When Billy Crystal was just starting out in show biz back in the `70s, distinguished talent booker Jack Rollins came to check out Crystal's standup one night at a Manhattan comedy club. After the show, Crystal was feeling confident-the audience had cheered through his 20-minute routine. As they say in the comedy world, he killed with the crowd.
After the show, the two men met for dinner, and Crystal anticipated that Rollins would rave about his set.
"I didn't care for what you did tonight," Rollins started. "…you didn't leave a tip." Crystal was bewildered, wondering if they were talking about dinner or comedy. "…[It's] a little extra something you leave with the audience: you. I know what Ali thinks…" Rollins said, referring to the impersonation that Crystal did of Muhammad Ali and other celebrities during his act. "...What do you think? Don't work so safe, don't be afraid to bomb…What's it like to be a father? What's it like to be married? How [do] you feel about politics? Put you in the material-leave a tip."
Crystal felt perturbed by the critique, but somewhere deep down, he understood what Rollins meant. So Crystal returned to perform again the next night and, this time, he put himself in the act, revealing the real Crystal to the audience. As he had expected, he "bombed" that second night, but soon something clicked. He felt a real connection with the audience-and Crystal, who would later become a six-time Emmy Award-winning comedian, actor, producer, writer, and director-has been connecting with audiences ever since, almost 45 years after receiving what he views as the best advice he's ever gotten.
Currently touring the country with his new show "Spend the Night with Billy Crystal," the comedian--author most recently of the book of essays Still Foolin' 'Em: Where I've Been, Where I'm Going, and Where the Hell Are My Keys --stops by the Windy City on April 1 and 2, to perform at the Chicago Theatre. The show, which promises to feel like an intimate chat with the audience, blends standup with a "sit-down" interview with Crystal, moderated by comedian, actor, and Chicago native Bonnie Hunt. Crystal, who lives in Los Angeles, will tell stories, talk about the world as he sees it, reflect on his life and career, and show some of his film clips.
And the popular nine-time Oscar host, has many films to choose from, with so many beloved movie and TV roles that have become part of the popular zeitgeist : Among them is perhaps his most famous role as the title character in the quintessential rom-com When Harry Met Sally, who believes men and women can't be just friends. In The Princess Bride , he plays a miracle worker; in City Slickers , he's a guy going through a midlife crisis, who embarks on a cattle drive with his buddies; and in Analyze This , he's a shrink to a mob boss, played by Robert De Niro.
Prior to movies, Crystal's career started off on the small screen in the 1970s with his television debut on an episode of All in the Family . The following year, in 1977, he nabbed the part of Jodie Dallas, one of the first openly gay characters in the cast of an American television series, in a sitcom called Soap .
Then, after hosting Saturday Night Live twice, Crystal joined the regular cast for one memorable season, from 1984 to 1985, alongside other comic legends Christopher Guest and Martin Short. It was then that Crystal transformed the catchphrase "You look…mahvelous!" into a household expression, part of his parody of over-the-top talk-show host Fernando Lamas.
Through the years, Crystal also wrote, directed, and hosted a dozen Comic Relief fundraisers for homeless relief, alongside comedians Whoopi Goldberg and the late Robin Williams.
But before he was charming millions, Crystal was entertaining his family and friends growing up in the quaint beach town of Long Beach, Long Island, a then-predominately Jewish and Italian town he describes as the "perfect place to grow up," complete with a two-mile boardwalk and white-sand beaches along the Atlantic Ocean just blocks from his home. He often references that beloved hometown in his act, and in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy's battering of Long Beach in 2012, Crystal and his wife, Janice, helped raise more than 1 million dollars to help the town rebuild and rebound.
Crystal's early childhood, back in the 1950s, was filled with music and laughter. His mother, Helen, was a talented tap dancer and singer, always the life of the party. His father, Jack, worked six days a week at two jobs as a jazz promoter who managed the family's popular New York City record store. Jazz greats like Billie Holiday-who were friends of his parents-would frequent their home.
Crystal was always hamming it up, and his parents nurtured his love for performing from the start. He and his older brothers, Joel and Rip, would treat their family living room as their very own Broadway stage. The brothers would dance, sing, and act for family and guests. The budding comedian would stay up late, even on school nights, watching Sid Caesar and Jack Paar, and he'd reprise verbatim the comedy albums of his comic idols that his dad brought home for him from the record store.
Within his own family, too, Crystal had a whole zany cast of characters to draw material from-Russian and Austrian immigrant Jewish relatives, who he says were super animated and always speaking with their hands.
The only thing Crystal ever aspired to do as much as comedy was play baseball for his beloved New York Yankees. In fact, he paid homage to the team in 2001, when he directed the film, 61, about Roger Maris' and Mickey Mantle's quest to break Babe Ruth's single-season homerun record during the 1961 Yankee season. Crystal says the highlight of his long career came in 2008 when he signed a one-day contract with the team in honor of his 60th birthday. In a spring training game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Crystal led off the inning batting as the designated hitter.
Back when he was 8, Crystal attended his first ball game at Yankee Stadium with his dad, and they'd spend most Sundays watching games together. Their relationship was chronicled in Crystal's Tony Award-winning one-man show 700 Sundays , (also adapted into a book and HBO special) named for the number of Sundays he spent with his father before his dad died of a heart attack while out bowling one night when Crystal was only 15.
The loss of his father would help shape him as a husband, as a father to his two now-grown daughters, and as a grandfather too.
Crystal has been married for nearly 47 years--and counting--to his wife, Janice, who he met when he was 18, when they were camp counselors. "I'm going to marry her," he told his friend the moment he spotted Janice that day on the beach. Looking back, Crystal recalls, "I walked after her then, and here it is 47 years later and I'm still walking after her."
For ticket information for Billy Crystal's shows on April 1 and 2 at the Chicago Theatre, visit thechicagotheatre.com.
For our JUF News interview with Billy Crystal, click here .