Catching up with Billy Crystal

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Billy then and now: From left: Billy Crystal in 1977, on the sitcom "SOAP." (Wikimedia Commons)/ Billy Crystal at 41st Annual AFI Life Achievement Award Honoring Mel Brooks in Los Angeles. © Andrew Evans / PR Photos -

In advance of Billy Crystal's appearance in Chicago, I interviewed him over the phone. He and my father grew up in Long Beach, N.Y., where they attended elementary school through high school together, so I feel a special connection to the comedian.

Currently touring the country with his new show "Spend the Night with Billy Crystal," the comedian stops by the Windy City on April 1 and 2, to perform at the Chicago Theatre. 

JUF News: What did your hometown of Long Beach mean to you?

Billy Crystal: It was where so many firsts happened to me. The first time seeing Sid Caesar on television; the first time scoring a basket in a basketball game; first base hit; first homerun in high school; first school play; first standup; first romance. All those things add up to the launching pad of your life.

What are some of your favorite parts about being Jewish? 

You mean, besides the circumcision?

You remember that, huh?

Yeah, oh yeah, that's why I'm an insomniac. I'm waiting for that guy to come back in the room.

And what else do you love about being Jewish?  

…The storytelling, the warmth, the sense of humor. My dad was strict about the holidays. We honored them, we went to temple. I like the ritual, and the caring for our planet that's written into so many of the works I read in Hebrew school. 

You seem to be a celebrity who wears your Judaism as a badge of honor, and not in a self-hating sort of way. Would you agree?

I do. I mean, I still make fun, but it's not about Jews-it's about my Jews, it's about my relatives; it's not generalizations.

How do you compare when you were just starting out in show biz 40+ years ago to touring with your new show today?

It all feels the same. I don't think I've stopped working since the eighth grade. Backstage when I was on Broadway felt the same as it did backstage when I was getting ready to do a school play in high school. It's that same energy of confidence, a little bit of nerves…The moment you go out, you release and say, 'OK, I'm ready, here I come.' It's kind of an intoxicating feeling to go out and entertain people.

That's why, after all these years, I'm going back on the road with this show…at this age and this point in my career, to still have the hunger I did as a young man is a great feeling.

Besides signing to a one-day contract with the New York Yankees, what's another one of your proudest professional achievements in your long career?

I was the first American comedian to perform in the Soviet Union back in 1989 in an HBO special called "Midnight Train to Moscow." It was a Russian-speaking audience [with] some Americans. Gorbachev was in power, the [Berlin] Wall had not come down yet, and [I felt honored] that HBO trusted me. I found all these relatives that I didn't know I had there [in Russia]. But performing there and being an ambassador, if you will, for American humor in that country was something I look back on with great pride.

What did your father teach you, during those "700 Sundays," before he passed away?

Besides teaching me a love for comedy, a love for reading, a love for baseball, he also taught me about doing the right thing… My dad was a civil rights giant in his own quiet way, in that he was one of the first promoters to integrate jazz bands. So the house, yes, was filled with Jewish relatives with stories, but sitting next to them was Zutty Singleton, who was a great jazz drummer, or Tyree Glenn, who was Louie Armstrong's trombone player, or any of these other great musicians. They were all just friends. My family label--the Commodore--produced "Strange Fruit," which is Billie Holliday's epic song about lynching. It took a Jewish family to produce that record, to write that song…

How did your father's premature death shape your life and your relationship with your mother?

I was 15 and was dealt a bad hand. You can't help but be angry and I was angry and had to learn to live with that, and to deal with my mother, who was suddenly widowed and forced back into the workforce. [Being] back home alone with her, while my brothers were away at college, made me grow up really fast. I admired her strength-at the age of 50 she was suddenly back in the workforce. Three sons in school and we all graduated college because of her. You watch that and learn what parenting is really about and what being a son is really about.  …My mom sent me on a path of trying to do the right thing in my life and also valuing every moment that
you live.

Did losing a parent at a young age foster great empathy in you?

I can be in a room and look into someone's eyes and know that they lost somebody. There's a dullness; there's something that goes on in them and I can sense the pain--and I'll go over and talk to them and say, "What's going on?"

And then, when you had your own daughters, what kind of father were you to them?  

I was constantly trying to teach and at the same time give them the space to learn and find out themselves. In the midst of this business that I've been in for 40-some years, we've raised two fantastic young women and now four grandchildren. Everyone's heading in the right direction. And it all came in many ways from--Long Beach. I was raised right.

What's your secret to your happy, healthy, and long marriage?  

We still feel that we're dating. After all these years, and all the things that we've been through, and all the joys and sadness that we've shared together--right from the beginning: You're 18 and you have to tell the in-laws you're going to be a comedian.

But Janice's faith in me, her trust in me, her strength when things aren't going well. Our key is we keep laughing, we keep talking, and we keep loving.

I'm going to remind you about a scene from your own movie City Slickers . Curly, a cowboy, asks your character, Mitch, if you know the secret to life. Then, Curly holds up one finger and says "One thing." What I took Curly to mean is that each of us have to find that one thing that gives our lives meaning. What is that one thing, or maybe a couple of things, that give you purpose?  

The purpose is Janice and the kids, and continually doing right by them and right by myself. That's the most important thing…and in my job, I have a purpose. I have a mind that still loves to create and I follow that deeply. 

For the JUF News article on Billy Crystal, visit here

"It all feels the same. I don't think I've stopped working since the eighth grade. Backstage when I was on Broadway felt the same as it did backstage when I was getting ready to do a school play in high school. It's that same energy of confidence... "

Cindy Sher is the Executive Editor of ... Read More

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