Joined at the soul, Rob Reiner and Billy Crystal share an affection for art, life, "schpritzing" and a game name Jim

by Robert Lloyd / American Film January 1989

Hi, folks! Welcome to the reading of Salman Rushdie's new book about the Buddha, Hey Fatso!"
     But seriously. That's Rob Reiner -- don't call him Meathead! -- welcoming a roomful of friends and colleagues, not to a reading, but to the latest rough-cut screening of his new film, starring Billy Crystal -- don't tell him he looks "Mahvelous!" -- and Meg Ryan, with support from Bruno Kirby and Carrie Fisher.
     Crystal and Reiner have worked together a few times since they met on an episode of All in the Family 13 years ago. Crystal made cameo appearances in Spinal Tap (as a mime caterer) and The Princess Bride (the alterkocker wizard, Miracle Max), and Reiner played a small part opposite in Crystal in Throw Momma from the Train and in Crystal's HBO special, Don't Get Me Started. But this film is the first mutual major project for the long-time friends and ball-playing buddies. And it's a movie with a peculiar resonance, as Crystal is playing a role based, in large part, on Reiner -- a role Reiner had originally considered playing himself -- in a relationship that takes details, if not substance, from their own.
     It's the end of March, and there's still music to lay in and sound to mix and opticals to effect, along with whatever niceties of editing this new viewing may prompt, but it's looking pretty much like a movie now -- with all the laughs and tears in place -- if only Reiner could decide what to call it.
    A few days earlier, Reiner was steamrolling around the offices of Castle Rock Entertainment (he is a partner of the company), buttonholing employees to demand their opinion ("Quick! Don't think about it! When Harry Met Sally or Harry, This Is Sally!") and keeping a running tally ("That's eight!"). Reiner himself that day is leaning toward the latter -- "I think it works" -- though he admits he's not crazy about it. But then, he wasn't crazy about the title All in the Family at first, either.
    "The title right now is When Harry Meet Sally...," Reiner tells his screening-room crowd, pronouncing the ellipses, "dot dot dot." He adds, "The three dots are important. If you have a better one than that, this is your last chance -- after Easter, the title search is closed." Then he shows his movie, and Harry meets Sally, dot dot dot.
    This film, written by Nora Ephron, Reiner and Reiner's collaborator and close friend Andy Scheinman, is number five in the Reiner directorial canon, after This Is Spinal Tap, The Sure Thing, Stand By Me (the film that established him as something more than a Sunday filmmaker) and The Princess Bride. Ephron wrote the first two drafts of the script, fleshing out Reiner's suggestion of, as she recalls it, "a film about a man and a woman who become friends and make a decision not to sleep with each other because it will ruin the friendship, and then sleep together and ruin the friendship." She modeled Harry on Reiner, not so much biographically -- though Harry endures, as Reiner did from actress-director Penny Marshall, a painful divorce -- "but more o his character, in that Rob is an extremely funny person who is depressed. Or who says he's depressed; you have to take his word for it, because he doesn't seem depressed.
    "My dream was that Rob would play the part, but when Billy agreed to do it, I had to admit it was the next best thing and as close as you can get."
    Reiner and Crystal are indeed close: socially, philosophically, artistically and astrologically -- they were born just a week part, in New York, 42 years ago. Their relations go beyond the merely friendly to the functionally fraternal.
    Reiner is, as Ryan notes, highly "external," a big, broad walking textbook in body language. Crystal's frame and bearing, meanwhile, are inconspicuously athletic -- compact and controlled. Yet they can look extraordinarily similar, especially when smiling -- eyes crinkling in like fashion, wide, identical grins (save for Reiner's gapped front teeth) bisecting still-boyish mugs, hairlines notwithstanding.

Reiner met Crystal in 1976, when rising young comedian Crystal was cast, in a neat bit of foreshadowing, as Reiner's best friend in an episode of All in the Family, in which Reiner played Archie Bunker's volatile, voluble son-in-law, Michael Stivic, the Meathead. They hit it off immediately, but it was a few years before the relationship attained its current, limitless depth; that was achieved, both recognize, the day they sat together at Crystal's house in Pacific Palisades, comparing their depression headaches.
