Author Interviews
5:32 am
Sat September 7, 2013

Billy Crystal's 'Foolin', Full Of Fun — And Feeling

Originally published on Wed October 16, 2013 5:07 pm

Billy Crystal is ... 65. He feels that he's gone from being, as he puts it, "a cool Baby Boomer into a Diane Arbus photograph."

He writes about his well-earned wrinkles and laugh lines in a memoir that takes him from his boyhood and bar mitzvah in Long Island, through the experience of losing his father at the age of 15, to his work on Soap, Saturday Night Live, and the Oscars — and through sleeplessness, the indignities of growing older and the glory of his lifelong love. The book's title is Still Foolin' 'Em: Where I've Been, Where I'm Going, and Where the Hell are My Keys?

Crystal joined us from NPR West in Culver City, Calif., to talk about his insomnia — "I've been up since 1948" — his friendship with baseball legend Mickey Mantle, and why NPR's Scott Simon makes him wonder whether our dogs are getting enough cheese. (No, seriously — but you'll need to listen to the audio for that bit.)

On the tone of life during the Jewish high holidays

"We don't have a lot of fun. We fast, we confess our sins, we don't turn on the electric. So it's basically a bunch of hungry, guilty people sitting around in the dark."

On his pet theory about why he has trouble sleeping

"I've been up since 1948, and I'll tell you why. My first seven days on the earth, I must have broken sleep records. Twenty hours. I'd go 15, 16. But then, on the eighth day, somebody with bad breath and a beard grabbed my penis and cut the tip off. I've been up ever since. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I think someone's coming in to do that again. So I'm always up, and aware that there may be an intruder. Who's got a box cutter."

On 'that scene' in When Harry Met Sally

"We were in Rob [Reiner's] office — brilliant director, perfect director for this movie — Nora Ephron, genius screenwriter, Meg [Ryan] and I. And Nora brings up the fact that women fake orgasms. Well, Rob wanted none of this. He was astounded by this. And I'm sure his mind was rifling through all the women he had been with. 'Well, geez, really? Maybe that one? I dunno ...' And Meg said, 'Well, you know what, in the movie, I should fake one. For Harry. ...'"

"We go to shoot the scene, and Meg was very nervous. It's all of these strangers. ... Rob's not happy. The first one was sort of tepid. The second was like, you're married 10 years. Then Rob, who's a big bear of a guy, with his beard, 220 pounds, a big guy — Rob goes, 'Meg, lemme show you what I want.' And he sits down opposite me. So now it looks like I'm on a date with Sebastian Cabot.

"He starts pounding the table. Those little spice balls are flying off the pickles. People can't believe what they're seeing. It is so loud — he's screaming 'Yes, yes, yes, yes.'

"He finishes. They applaud. He steps off, he motions for me to follow him. He goes, 'I shouldn't have done that, buddy. I shouldn't have done that.' I said, 'No, Meg'll be OK. You didn't embarrass her.' He goes, 'No, that's not what I mean. I just had an orgasm in front of my mother'" — actress Estelle Reiner, who delivered the scene's legendary punchline.

On his marriage of 43 years, and keeping life interesting

"I was 18; I knew it when I first met her. It gets better all the time. And we laugh a lot — she's really funny, and one of the few people who really gets a belly laugh outta me.

"You know, I respect her. And I always look forward to being with her. And one of the most important times we had was — the girls were starting to get bigger, I was on the road a lot, and doing very well. But I was working a lot. And at one point she said to me, 'Let's make sure you're not Uncle Daddy.'

"And ... you know, that was it. I never missed a birthday, I never missed a school play. We carpooled. And the greatest compliment I can ever get is not about my career or performance or anything; it's when people say, 'You know, your girls are great.' That's the real thing for me."

On getting to know Mickey Mantle, and seeing a hero's fears and flaws

"I went to my first game May 30, 1956, and Mantle was in the beginnings of his Triple Crown season. And he was drop-dead handsome. He was the blond-haired, blue-eyed kid that every small, dark Jewish kid wished he could be. And I saw him that day for the first time; I was 8 years old. And that day, he hit an incredible shot that went up through the clouds and hit 18 inches from going out of the ballpark. I just stood up and watched this thing go — and then I wanted to be Mickey Mantle.

