Broadway doing his autobiographical one-man show "Seven Hundred Sundays." His memoir is called "Still Foolin' 'Em." You can hear an excerpt of the audiobook read by Crystal on our website freshair.npr.org. Coming up, David Edelstein reviews Spike Lee's remake of the violent revenge film "Oldboy." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.