That movie, released days before he turned 51, was Crystal's last live-action hit. While he appeared in a supporting role in the critically underwhelming America's Sweethearts (2001), which he wrote and produced; starred in the unsuccessful Analyze That (2002); and appears in the ensemble of the as-yet-unreleased independent film Small Apartments, he's become best known in recent years for a voiceover role he'll soon reprise: mini-monster Mike in the 2001 Pixar hit Monsters, Inc. (returning on Dec. 19 in 3D) and the 2002 spinoff short "Mike's New Car." He and co-star John Goodman return in Monsters University, set for release on June 21.
Crystal, 64, has otherwise been preoccupied with a Tony Award-winning one-man Broadway show, 700 Sundays, and the best-selling autobiography that came from it, as well as a smattering of TV and other projects. He received the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 2007. And years earlier, in 1991, he was inducted into the Hollywood Walk of Fame —as any Old Hollywood star would.
In a one-on-one interview this month in Manhattan, Crystal spoke about his upcoming films but also, more poignantly, about his Hurricane Sandy-battered hometown of Long Beach, Long Island, whose residents he recently treated to a free preview of Parental Guidance, his new Christmas Day comedy co-starring Bette Midler.
Film Journal International: Your older brother Joel and his wife still live in Long Beach. How did they weather the storm?
Billy Crystal: They had a lot of damage to their house. My nephew, Jess, just got back into part of his house. Jess' daughter, my [grand]niece, who's a teacher, her house may be livable, but she can't go into it yet—we're not sure. They just got the water out—it kept coming back in because the ground was so saturated. It's where I grew up—I think everything got creamed. Listen, this is what the Earth is becoming, and we'd better be ready for it rather than take things for granted.
FJI: A lot of people thought it was going to be like Hurricane Irene last year, which didn't do severe damage.
BC: I think a lot of people expected that was what was going to happen this time, too, and didn't heed the warning that this is a different kind of storm. This thing was 1,000 miles long and wasn't going to go anywhere [away from its eventual path] because of this cold front it hit. These are hard lessons about what we've done to the Earth—this is payback. I mean, it's pretty hard to deny that the Earth is getting warmer and that there are ramifications.
I remember the Republican convention, where Romney mocked Obama by saying, "He wants to control the tides and I want to help your family." Everybody laughed. As soon as the tides came up… I'm not a frequent tweeter, but the first thing I tweeted was, "Remember when Romney said Obama wants to control the tides? This is what he was talking about." The whole East Coast was ravaged by it and will continue to be unless we create safeguards.
FJI: These kinds of concerns about the future of the planet become particularly acute when you're a grandparent, as you are.
BC: Yeah, it'll be four times soon—[younger daughter] Lindsay's pregnant again and she's due in March, right around my birthday. [Elder daughter] Jenny has two girls, nine and six, and Lindsay's little guy is just three. And who knows what we're going to have next—they don't like to know ahead of time.
FJI: Your movies have tended to reflect your own stage of life, and now you're playing a grandparent in Parental Guidance [with Crystal and Midler as old-fashioned grandparents spending a few days watching grandchildren raised with modern methods. Marisa Tomei and Tom Everett Scott play their daughter and son-in-law].
BC: I play a baseball announcer who gets fired in the opening because he's too old-school in his approach—he's like a Bob Uecker. He just talks a lot and tells funny stories. He's very good at it, but he's been in the minors for 35 years and now he's just turned 60 and can't believe this just happened: He's got no job, he lives in Fresno and he has a strained relationship with his daughter because [he and his wife] haven't seen her in a long time. We're the "other grandparents" [who don't spend as much time with the grandkids as the paternal grandparents]. But she calls and says, "Can you come and watch the kids for five days? My husband has a big opportunity." So Bette, of course, says yes before I can say no and I go reluctantly because I'm in a bad mood and then find my way with these kids.
It's very real. The original writers are [a married couple and] young parents, Lisa Addario and Joe Syracuse, and they did a great job. Then, when we got closer, I brought in [Lowell] Ganz and [Babaloo] Mandel [his frequent collaborators], who wrote Parenthood and City Slickers and Splash. And they're grandparents now, so they had their stories and I had my stories and it all became a wonderful preproduction rewrite with them because everything was real.
FJI: Tell me about Monsters University.
BC: It's amazing—I saw the first half of it [last month] and I think it's spectacular. John Goodman's great and we worked together [doing the audio recording], which is rare for Pixar. Usually you're working different days. But when we did the first movie, I said, "I can't do this without him. I did the first day alone and I was so uncomfortable. So I called John Lasseter and said, "We've got to get John in here. Stuff will happen—he's a great improviser." And he said, "You're absolutely right." So John came in for the next session and it happened. The reason the characters work so well together is that John and I were in the room together.
In this movie we're 18 and 17 years old. I have a retainer. We meet in college and we don't like each other very much. We're forced to be in the same fraternity together with all the nerd monsters and it goes on from there. It shows how we became who we are and it's really beautiful.
FJI: That must take you back to your college days. You started at Marshall University [in Huntington, West Virginia, where he went for a year on a baseball scholarship before the college's program ended].
BC: Yeah, Marshall. I remember that after the tragedy [the 1970 plane crash that took the lives of 37 college football players, five coaches and others], I was searching the list of the victims to see if there was anybody I remembered. The guy I remembered most was spared—Mickey Jackson [an assistant coach who was in Ohio scouting a game on the day of the crash]. I think he's a coach now. [Jackson, now president of the Marshall University Alumni Association, had become a backfield coach under Woody Hayes at Ohio State University.] I only went the one year, but I flew in and out of that airport so many times and I was terrified every time I went in because it's on a cliff.
FJI: Then after Nassau Community College, you studied film at New York University.
BC: I graduated from NYU in 1970.
FJI: And you studied under Martin Scorsese?
BC: Yeah, he was my graduate-student film professor at NYU in my senior year. He was brilliant, scary, but with a love of movies that inspired anyone who was in those classes. There was Oliver Stone, Christopher Guest—we had good group.
FJI: I've recently spoken with your fellow Long Islander Alec Baldwin, who's also helping his old home after Sandy. Is there any kind of "Long Island Aid" thing happening?
BC: We should. I thought about calling Jerry [Seinfeld]…
FJI: Tony Danza was raised in Malverne [on Long Island].
BC: Tony's from Malverne? I didn't know that—why didn't I know that? I'm going to be in the concert for Sandy relief at Madison Square Garden on December 12, and that's going to raise a lot of money. So I'll be in that with The Who and Springsteen and Paul McCartney, Roger Waters and Bon Jovi and Billy Joel—another Long Island guy. There will be things that keep happening as long as needs keep arising. It's going to be years.