"And then things happened, I became friendly with him, because we met on a television show. And over time, Mickey's drinking got progressively worse. We did a special together; we were shooting it up in Cooperstown, and Mickey came up, and he was really drunk. We went back to this inn we were staying in, and at 2 o'clock in the morning he knocked on my door. And there he is in his T-shirt and boxer shorts, looking like a kid who'd had a nightmare.

"And I talked him down. Because he was afraid to go into the Hall of Fame — because he felt he didn't belong. He had these terrible demons. [He felt] that he should have been better.

"He was a man with a lot of terror. But he was a spectacular man. 'Cause he was the '50s for us. I can't even explain it well.

"And there are people who write about, 'Well, why are these men still talk[ing] about Mantle? What does he have? ... I don't understand it.' And I feel bad for them. He was this gigantic hero, with these broad shoulders that we just jumped on, and he carried us into middle age.

"There was something about that time that was innocent. Nobody was juiced. You never suspected anything about anybody — except that they would be with the same team their entire career.

"To this day, with all of these muscle-bound guys, nobody hit the ball further than Mickey Mantle, with his natural strength."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Billy Crystal is 65. He feels that he's gone from being, as he puts it, a cool baby boomer into a Diane Arbus photograph. He writes about his well-earned wrinkles and laugh lines in a new memoir that takes him from his boyhood and bar mitzvah in Long Island, losing his father at the age of 15, to "Soap," "Saturday Night Live," the Oscars, sleeplessness, the indignities of growing older and the glory of his lifelong love. Billy Crystal's new book is "Still Foolin' 'Em: Where I've Been, Where I'm Going, and Where the Hell Are My Keys?" Billy Crystal joins us from the studios of NPR West. Thanks so much for being with us.

BILLY CRYSTAL: It is my pleasure.

SIMON: I have to ask: this time of year - Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah - you suggest in this book that the different nature of the Jewish New Year is significant and telling.

CRYSTAL: We don't have a lot of fun. We fast, we confess our sins, we don't turn on the electric. So it's basically a bunch of hungry, guilty people sitting in the dark.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Feeling much wiser when it's over, though.

CRYSTAL: Yes. Of course, because most of them who do go to the services - the two-day-a-year Jewish people - most of them have a little hit of a muffin or something before they get to the temple anyway.

SIMON: One of those, like, small ones now that Hostess makes?

CRYSTAL: Oh sure. Little bite-sized guys. You know. I have to say I do find strength in it when you just sit there and think of all the lousy things you did all day, and then go to a Chinese restaurant.

SIMON: (Laughing) Total switch in direction. Has insomnia been an important part of your life?

CRYSTAL: I've been up since 1948, and I'll tell you why. My first seven days on the Earth, I must have broken sleep records. Twenty hours. I'd go 15, 16.

SIMON: You were a baby. This happens.

CRYSTAL: Yeah. But then, on the eighth day, somebody with bad breath and a beard grabbed my penis and cut the tip off. I've been up ever since.

SIMON: I hope that was a mohel.

CRYSTAL: I think somewhere in the back of my mind that I think someone's coming in to do that again. So, I'm always up and aware that there may be an intruder who's got a box cutter. I mean...

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Something you write about that's particularly moving in this book is the difficult and sometimes deflating experience you've had in getting to know at least a couple of your heroes. And I want to ask you about Mickey Mantle.

CRYSTAL: You know, it was a stunning thing for me to become friends with him. I went to my first game May 30th, 1956, and Mantle was in the beginnings of his Triple Crown season. And he was drop-dead handsome. He was the blond-haired, blue-eyed kid that every small, dark Jewish kid wished he could be. And I saw him that day for the first time - I was 8 years old - and that day he hit an incredible shot that went up through the clouds and hit 18 inches from going out of the ballpark. I just stood up and watched this thing go and then I wanted to be Mickey Mantle. And then by the - things happened, I became friendly with him because we met on a television show. And then over time, Mickey's drinking got progressively worse. And we did a special together; and we were shooting it up in Cooperstown, and Mickey came up, and he was really drunk. And we went back to this inn that we were staying at, and around 2 o'clock in the morning he knocked on my door. And there he is in his T-shirt and boxer shorts, looking like a kid who had a nightmare. And I talked him down, because he was afraid to go into the Hall of Fame - because he felt he didn't belong. He had these terrible demons that he should have been better.

