Rearing to go again
Billy Crystal remembers exactly when he had the idea for his new film, Parental Guidance. He and Janice, his wife of 42 years, were put in charge of their first grandchild five years ago. ''We babysat for six days and on the seventh day I rested,'' the 64-year-old comedian quips.
''I came home exhausted but with this idea for a movie, because there are a lot of younger baby boomer grandparents now babysitting for their kids and it's all about old school versus new school.''
In Parental Guidance, Artie Decker (Crystal) and his eager-to-please wife, Diane (Bette Midler), agree to babysit their three grandkids when their overprotective modern-age parents (Marisa Tomei and Tom Everett Scott) go away for work. Artie and Diane's old-school methods don't sit well with the ''use your words'' parenting styles of their daughter, and their tough ''get over here or I'll spank you'' approach doesn't sit well with their grandchildren either.
Old school ... Billy Crystal as Artie Decker.
Crystal also produced the film, which marked his first appearance on screen with legendary comedy star Midler. ''We'd known each other 30 years and thought it was funny we'd never actually worked together,'' Crystal says.
''When we arrived in Atlanta to shoot the film, I suggested to Bette we should go on a date to dinner and a movie as husband and wife, to get to know each other better. We got in the car and got lost and argued all the way there, then we got to the movie and Bette talked loudly through the coming attractions but we ended up having a great time!''
Growing up in Long Beach, New York, Crystal was surrounded by comedy from a young age and always knew what he wanted to be.
''My father would let us stay up late on a school night to watch Laurel and Hardy or Sid Caesar and those other great comedians of the '50s on TV,'' he says. ''I knew I wanted to be a performer from the time I was three, standing on the coffee table imitating my relatives.''
Crystal earned his bachelor of fine arts in film and television from New York University but honed his skills at the same time working as a stand-up comedian, eventually getting his big break on the 1977 spoof comedy series Soap, which ran for four years.
After one season on the variety series Saturday Night Live, he began his movie career with films including Running Scared, The Princess Bride, Throw Momma from the Train and Memories of Me. But it was his 1989 romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally, with Meg Ryan, that turned him into a fully fledged star, followed by his 1991 comedy City Slickers and its 1994 sequel.
In 2008, the lifelong baseball fanatic realised a dream, signing a one-day contract with the New York Yankees and taking the field in an exhibition game against the Pittsburgh Pirates and striking out. So it's not surprising his character in the film is a baseball announcer fired from his long-time gig for no longer being relevant. ''It just seemed like the right career to explore that struggle in the story,'' he says.
Crystal admits he's also exploring his struggle to stay relevant in Hollywood. ''Sometimes the phone doesn't ring and it feels strange but you get used to it,'' he says, shrugging. ''I haven't made a movie in a while but I've been doing other things, like spending five years doing my one-man Broadway show [700 Sundays] and touring with it. Everybody goes through ups and downs and you come back for something that feels really right, and this movie was it for me.''
The proud father of two daughters in their 30s, he's expecting his third grandchild in March and confesses he's old school when it comes to them, too. ''We have dinner with them all every Sunday and we have a rule that those electronics don't come out so we can talk more,'' he says firmly.
The entertainer momentarily grabbed back the limelight last year when he was unexpectedly brought back to host the Oscars for a ninth time after Eddie Murphy bowed out.
''They called and said they needed my help, and it was a lot of fun to do,'' he says modestly of his return eight years after his previous hosting gig. Asked what he thinks of this year's host, Seth MacFarlane, Crystal says diplomatically: ''He's a very funny and charming guy and I'm sure he'll do well, but it's a hard job so I wish him the best of luck.''
CRITICAL BUZZ A family movie that grandparents might enjoy taking their grandchildren to see these holidays.
STARS Billy Crystal, Bette Midler.
DIRECTOR Andy Fickman.
RELEASE Now screening.