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Grandpa Billy's Crystal clear
7:00am Saturday 29th December 2012 in Celebrity Interview
Billy Crystal stars in his first lead role in a decade in Parental Guidance. The comic legend talks about coping with meddlesome studio execs, his nine stints as Oscar host and why these days everyone's a critic.
By Susan Griffin
Along with the likes of Donald Sutherland, John Goodman and Patrick Stewart, Billy Crystal is one of a number of Hollywood notaries who, despite their esteemed careers, have never been nominated for an Oscar.
Crystal believes he came close a couple of times, first for 1989's When Harry Met Sally, then with City Slickers two years later.
"I was mad at myself for getting sucked into it [the hype]," says Crystal, who's in town promoting his latest film Parental Guidance, a comedy in which a couple collide with their daughter over how to bring up the grandkids. "I hope some day I'm worthy to be even thought about, but it's not a great goal of mine," he says, chuckling.
Unlike his fellow alumni, however, Crystal has hosted the Academy Awards no less than nine times, earning plaudits for his comedic opening medleys, skits and film montages.
"It's like waking up with someone you don't want to wake up with every day," says 64-year-old Crystal on preparing for a ceremony that's watched by a global audience of one billion.
"And because you're working right through the show and re-writing as it's going, that's a bunch of months of pressure," he adds in his native New York twang.
His latest stint as Oscars host was in February of this year though he faced criticism from some quarters for lacking originality.
"The world is watching and the world is a rough room, so you can't please everybody - and now in the world of social media, you can't please anybody, it feels like!" says Crystal, who studied TV and film direction under Martin Scorsese at New York University before trying his hand at stand-up.
"I remember when Lord Of The Rings swept everything and the show got dull - because they were winning everything - and they blamed me! It's always the host's fault and it's not fair!"
Next year's ceremony will be hosted by Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane, who Crystal describes as "an auteur" - but would he helm the event once more if asked?
"To say I did it 10 times to round it off? I don't know," he muses. "If they wanted me back and I felt I had something new I could do. It's a lot of work but a fun night."
Affable as Crystal is, you sense his frustration at a certain lack of freedom - not only at recent Oscars but while filming Parental Guidance.
"There are more and more people involved in the process than ever before and I really hated that," he says.
"I have to watch my words here," he adds after a pause. "There were mid-level executives in the ear of Andy [Fickman, the director] and the production team, with notes from the studio and concerns from both Walden Media and Fox about how to make the movie.
"I mean these constant notes, this constant pleasing a board of people about how you make a movie, I wasn't used to it.
"When I was on my own making movies for Castle Rock Entertainment, you were just trusted and it was great," he says of the production company behind 1992's Mr Saturday Night and 1995's Forget Paris, which Crystal directed, wrote, produced and starred in.
It's not simply creative control he's talking about. "There's a hovering, a helicopter-ing if you will, of the process, by people who've never made a movie or written a movie, they've only seen movies.
"But we ended up getting used to it and sometimes things were very valuable and that's good," he adds, ending on a diplomatic note.
In Parental Guidance, Crystal plays Artie, a grumpy baseball fan who's married to Diane, played by Hollywood legend Bette Midler.
"Bette and I have known each other for a long time but we've never worked with each other, which everyone seems to think is odd. I kinda think that's good because it seems like a natural combination."
He recalls setting up a dinner meeting to discuss the film - "it was like we were married," Crystal says, laughing.
"She ate off my plate, she wouldn't let me order, she drove me home, it just felt really comfortable."
He attributes this to a shared sense of "old show business".
"We both have a respect for the performers we grew up with. It's an old form of show business that unfortunately doesn't exist any more, and in that way we're throwbacks in the best way.
"There was a great patience with each other. I knew I trusted her and she trusted me. It ended up with a great deal of affection and respect, which is what a marriage has to be anyway."
The script originated from Crystal and his wife Janice's own experiences looking after their grandchildren. (They have two daughters, Jennifer, an actress, and Lyndsay, a producer, from their 42-year marriage.)
"It was great but exhausting and on the seventh day I rested, then came into the office and went, 'OK, here is the movie'."
Given he's hailed as one of the funniest men on the planet, you'd think Crystal would be a blast as a granddad.
"I can be conservative when I have to be, almost to a fault," he says. "That's how my dad was with me and it's sort of what you know. But the more I'm around them [the grandkids], the more you find you can be that conservative guy in a certain way that's more palatable."
Unlike his character Artie, he thinks people should be cautious when their own children become parents.
"I don't think you should force your way. I think the most important thing to remember is the grandkids are not your kids," he says. "You can just give the best advice you can if they ask for it, and the great thing is you can hand the grandkids back and go to an early movie."
Parental Guidance marks Crystal's first major movie role since 2002's Analyze That, the sequel to 1999's hugely successful Analyze This, in which he plays the psychiatrist of Robert De Niro's insecure mobster.
But Crystal hasn't been sitting in an armchair with a pipe and slippers reflecting on the good times.
Aside from the Oscars, he created, performed and toured his Tony Award-winning one man show 700 Sundays.
"It was a way to do stand-up in a dramatic and very funny way," he says. "And tell the story of a hard time in my life in my fifties, when I lost a lot of people who were very close to me, including my mother, all in a short period of time.
"I was really grieving and my way out of that is to always perform in some way and I started writing this show."
Next year he's bringing out a book ("My thoughts on turning 65," he says) as well as promoting Monsters University, a prequel to the phenomenally successful animation Monsters, Inc.
So, despite the oppressive meddling he has to tolerate at times, Crystal remains positive about the future.
"I love what I'm doing, I've always loved what I'm doing and what I will be doing," he says. "Because there are still new things to find entertaining."
Extra time - More 'mature' movies out in 2013
:: Quartet - Directed by Dustin Hoffman, Quartet is set in a retirement home for opera singers where the annual concert is disrupted by the arrival of eternal diva Jean (Maggie Smith). Released January.
:: Song For Marion - Starring Terence Stamp as a grumpy old man who joins his local choir when his wife (Vanessa Redgrave) is stricken with illness. Released February.
:: The Guilt Trip - Hollywood star Barbara Streisand plays an overbearing mother to Seth Rogan. Released March.
:: Last Vegas - Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Kline and Michael Douglas play four best friends who decide to throw a party in Sin City. Released December.
:: Parental Guidance is released in cinemas on Thursday, December 26