For reasons, the first thing I did as I got ready to write this week was look up images. Upon being confronted with a full page of Billy Crystal in the makeup, Simon said, “Grandma?” So clearly, we haven’t showed him The Princess Bride yet, and clearly, we need to get on that. It’s probably the only live-action Billy Crystal that I really want to show him right now, though I definitely think he’d enjoy Monsters Inc. and maybe Howl’s Moving Castle, though that’s got some bits that might not go over with his current “I scared” phase.
Billy Crystal has long been more of an adult pleasure than a child one. He’s done stuff for kids, some of it even good stuff for kids. After all, he has kids and grandkids of his own, and there’s something about that which drives adults to make terrible children’s movies in the hopes of bonding with their offspring. And sometimes even good ones. But most of the stuff he does is at best for kids older than three. Simon’s got a few years before I’ll show him City Slickers.
Crystal is an early entrant in the discussion about having gay characters played by straight actors, as he played one of the first openly gay characters on television. On Soap, he was Jodie Dallas. It’s not the most enlightened gay character in the history of fiction, granted, though that’s at least in part because it’s from a TV show that pushed everything as far as it could. Honestly, I can’t help wondering if Jodie was a bisexual character in a world that sees everything as binary—he did have an awful lot of relationships with women, though the show still referred to him exclusively as gay.
You can’t really talk about Billy Crystal without talking about music and sports. His father owned a record store, Commodore Records, which also served as as a recording label. You may know them for their most successful release, Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” Meaning, in fact, that the Crystal family had Billie Holiday visit their home when Billy Crystal was a child. A fair number of other jazz musicians were visitors in the house as well, leading to Crystal’s familiarity with and interest in jazz that continues to this day.
Similarly, his father had been a college baseball player, and he passed that interest on to young Billy. He was a huge fan of Mickey Mantle. He actually batted in a major league game to celebrate his sixtieth birthday. He’s part owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks and actually has a World Series ring out of the deal. Unlike many other obsessive baseball fans, though, he’s perfectly willing to play characters who root for other teams; his Mets cap is a plot point in City Slickers, but he himself is a Yankees fan. Oh, and if you can believe his autobiography, he was punched by Joe DiMaggio once. So, you know, there’s that.
His autobiography is one of the show business autobiographies worth reading; along with Dick VanDyke’s and Steve Martin’s and Alan Alda’s, it is tremendously funny. Well, not surprising. But along with those, it’s also an interesting insight into the man and worth checking out for a portrait of breaking into comedy. Also, I don’t care what anyone says; I like him as an Oscar host. Better than a lot of other people they’ve had in recent years, certainly!