Life Is Short, Laugh Hard

NEW YORK - JUNE 12: Actor/comedian Billy Crystal addresses the audience at the conclusion of the run of his one man show "700 Sundays" at the Broadhurst Theater June 12, 2005 in New York City. (Photo by Fernando Leon/Getty Images) GETTY

Just about every family has its characters, but Billy Crystal's is chock full of them.

The comedian pays them tribute in his Tony-award winning show "700 Sundays," now on tour, and in a new book by the same name.

At a theater in Boston, CBS News correspondent Rita Braver caught up with Crystal during a tour stop.

Braver: You've been doing this how many nights now?

Crystal: Oh, with previews, we've done 220-something shows.

Braver: Do you ever get worried like, what if we give it and they don't come?

Laughing, Crystal responds, "Not yet, no."

Of course he's smiling. The show consistently sells out.

"Sundays was our day to play baseball or even go to a Broadway show. Sunday nights was Chinese food 'cause on Sunday nights, Jews are not allowed to eat their own food. No, no, that's in the bible," goes one anecdote from Crystal's play.

Crystal has now expanded his play into a book with even more stories about growing up with his two older brothers in a large, loving, Long Island Jewish family.

Braver: One of my favorites was your grandfather, Julius. You call him, "One of the hot people. What do you mean?

Crystal: He was cranky. Grandpa Julius was cranky. I was close with him 'cause I was a little cranky, too, but he was the sweetest guy. But, he had a bad combination of ailments: he was deaf and flatulent. Now this is, this is murder.

Braver: You and your brothers though, you used to love to torment poor grandpa Julius with his hearing aid.

Crystal shows Braver how he teased his grandfather by mouthing partial words, eliciting an angry response.

Crystal: He would just go, 'Another piece of crap. This is costing me a fortune.'

Most of all, the book and the play are a tribute to Crystal's parents, Jack and Helen.

"They were always in love with each other. Pretty great," Crystal says.

Jack Crystal ran the family-owned Commodore Record store in Manhattan, a mecca for Dixieland jazz and the folks who played it. Sometimes, he'd even bring a musician home to dinner, including one famous for his raspy voice.

Braver asks Crystal to describe how his grandmother tried to help Armstrong with his voice during a Passover meal.

Crystal: A big, big holiday. The important one. It's the Exodus from Egypt, it's a big story. It became a very good movie. She said to him, 'Louis, have you tried just coughing it up. (Armstrong) laughed so hard.

Crystal always loved to entertain. He tap danced.

"Just the right leg. I, I could only get the right leg to work," Crystal writes.

And, of course, he told jokes.

"You know, you start performing because you want to make your parents laugh. You want to make them laugh. And that started with us. They were great laughers," Crystal remembers.

His dad even encouraged him to study great comics.

"And then he would let us stay up late to watch Jack Paar. I'm just a little kid and I would take a chair and pull it up to our big Dumont and I would (say) 'Look. I'm Jack's next guest.'

Today, of course, he's a talk-show regular. Friday night, delighting David Letterman with the story of a recent celebrity golf outing:

"We played at Trump's course only Trump didn't wanna play 'cause it was too windy," Crystal tells Letterman as he imitates Donald Trump's toupee.

But the good times on Long Island were cut short in 1963 as Dixieland jazz faded in popularity and his dad lost his business.

"It was like the pressure -- two boys in college. One about to go. He was taken ill that summer with double vision in one eye and I knew something. I, my instinct was something was wrong and then he dies in October," Crystal says of his father.

Crystal was only 15 and it was actually that very limited time with his father that inspired the title of his play and his book.

"You know, I had about 700 Sundays. That's it and that's not a lot of time," Crystal says.

Helen Crystal, who passed away in 2001, became the financial and emotional mainstay of her family, urging Billy to go back to playing baseball, his favorite sport.

"Mama was in the stands and she came to every game and she let everybody know she was there: 'Come on. Let's put Crystal in. We can't fall any further behind. Let's go kid,'" Crystal says of his mother.

In fact, Crystal was good enough to play college baseball and he's still an avid fan. But his true passion was stand-up comedy.

Years of doing routines led to his breakout gig: as a mid-1980s regular on "Saturday Night Live" creating cult characters like Fernando, who introduced new catch phrases into our vernacular:

"I don't feel mahvelous, but I look mahvelous, which is okey dokey with me 'cause you know my credo, it is better to look good than to feel good, you know what I am saying?"

Braver: Do people still tell you, you look?

Crystal: That I look marvelous? Yes. It still happens and that's, you know, it's 20 years ago. Wow.

Braver: I had to resist saying it myself when I first saw you.

Crystal: I know. Everybody's said that to me at one point. Ted Kennedy said it to me. Henry Kissinger said it to me on the Concorde flying to England.

Another great creation: Crystal's Sammy Davis Jr.

It was an impression, honed, when Crystal was Davis's opening act.

Crystal: Well, I defy anyone to be together with Sammy Davis Jr. to leave a room and not sound like him in some fashion or form. You just can't help but talk like him. I mean, here's this guy, why's he speaking Yiddish? So you have, you have a lot of shpillus, huh? That means nervous.

By the late 1980s, it was time for Crystal to go to the movies.

"When Harry Met Sally" was a blockbuster: a comic romance that begins when Crystal hitches a ride home from college with Meg Ryan.

Crystal starred as the cynical Harry Burns.

Rita: Did you ever think that it would be a classic? One that people just go back to over and over again?

Crystal: No. I knew it was a really good piece of work and now all of these years later, this is our age group's movie.

Crystal followed up with the blockbuster "City Slickers," about a man who copes with a mid-life crisis by playing cowboy. And he won kudos hosting the Oscars.

Braver: It seems like you have always been on a roll in your career. Have there ever been times when you were worried?

Crystal: Oh, big time. The 1990s were weird for me. There was about four or five movies that didn't quite work, but something didn't catch the public's fancy and then I got frightened. I was, scared, a little scared and then "Analyze This" happened.

It definitely happened. A huge hit with Robert De Niro playing the funny role: a mobster in need of a psychiatrist and Crystal as the straight man, the reluctant shrink.

Though Crystal's career may have gotten off-track for a while, his marriage to the former Janice Goldfinger has held steady.

Crystal: You know, we were kids. I was 18, she was 17, you know, my last date was during the Johnson Administration and it's …

Braver: And its working, huh?

Crystal: It's better and better. We're the, we're the Jack and Mary Benny of Hollywood. You know, it's 35 years. It's most 40 years that we've known each other.

They have two daughters and a granddaughter, but at 57, Crystal shows no signs of slowing down.

He relishes every three-hour live performance and loves the crowds response to the stories that are so precious to him.

Braver: Is that like getting your batteries recharged every night?

Crystal: It's a big hug. It's a big hug from a lot of strangers that feel like family when we finish. It's the living room all over again. What can I say, I'm always home.
  • Sean Alfano

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