    They finish each other's sentences, tell the other's stories with as much relish as if they were their own. They play games, both word and ball. They have long, serious talks. They speak in the code of the familiar. They schpritz, their term for spitting out ideas.
    It's lunchtime in Reiner's white-on-off-white, casually comfortable office. Reiner, the actor-turned-director, and Crystal, the comedian-turned-actor, lean from long, deep couches over a low glass table, eating Chinese chicken salad and considering the Rushdie affair -- news of the Ayatollah's multimillion-dollar bounty for assassinating the novelist is then still fresh, ripe for comment.
   "Five-point-three, that's what he's offering?" asks Crystal. "No points? What did Hershiser get? Seven? I guess that proves it's better to be Orel than anal."
    He runs on, in several voices: "I thought Ebert and Siskel were tough critics! This guy! 'I didn't like it -- kill him.' I saw Last Temptation -- I say ... kill him.' 'Gene, you don't want to kill him -- some of it was very good.' 'Here's our film critic: Khomeini!' 'I just saw Police Academy -- kill them!'"
    "That's a tough critic!" nods Reiner, pouring mustard sauce on his salad.
    "'Who is this Guttenberg? And Bobcat? I give it, um, five kills. . . . This movie, there's a deathwatch on this movie.' He didn't like Lawrence of Arabia.'"
    "Who, Khomeini? Why?"
    "'We're not all that crazy.'"
    "It wasn't the desert as he knows it."
    "'It's not that color.'"
    It doesn't take long for them to talk up a comic connection and veer off into their own 30-minute Bob and Billy Show.
    "They both love to laugh," says Ryan. "They're very sentimental, they 're very . . . gushy. I think they talk every other night on the phone before they go to bed."
    "Every night," says Crystal. At any rate, it's a detail that wound up in the film, transferred to Harry and Sally, who watch Casablanca together over the phone. "You say, 'Put on channel two,'" says Reiner, "and then you'll talk about what you're seeing." Crystal: "I'll be on the road someplace, and I'm lonely, and it's late, and I can't sleep, and I'm doing this." He mimes holding a receiver to his ear with one hand while operating a remote control with the other. "''Do you have channel eight there? ESPN and the Bigfoot truck -- look at that! Isn't it expensive to practice with that Bigfoot truck? You need 80 cars to practices, it's expensive!' So we put it in."
    And, as Michael McKean, who cocreated and acted in Spinal Tap, says, recalling Reiner and Crystal's softball days on the (Los Angeles-based) Coney Island Whitefish, "They're two guys who've worked an infield together. That's about as tight as you can get."
    "Nothing got by us," says Crystal. "We got two, three double plays a game. Here's a great story: Rob was having a bad day on the field. He was emotional, not playing up to par...."
    "Oh, man," Reiner sighs, shaking his head, remembering.
    "He turns to me and goes, 'I got to get out of here.' He goes up to the umpire and says, 'Throw me out of the game.' 'What?' 'Throw me out of the game.' The umpire goes, 'You didn't do anything.' 'So what do I have to do to get thrown out of the game?' He says, 'You gotta curse.' He goes, 'Fuck you.' He goes, 'You're outta the game!'" Reiner rolls helplessly on the couch.
    They don't play ball anymore, but other games continue -- mostly as a pretext for hilarity.
    "Have you heard about the 'Jim Game'?" asks Reiner. "It was a late-night commercial, a record giveaway of romantic songs of the '40s. I was sitting alone watching this thing. 'Hi, I'm Jim Ameche,' telling us with his reading that he's not the Ameche we want, he's not the good Ameche, he's a lesser Ameche. I'm going, 'This is great.' So now, when we see somebody who looks like somebody else, it's 'Jim' somebody. If it's a girl, the same thing. If you see someone who looks like Liza Minnelli, it's Jim Minnelli. And if you see somebody who likes like, let's say Jim Henson, it's Jim Henson. It's the emphasis on Jim.