He was a man with a lot of terror. But he was a spectacular man 'cause he was the '50s for us. I can't even explain it well. And there are people who write about, well, why are these men, you know, still talk about Mantle for? What does he have, you know, that - I don't understand it. And I feel bad for them. He was this gigantic hero, with these broad shoulders that we just jumped on, and he carried us right into middle age. And there was something about that time that was innocent. Nobody was juiced. You never suspected anything about anybody, except that they would be with the same team their entire career. To this day, with all of these muscle-bound guys, nobody hit the ball further than Mickey Mantle did with his natural strength.

SIMON: I have to ask you about some movie scenes too - that scene in "When Harry Met Sally."

CRYSTAL: I was in that.

SIMON: Yeah.

CRYSTAL: The way it happened - we were in Rob's office...

SIMON: Rob Reiner, the director.

CRYSTAL: ...talking about - Rob Reiner, brilliant director, perfect director for this movie - Nora Ephron, genius screenwriter; Meg and I. And Nora brings up the fact that women fake orgasms. Well, Rob wanted none of this. He was astounded by this. And I'm sure his mind was rifling through all the women that he had (Laughing) been with. Well, geez, really? Maybe that? I don't know. And Meg said, well, you know what, in the movie, I should fake one for Harry. And I go, yeah, like in a public place, like a restaurant with people around. Rob says, yeah, and everyone's looking at her. And Meg started to go, yeah, and it gets louder and louder and then I'm finished to make my point. And I said and then you cut to an older woman who says to the waiter...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WHEN HARRY MET SALLY")

ESTELLE REINER: (as character) I'll have what she's having.

CRYSTAL: And that woman turned out to be Rob's mom. Estelle Reiner played that woman in the scene. So, we go to shoot the scene. Meg was very nervous. It's all of these strangers. And we go into the first rehearsal and Rob's not happy. The first one was sort of tepid. The second was like you're married 10 years. Then Rob, who's a big bear of a guy, with his beard and, you know, 220 pounds, a big guy, Rob goes, Meg, let me show you what I want. And he asks her to step out. And he sits down opposite me. So, now it looks like I'm on a date with Sebastian Cabot. He starts pounding the table. Those little spice balls are flying off the pickles. People can't believe what they're seeing. It is so loud - screaming yes, yes, yes, yes. Boom, he finishes. They applaud. He steps off, he motions for me to follow him. He goes, I shouldn't have done that, buddy. I shouldn't have done that. And I look over and I said, no, Meg'll be OK. You didn't embarrass her. He goes that's not what I mean. I just had an orgasm in front of my mother.

SIMON: (Laughing) You make many references to your wife, really when talking about everything - Janice. And I have to ask, do you ever feel kind of an outcast in Hollywood being married to the same woman for over 40 years?

CRYSTAL: (Laughing) I always say, you know, some magazines - what is it, People or whatever - does the hot couples, and we're never in it. And I go, you know, what's hotter than being married for 43 years? I was 18; I knew it when I first met her. It gets better all the time. And we just - we laugh a lot. She's really funny, and one of the few people who really gets a belly laugh out of me.

SIMON: How do you - how do you keep that going for more than 40 years?

CRYSTAL: You know, I respect her. And I always look forward to being with her. And one of the most important times we had was - the girls were starting to get bigger. I was on the road a lot, and doing very well. But I was working a lot. And at one point she said to me, let's make sure you're not Uncle Daddy. And then she just, you know, that was it. And I never missed a birthday, I never missed a school play. We carpooled. The greatest compliment I can ever get is not about my career or performance or anything; it's when people say, you know, your girls are great. That's the - that's the real thing for me.

SIMON: Billy Crystal. His new book, "Still Foolin' 'Em: Where I've Been, Where I'm Going, and Where the Hell Are My Keys?"

(LAUGHTER)

CRYSTAL: When you say it, it sounds even funnier. I just love that. You know, 'cause to me, NPR, it's phenomenal. But the - my dad was in the jazz business. On Sunday mornings, there was always the classical music station, and it always sounded like that: That was Sibelius, Concert in F Minor. And then they'd have to do a commercial afterwards, so it would never go well. It'd be: That was Sibelius, Concert in F Minor; Franz Duhamel on clarinet. Is your dog getting enough cheese? So, when you did that - and where the hell are my keys? - it was hilarious to me.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Well, thank you. It's a big compliment coming from Billy Crystal. Thanks so much for being with us.

CRYSTAL: I really enjoyed it. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Is your dog getting enough cheese? I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Related Program