STILL FOOLIN' 'EM
London - For those who first encountered Billy Crystal in the 1989 film When Harry Met Sally or who, like me, go back even further, to the Seventies, when he daringly played one of the first gay characters on mainstream television in the US sitcom Soap, here is a book to make us feel old.
But that’s okay, because it’s a book about feeling old. The first wave of the so-called baby-boomers are now the age their grandparents were when they were born, if not older.
And that depresses Crystal, who was 65 when he wrote this warm-hearted, occasionally hilarious autobiography, and is now 67.
He can see, just by watching them trudging around the local shopping mall, that some of his contemporaries have given up on life. ‘Poor guys, they have no shoulders. They’re just following their wives... getting excited only when they can have a new front door key made at the locksmith kiosk.’
Crystal does not consider himself one of them - not yet. Even so, he is full of trepidation about his own future, worried that he might, some day, hear one of his two daughters saying to the other: “I changed him last time, it’s your turn.”
Still, for all Crystal’s despondency as he contemplates old age, his has been a life worth living.
He and his wife Janice are a showbiz phenomenon: they’ve been happily married for more than 45 years. And he has met and befriended most of his heroes.
Indeed, if you don’t like name-dropping, this is not the book for you. But then, Crystal was well-connected from the start.
His father ran a celebrated record shop in New York and also an independent jazz label. Louis Armstrong was a family friend, who would lend them his hospitality box at Yankee Stadium. Soon, though, he was making famous friends of his own. As a rising young comic who did a marvellous Muhammad Ali impression, he was hired for a TV special honouring... Muhammad Ali.
“I’m changing my name again,” he declared that night, mimicking the former Cassius Clay. “I have new religious beliefs. From now on, I want to be known as Izzy Yishkowitz. It’s Jewish boxing. You don’t hit the guy, you just make him feel guilty.”
The audience roared and so did the special guest, who whispered to him: “You are my little brother.” To this day, despite the chronic Parkinson’s disease that has all but robbed the former world heavyweight champion of speech, they are great friends and Ali still calls Crystal his little brother.
As for that particular brand of New York Jewishness, that fast, wise-cracking tradition from which Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld also emerged, it has always loomed large in Crystal’s act.
When his close friend Rob Reiner directed When Harry Met Sally, it was Crystal who suggested the film’s great line - in fact, one of movie comedy’s great lines.
After Meg Ryan’s Sally loudly simulates an orgasm at Katz’s Deli on the Lower East Side, an elderly woman at a neighbouring table (Reiner’s mother Estelle, in fact), says to the waiter: “I’ll have what she’s having.” But there is much more to the story of that orgasm.
In rehearsal, Ryan kept underplaying it, until Reiner showed her what he wanted. Thus it was that Crystal sat opposite “a large, sweaty, bearded man”, shouting and banging the table in wild sexual delirium until, eventually, Ryan got the message.
It still took a day, and countless fake orgasms, until the scene was in the can. But it was worth the effort. Much later, at a test screening, the audience exploded when Estelle delivered her “order”.
And at the back of the auditorium, Reiner and Crystal grabbed each other. For them, that was the climactic moment they knew they had a hit on their hands.
By then, Crystal was already widely known for having played gay Jodie in Soap.
But When Harry Met Sally gave him movie-star lustre and, the following year, he was asked to compere the Academy Awards for the first of nine times, becoming, by common consent, the best Oscars host since Bob Hope.
But not everyone likes him. When, as star and producer of the film City Slickers, Crystal invited Charles Bronson to consider playing a veteran cowboy, the famous tough-guy actor phoned him, barely able to contain his fury.
How dare Crystal consider him for a film in which he died on page 64 of the script? Instead, the role went to Jack Palance, who won an Oscar.
At least Bronson’s anger was channelled down a telephone line. Joe DiMaggio, the legendary baseball player, once punched Crystal in the stomach, hard, after the comedian introduced him at a big Yankees event.
His unforgivable crime was not to have described DiMaggio as the Yankees’ “greatest living player”.
This book is full of colourful anecdotes such as that. But so are many showbiz autobiographies.
Its singularity lies in the way it uses them to reflect on the ageing process. Crystal’s final chapter is about the prospect of death. It troubles him hugely, though he rather likes going to visit his parents and aunts and uncles, all buried in one plot in a New Jersey cemetery.
“It’s very comforting,” he writes, “to see everyone in the same position they sat in at the dining room table.”