    "It pops up at any time. If you see a good one, you go [sotto voce], 'Over your shoulder, Jim whoever it is....' It's a fabulous game, 'cause it changes the way you look at the world."
    When Reiner and Crystal turn serious and talk of life and work, there are certain key words that recur -- human, real, honest, feelings, emotion, growth, maturity -- illuminating common concerns. Both men are ceaseless self-examiners (and frequent, though they hope ever less so, self-flagellants), who regard life as progress toward life better lived, see their work as expressive of that progress, and find their present selves considerably closer to ideal than earlier editions. "When you're young, you think you know it all," says Reiner, who "as a young person would spew, to anybody, about anything." Early press accounts regularly describe him as "blunt," "abrasive," the very picture of Michael Stivic. "But as you get older, you realize you don't know it all, but you know more than when you thought you knew it all."
    "I feel so much more confident and better as a person," says Crystal, "and infinitely so as a performer, in stand-up and acting, than I ever have in my life.
    "Like at Comic Relief," he continues, naming the annual benefit for the homeless that he cohosts with Robin Williams and Whoopi Goldberg. "I did this Vietnam vet who had no legs. It would have been easier for me to do another stand-up piece. But I had something to say -- the vets are a big part of the homeless problem -- so I tackled it, and I talked to Bush directly, onscreen. I don't think I would have done that a few years ago.
    "I'm getting back the courage I had when I was in the third grade. I was relentless in school plays, always off book. I'd just go off, with little flowers on my shoes, looking like the mayor of Munchkin City, and improvise. The teacher'd be in the wings, going, 'What the hell? Where does that say?....' I was fearless. And I'm getting that fearlessness back."
    "He's one of the few stand-up comedians," Reiner says of his friend, "who really brings humanity to his work, who really is like a real person when he's doing his [comedy]. There's a feeling person, a menschy person who comes through. He's accessible, but he doesn't pander. He does have a cutting edge. Billy's like a great boxer, he's like Sugar Ray. He gets in there; he jabs away, but it's all done smooth."
    Reiner takes some paints to assert the pointedness of Crystal's work ("He's got a mean bone -- he's human"), since from cursory review, particularly of Crystal's loving portraits of boxers and ball players and jazz musicians -- the characters that mean the most to him -- it's easy enough to mark him down as a bit of a softy. Reiner himself operates under a similar stigma, regularly drawing such homely -- some might say ,deadly -- critical modifiers as sweet, bittersweet, sincere, gentle, nice, affectionate.

But it's not as if they were a couple of Pollyannas; they've had as many dark nights of the soul as the next reasonably neurotic Jew -- dark nights that have lasted days, months, even years. Crystal "went through a period where I just didn't like being out there, especially in stand-up. I didn't feel like being funny for other people if I didn't feel good myself," and retired for a while from the stage. Reiner likes making films because, among other reasons, "I'm a little less depressed when I'm working than when I'm not, because it keeps me focused on something." The sweetness, the gentleness one finds in their work is a result not of refusing to confront demons but of having engaged them so relentlessly. It's a considered response to the state of things.
    Just how that plays depends, of course, on the viewer. "I've been both praised and criticized for being gentle," Crystal has said. Reiner has had similar split decisions: where Stand By Me, the film to which he feels most closely connected, was poleaxed by Pauline Kael for an "overdose of sincerity and finer feelings," Sheila Benson hailed it as "a compassionate ... look at the real real heart of youth"; where Richard Corliss saw "The Goonies with anger," David Edelstein saw a film that captured "vividly the support system kids erect to help them fend off the slings and arrows of so forth and so on."
    But if the four young protagonists of Stand By Me, whose backwoods outing does seem at times uncannily close to group therapy, are in their teary unburdenings something less than representative of the 12-year-old state of being, they are, as a reflection of Reiner's own state of being, pure and true. This is a man, after all, who once told Esquire that if he had the money, he'd "find some way to make good psychiatric treatment more available to people who don't have money ... people who are living in the world but who are completely out of touch with themselves and everybody else."
    "Everything registers with him," says Ryan. "And that's why he's such a good director -- because he's a good actor, and good actors are like these big nerve endings. And I think he's examined that in himself; and that's why his movies are psychologically true. They have that psychological through-line that's clinically correct."
