Billy Crystal first gained success on the 1970’s sitcom Soap and Saturday Night Live, before becoming a success in film with movies like When Harry Met Sally…, the City Slickers movies, Analyze This and its sequel Analyze That. He’s also been host of the Academy Awards telecasts nine times, making him the second frequent host next to Bob Hope.
Now the 64 year-old returns for his first live-action starring film role in ten years with the family comedy as out-of-touch grandfather Artie Decker in the family comedy Parental Guidance. Not only does Crystal star in the film, but produce it as well. He talks about the experience.
“I’ve done that several times,” Billy says, “But this time I particularly loved because it came from a real experience with my grandchildren. Having them alone for the first time for six or seven days and going, ‘Wow, this is exhausting,’ because when you’re not around little ones for a long time, you forget about how much work that is. So I came in and started writing the story that became this movie.”
Billy talks about the difficulty of making a family movie that equally appeals to children, as well as adults.
“What we had was a really well-written, well-conceived piece from the beginning where we thought this was a multi-generational movie from the beginning,” Crystal says, “When we had the girls, my daughter Jenny gave us like a Bible from my daughter of, ‘Don’t feed them this; don’t feed them that, if she says this, don’t say that,’ It was crazy! So when it was emerging, we said, ‘There really is something for everybody.’”
“And when it’s cast, and you have such wonderful talented people,” he continues, “And a terrific director who really had his eye on the ball with it, then you realize that at screenings, everyone is liking this. And it’s hard, but for this one, it was just the way it was. It really was just telling the truth about all the people.”
Teaming up with Crystal to play Artie’s wife Diane is Bette Midler. He talks about working with The Divine Miss M.
“It’s a weird thing, because we’d get that from a lot of people, didn’t you?” he says, “Shouldn’t you? Why? So the timing was just perfect. I can speak for both of us, we had a really great time, everybody did.”
“But for us, for where we are and where we’ve been, it was very special for both of us,” Billy adds, “We knew each other. And we’d spent some time together, but nothing like palling, except one night we watched the Oscars together, and it was really fun. And we always laughed. And I always came away thinking ‘I’d like to see her more,’ you know. And then when it was ready to be cast, we thought, Bette. So we called her.”
Billy talks about how Marisa Tomei came to be involved with the film as Artie’s daughter Alice.
“Marisa came to read with me to play my wife in Mr. Saturday Night back in 1991 and she was so great, but at the time she was just too young for the piece,” Crystal recalls, “And I called her agent and said, ‘Listen, she’s not gonna get this, but she is amazing. And sometime, I hope I am able to work with her.’ Well, the next year she wins the Oscar, and didn’t need me at all. And then when she came for this, we said, ‘You should play this.’” And it just felt perfect.”
Crystal talks about how the decision was made for the characters to break into song and dance.
“Well, I was pushing for it,” he recalls, “It was really fun because we were in the middle of this tornado watch, and we had this piano player because we had to do the scene the next day. So, I thought I would just sing to myself, I sang ‘Trouble’ from The Music Man! I haven’t done that since high school. And the whole crew was singing it. It was so much fun! But Bette and I would sing for the kids to keep them occupied sometimes, because they are kids. So one day we were shooting on a train and there was a lot of echo.”
“And we just started singing these old rock and roll songs – ‘Charlie Brown,’ ‘Yakety Yak’ and ‘Poison Ivy,’” Billy adds, “And then ‘Beaucoup Love’ came up and we said, “We should find a place to do this in the movie.” And it worked out pretty well, because we tied it with Marisa’s character that this is a song we sang to her, we would travel in the country, so it made sense. And I was more nervous about singing than Bette, because I get to sing with her. Hey, man, this is the goods.”
Billy talks about the films that he enjoyed seeing with his own parents and with his own children and grandchildren.
“Since I was a kid, every Thanksgiving growing up in New York, we always watched March of the Wooden Soldiers by Laurel and Hardy, we’d never miss it.” Crystal says, “Got a great laserdisc of it, and then, now I’ve got a great print of it.”
“And we still show it,” he continues, “It’s such a great, fun, crazy 75 year-old movie, maybe even older. And now the little ones watch it with us, and they love Wally Bean and Stanley Dove, and the music of it. And it’s so ancient looking and it’s so charming, so we keep that going.”
Crystal, an avid baseball fan, talks about how he got former pitcher Ralph Branca to make an appearance in Parental Guidance.
“I bumped into Ralph,” he recalls, “I did an interview with Bob Costas for The MLB Network and Ralph happened to be in the building. And it’s a wonderful piece in the movie for us, the shot around the world, and he was there and I went, ‘Ralph, would you want to do this? We’ll get you down to Atlanta, here’s the story,.’ And he goes, ‘I have to hear that from a seven year-old?’”
“And for those who know him, it’s a delicious little thing,” Billy adds, “And for those who don’t, he’s still terrific, but for those of us who love baseball and characters, he’s a wonderful guy to have on set and it meant a great deal to him, because it was not one of his favorite days. He’s 87 years old now and totally charming.”
Billy talks about what he hopes most for people to get out of the film.
“Exactly what you got out of it,” Crystal replies, “It’s a surprising movie. It’s really funny and it promises to be something, and then, it delivers something along with it. And I think once we had the script done, we went, there is something really special about this. It’s not just a family movie in the thinnest sense of the word.”
“It’s a full meal and people come away like, I didn’t think I was going to be blown away like I just was, on different levels,” he continues, “It’s not just what we call ‘the kid speech’, but it’s our relationship and our relationship and the things that tie parents to their kids and to their grandchildren. So I think it is a family movie in that way.”
Crystal talks about his take on the movie’s idea that perhaps child-rearing by parents has softened too much.
“Those are all real things that I experienced, not when my girls were growing up,” Billy says, “But with the, I’m trying not to step into something and get a call, ‘Dad why’d you say that?’ But we’d go to games where score wasn’t kept, and I’d get it, but I wouldn’t get it, because I think there’s a real value in winners and losers, in not everybody getting a trophy, it makes you work hard, you appreciate what it takes, to say, ‘Why didn’t we win?’”
“You shouldn’t be condemned for losing, but I think it’s what it already says in movies, it’s like life,” he adds, “It is competition. I think it helps to learn that, right from the beginning, that not everyone’s going to be equal, you’re not going to be as good as everybody, but you can out-work them, you can out-hustle them. You can outthink them. I think it’s a real value, those things. I think we can be a bit too touchy-feely with with sometimes the way I observe, not my kids.”
Billy talks about why he believes Parental Guidance is of a higher caliber than most family films of the last twenty years.
“I think the reason the movie touches on a lot of good things, the writing of the movie was twofold,” Crystal contends, “The original writers and the ones credited with the screenplay, who did a great job, Lisa Dario and Joe Syracuse, are young parents. So they had, at the time, they were five and seven, when we started, they are 22 and 19 now, it seems like a long time it took to get this movie done.”
“So they put in the great stuff, the cool toolbox and the red voice and the blue, that was all their stuff,” he continues, “Then, as we got closer, we got a wonderful polish by Lowell Ganz and Bobaloo Mandel, who I’m very fluent in with City Slickers, Parenthood, Splash!, and they’re grandparents, so now we had common ground of what to talk about and how to make us feel more relavent in the story, so I think that’s why it ties together really well.”