Why Billy Crystal Wants to Be a Tiny Rhinoceros

From funny beginnings, he just can't stop cracking us up, with a new TV show coming next year.

billy crystal illustration
Mitja Bokun for Reader’s Digest

Most actors just want to talk about their latest film or TV project. But while Billy Crystal, 66, has much to discuss—his new show, The Comedians, debuts in 2015 on FX, and his recording of his memoir Still Foolin’ ’Em just won audiobook of the year—ask about his childhood in Long Island, New York, and everything else takes a backseat.

Crystal was raised in a house full of family and fun. His father and uncle were jazz producers, so his extended clan included musicians like pianist Willie “the Lion” Smith, an African American cantor who spoke Yiddish, and vocalist Billie Holiday, who took Crystal to see his first film. “They were such great spirits,” Crystal says of his relatives, blood and otherwise. “They were so encouraging and charismatic that not only did I want to be around them, I wanted to be them. They were my first audience and maybe my best audience.”

I just read your book. What a wonderful childhood you had.

My family loved to laugh. My brothers and I would entertain, and they showed their appreciation by sticking coins on my forehead. When my forehead was full, the show was over. My aunt Edith, who’s still alive at 107, always gave me a dime. That was her thing: “Here’s your lucky dime.” I actually found some not long ago, along with my high school graduation cuff links and other stuff—two dimes I’d put in a Lucite box.

The great thing about dimes is you can fit more of them on a forehead.

Exactly. So with inflation, I might do pretty good. My family was eclectic. My uncle Milt produced Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock”; my aunt Lee was one of the first woman bank presidents in America. We also had baby-bonnet salesmen, accountants, doctors, furriers, and housepainters.

You’re an impressionist, and imitation is said to be the sincerest form of flattery. Anyone not feel that way?

One—Sammy Davis Jr. I’d been his opening act, and I studied his every move. So when I was hosting Saturday Night Live in 1984, I did him. I come home afterward, and there’s a message. It’s Sammy saying, “What the hell is this? I didn’t see it—people told me about it. I would love to have known, that’s all.”

Were you two fine after that?

Oh, yeah; he grew to like it a lot. I remember opening for him in the ’70s, and I hadn’t worked with him up to that point. After my set, he came onstage and told the audience this story about how I had come to a Reno hospital the year before when he was sick and held up a sign: “Get well, Sam. I can’t do this without you.” He said, “That’s what this young man is all about.” Big applause. I’m standing in the wings, thinking, That never happened. The second show, he told another story that never happened. We did 28 shows, and every night, there was a different story about me that never happened. I loved them. I never asked why he did it, because I got it—it was show business. It was great to hear his imagination about this wonderful world we had together. He was charismatic, hilarious, and incredibly smart.

This year is the 25th anniversary of When Harry Met Sally. You became a romantic lead overnight. Did women look at you differently?

Yeah. I was regarded in a different way from just being the funny guy, and that was more than flattering.

And did your wife, Janice, treat you any differently?

No. It was “Hey, Harry, take out the garbage!”

You recently reunited with your costar, Meg Ryan, at an event honoring that film’s director, Rob Reiner. Was it like old times?

Definitely. I hadn’t seen her in a long time. A couple of days before, we talked about what we would say, and we just fell right into it again. There was this wonderful natural chemistry. Then when Meg and I walked onstage at the event, the audience went crazy. It was really kinda terrific, you know? We stood arm in arm, watching all these clips from the movie, and we just looked at each other, smiled, and had a warm embrace. As far as me being a romantic lead, I don’t think it was me; it was us as a couple. We were the perfect pair for that movie.

You have lots of famous friends. If you had to move, whom would you ask to help you?

Would they actually have to lift stuff and do all of that?

Some would lift; some would tell you where to put things.

Then I’d say Rob Reiner. He’s a director; he would take charge. Whoopi Goldberg, for sure, because she’dbe practical: “That goes here, that goes there, that goes there.” And I’d include Robin Williams, just for laughs. [Editor’s note: This interview was conducted before Williams passed away.] He’d help as different people. He and I have the greatest phone relationship in the history of … well, my phone. We call as different characters, and sometimes we never break character until we hang up.

You tweet from time to time. If you were to sum up your life story in 140 characters or fewer, what would it be?

Oh, man. [Pauses] “Once funny, still funny. #WishIWasTaller.”

Your size is a recurring theme with you. So I’ll ask you a question my daughter asked me: Would you rather be a giant hamster or a tiny rhino?

[Laughs] You’ve been up all night, haven’t you?

I’ve got a million of these.

How big is the hamster wheel?

It’d be huge.

Who lives longer? I think rhinos. I would opt for that. A tiny rhino—small and powerful!

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Andy Simmons
Andy Simmons is a features editor at Reader's Digest.