    Says Reiner, "All you have to draw on is your experience, how you view things, what you're feeling inside." And each of his films draws extensively on what he happens to be feeling inside at the time he makes them: thus Spinal Tap, which many would be content to regard merely as a superbly accurate satire on rock 'n' roll mores, is also, as Reiner told The New York Times, "about people who are frightened of leaving the next and cling to each other ... which was basically the four of us who were making the film." The Sure Thing, while conforming generally to the outlines of a teen movie, "is about discovering that love and sex can be one and the same thing, which, although I was 37 then, I was just figuring out." Stand By Me, based on a horrorless Stephen King short story called "The Body," tells of "a boy who doesn't think that much of himself because his parents don't understand him," echoing young Rob's relationship with his father, director-writer-comedian Carl Reiner; and it's about "liking yourself," which Reiner says he had then just begun to do.
    Such personal investment is, of course, no guarantee of good art, let alone entertainment, but it's a dear enough commodity in Hollywood that one ought to at least offer it a chair when it comes to visit. Part of the appeal of Reiner's films, part of what sets them apart, is precisely the element of psychological autobiography he brings to material that, under less compulsively self-analytical direction, might produce fairly routine genre pieces.
    All of Reiner's films are "little" films, even the $20 million Princess Bride, a crazy-quilt fantasy that eschews bravura special effects in favor of elementary pyrotechnics, some old-fashioned swordplay (real fencing, not the samurai semaphore of most contemporary swashbucklers), and a lot of William Goldman's repartee.
    "I think he prefers simplicity," says Christopher Guest, the film's most villainous villain. "If you look at Rob's movies, there's nothing that jumps out. The camera moves are very organic in terms of what the scene is about; and I think, in some ways, that's harder to do than something where people notice the moves rather than the words."
    Says Ephron, "I can't think of anyone else who's so unafraid of putting feeling into a movie. He's not afraid for things to be, in quotes, small. You read the script [of When Harry Met Sally...], it's a teeny-weeny, little love story, a movie about people ... people like us, who spend a huge amount of their time on the phone, talking to people over dinner, who don't have cinematic moments in their lives."
    Something else that Crystal shares with Reiner is Rob's father. Crystal's own father, Jack, managed the Commodore Record Store for Crystal's uncle, Milt Gabler (founder of Commodore and Decca Records) and ran a series of weekend jazz concerts called The Sessions; Crystal's character Face ("Can you dig it? I knew that you could") comes out of that milieu, those memories. But Carl Reiner affected Crystal's life as certainly, if not as intensely, as he did Rob's. Your Show of Shows -- "the original Saturday Night Live," as Rob says, for which Carl wrote and in which he appeared with Sid Caesar, Howard Morris and Imogene Coca -- was for Reiner and Crystal alike the well where comedy began.
    "The first funny thing I remember," says Crystal, "was Sid Casar doing a Yul Brynner take-off, The King and I. He's barefoot, and he goes, 'Aaoow! Who's been smokin' in the palace?' And that's how I would come in from the shower, five years old, my hair back, I'd go, 'Aaoow! Who's smokin' in the palace?' and the family would laugh. It would be time for bed, and I'd jump on my father's leg -- Uncle Goopy, from the 'This Is Your Life' sketch -- and he'd drag me to bed. It was Sid and Carl and Howard Morris." The showbiz bug had burrowed deep: "I'd be in the bathroom accepting awards, holding a toothbrush and thanking everybody."
    Rob was, obviously, closer to the source -- he was actually living with the bug. Raised in Brooklyn, New Rochelle (the Petries' suburb) and Beverly Hills, he learned to swim in Sid Caesar's pool; listened to his father shoot the comic breeze with Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart and Norman Lear; witnessed the birth, in his very own living room, of Mel Brooks' 2,000-Year-Old-Man, to whom Carl played straight; hung around the set of The Dick Van Dyke Show, which the elder Reiner created, produced, wrote and occasionally acted in. "I soaked up everything," says Rob. "The basis of most of what I do was from watching [my father] work; he worked very organically in that show, he took things from his own life and he'd find a way to get them into the shows."
    As a child, and for some time after, he had trouble connecting with his father, who, Rob says, found him "depressed, brooding, shy." Norman Lear, in fact, "was the first person to ever recognize that I had any talent at all, who thought I was funny, even." He attended Beverly Hills High School with Albert Brooks and spent two-and-a-half years in the University of California, Los Angeles, theater-arts department, where he directed No Exit and formed an improv group with Richard Dreyfus. At 21, he was the youngest staff writer on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (Steve Martin was his writing partner). He did a stint with the improvisational comedy group The Committee. He played hippies on television.
    At 23, he went to work for Lear on All in the Family, for which he twice won the Emmy. He married actress (now director) Penny Marshall and became stepdad to her daughter Tracy, now an actress herself. (She's appears briefly in The Sure Thing.) The marriage survived the series by two years. At the end of All in the Family, Reiner was offered "a lot of money" to appear in a Mike-and-Gloria spinoff, which he refused with some difficulty, "knowing that maybe I'm going to be facing a number of years where I'm not going to be working so much. And I got down to zero; I got down to no money, basically. And I said, 'Screw it, man, I've just got to stay with this.' Because I wanted to direct."
    Crystal came to comedy indirectly. When he was 15, his father died, a shock he's made the basis of a screenplay called Here Comes Mr. Sleep, which Reiner will produce whenever Crystal's ready to direct it. His grandfather was an actor who translated Hamlet into Yiddish and would "travel around the country and perform, pass the hat and come back two months later with whatever he made." Crystal captained his high-school basketball team, played varsity football and soccer, and wrestled, earning the nickname "the Brute." At New York University, he studied film and television directing under Martin Scorsese, who led his charges -- in a strike for better equipment -- to occupy the communications building; while they waited, he ran prints of Yellow Submarine and Johnny Guitar, "which was his favorite movie at the time -- he thought it was a great antiwar movie, that the isolated farm house was like the United States." His own student films Crystal calls "frightening." The first was "a ballet of bulldozers. Scorsese said he hated it." The second portrayed "the plight of a young actor on audition day. There was a great opening shot; it was the skyline of New York, and then feet walk through it -- it was a reflection in a puddle. Scorsese loved that. And the rest of it stank." His third film was a dream bullfight between a valet parker and an Italian sports car -- "a total piece of shit."
    He married a girl named Janice from his old high school; they're still together and have two daughters. He performed in a marginally successful comedy troupe called 3's Company, for which "I did most of the writing -- and all of the driving." And he was giving himself the straight lines on top of it. He substitute-taught to make ends meet. Then he went out on his own and by 1973 was playing Carnegie Hall. Cruel fate and time limitations kept him, at the last minute, off the debut of NBC's Saturday Night Live; he was bitter about it for years. He wound up (alongside Guest) on Howard Cosell's Saturday Night Live instead, which probably didn't help matters any. He moved to California in 1976 and, the next year, began the role of Jodie on Soap. Joan Rivers directed him as the first pregnant man in the 1978 flop Rabbit Test. Six episodes of The Billy Crystal Comedy Hour were short for NBC in 1982; five aired. "Fernando's Hideaway" debuted there, as did the phrase that two years later, through the auspices of Saturday Night Live, would launch a cottage industry: "You look mahvelous." (There was the hit single "You Look Mahvelous," the record album Billy Crystal, Mahvelous, and the "semiautobiographical" book Absolutely Mahvelous.) He received an Emmy nomination for his work on SNL, as well as two ACE awards and five nominations for his HBO specials. He was voted one of the ten sexiest men in America by both Mademoiselle and Playgirl. He has hosted three Grammy Awards. His appearance was the best thing about the 1989 Academy Awards ceremony. He plays the clarinet and trumpet. On Shelley Duvall's Faerie Tale Theatre, he played the third little pig, the one in the brick house.
    Sometimes it takes a while to get where you want to get to, or even to know where that might be. To get from the hippie wig to the director's chair, from the nightclub stage to the big screen, from doubt to confidence. Reiner, with collaborators Guest, McKean and Harry Shearer, spent four and a half years trying to get Spinal Tap made, shopping a "demonstration reel" into which he had put $30,000 of his own money. Longstanding Rob fan Norman Lear finally stepped up to float it, and, at age 36, Reiner became a first-time movie director.

Now he's a partner in his own production company, making movies and TV shows for distribution through Columbia Pictures. Once he gets Harry and Sally safely into the theaters, he'll start work on Misery, a no-laughs Stephen King piece about a writer held hostage by a fan in a remote mountain farmhouse. The genre is new for Reiner, but the approach -- "The allegory is that he's battling with his own demons to force himself to grow, to move on to different areas, and this psychotic fan represents the demons inside him" -- strikes the familiar note of the psycho-personal. "Just by doing Misery, I'm in a sense mirroring the character in the film."
    Crystal was also 36 when, owing partly to his season on Saturday Night Live, he found himself confronting a new level of fame. At 38, he decided to direct his energy towards film acting and has been doing a respectable job of it -- When Harry Met Sally... is his fourth starring role, not counting the 1978 Rabbit Test, but including Running Scared, Throw Momma From the Train and the dead-in-the-water Memories of Me, which he also coscripted.
    "What was interesting about Harry," says Crystal, "and difficult sometimes, is I know these are moments that are very personal to Rob, things that I haven't experienced in my life. I haven't been divorced...."
    "But you've experienced loss," Reiner protests, "you know how."
    "Yeah, but still there are some moments that are very specific to him, and I'm acting him, and there's his face behind the camera -- 'Good!'"
    "It was pretty good, though; it was pretty comfortable."
    "We had a really great, adult talk before we started, saying, Listen, we are close, but when we come to the set, nothing gets in the way. If I stink, or if I feel you're not right...."
    "We have to say it."
    "And we did it. And it was great."
    "And it brought us closer together, too."
    And isn't that what it's all about? Not from your end, maybe, but certainly from theirs. Everyone I talked to who had anything to do with the production made it sound like it was the time of their lives, and from it they have taken their lessons. Reiner learned a little more about the technical side of filmmaking. Crystal learned from Reiner "the honing down, never giving up, not-satisfied-till-I-get-it kind of thing." Ryan learned Reiner's theory about the music of comedy, "that there are certain pitches that are sometimes funnier, certain kinds of syllables -- it's so rhythmic, comedy."
    "What's most important is having a good experience," says Reiner, "because, ultimately, all you have is the time on the planet."
    "How many people like doing what they do in life?" Crystal wonders. "I remember feeling, when I was doing Faerie Tale Theatre, what a great joy to sit in wardrobe and hear, 'What size hoof do you think you are?'"
    Ryan: "Every now and then, we'll be at an airport in Chicago or on an airplane going somewhere, or on this location or over here, and Rob will, all of a sudden, put his hands in his pockets and look at you and go, 'Now we're in this place.' And he'll be kind of amazed about it."
    Well, he is amazed, and why not? "In Princess Bride," says Reiner, "there was a scene we never used, in which the four heroes were on horseback. But we couldn't get a horse for Andre [the Giant], because the horse couldn't support him. He weighs 500 pounds. So the special effects guy said, 'What we'll do is hang him from the ceiling and we'll lower him on cables, and he'll just rest on the horse. We'll paint out the cables later.' So now, it's toward the end of the 80-day shooting schedule. I'm exhausted beyond belief. I've been shooting in a big tank at Shepperton. I'm walking around in hip boots, and I'm so tired. They say, 'Mr. Reiner, go down to stage D, check the harness.' The new Beaujolais has just come out that day, Andre's drunk about 20 bottles. The guy can drink, it doesn't buther him, but now it's the end of the day, and he's had a few too many. And I'm walking, it's misting out, and they open these big stage doors, and there's this giant, hanging from the ceiling on cables, drunk, and he's waving at me. And I'm going," he cries happily, "'What do I do for a living? What is my job?" ¶

© 1987 and 2013 Robert Lloyd