By Stuart Nulman
Still Foolin’ ‘Em by Billy Crystal (Henry Holt, $29.99)
On March 14 of this year, comedian/actor Billy Crystal turned 65. Here’s how he described, in his inimitable comic way, how he greeted this milestone birthday:
“I got up that morning, padded over to the bathroom, threw some water on my face, looked in the mirror, and my Uncle Al was staring back at me.”
And how does Crystal deal with this milestone in his life that many baby boomers are experiencing these days? With plenty of humour, that’s how. And his therapeutic way of dealing with this new stage of his life was to write this book (his third) called “Still Foolin’ ‘Em” (the title comes from a phrase that Crystal says to himself every time before he goes onstage) .
The book is actually two books in one. The first part involves Crystal’s rather reticent –sometimes grumpy – approach to reaching the social security-and-retirement age of 65. There’s plenty of dread as he has to confront the sagging physical changes and the increasing memory lapses (especially when he can’t locate his keys), not to mention anticipation to the luxury it now affords him to scale back a little, enjoy life more with his wife of 43 years Janice, and the joys of being a grandparent (including his second grandson Griffin, who was born on the day of his 65th birthday). One of my favorite chapters of this part of the book is Crystal’s version of a grumpy rant about things in the world that bug him, and reveals to himself and the reader how he is gradually becoming a conservative (one of my favorite rants in this chapter deals with his take on the Internet, in which he says “I’m sorry Al Gore invented the Internet. They say the Internet is for everybody. Except the newspapers it put out of business, the music industry it crippled, the bookstores that are now closed.”). It maybe crotchety, but it’s damned funny and makes a lot of sense.
The second part of the book is pure showbiz memoir. With plenty of insight, humourous observation, and at times heartbreak, Crystal recalls an impressive career that has lasted more than 40 years. From his first big break doing a dead-on impression of Muhammed Ali at a tribute dinner for the boxer back in 1975, to his on-again, off-again relationship with “Saturday Night Live” (his stand-up routine was bumped from the show’s inaugural broadcast at the last minute), to the many hit movies he starred in (you find out why Crystal decided to wear a New York Mets hat during “City Slickers”), to his passion for the Yankees, to his memorable stints as Oscar host, to the many celebrity encounters he experienced (including a bizarre, stomach-punching encounter with Yankee legend Joe DiMaggio), you get a complete, well-rounded and very satisfying self-portrait of this multi-talented individual.
One thing that stood out for me was how Billy Crystal is a man of emotion and passion. This was evident in two instances: his love for the New York Yankees and how it was transcended when he directed “61*”, the highly-acclaimed HBO movie about the Roger Maris-Mickey Mantle single season home run race (his masterful transformation of the old Tiger Stadium into Yankee Stadium, circa 1961 was so accurate, that when Yogi Berra visited it during production, he shed tears of nostalgia); the other was how has tried to maintain an emotional connection with his father, who died when Crystal was only 15, which was transcended when he wrote, produced and starred in his Tony Award-winning solo show “700 Sundays”, which became one of the most successful non-musical shows in Broadway history. Basically, for Crystal, “61*” and “700 Sundays” were two projects that were more like his life’s work than just two parts of his showbiz resume.
And like any other showbiz memoir, there are plenty of terrific behind-the-scenes anecdotes, which are both entertaining and highly poignant; his series of stories dealing with his up-and-down friendship with his long time idol Mickey Mantle, especially during the time when he was hobbled by alcoholism, are quite heartbreaking to read (and at times, compelled me to put the book down for a couple of minutes, because I found them emotionally draining).
“Still Foolin’ ‘Em” is probably one of the best showbiz memoirs of the year. Billy Crystal’s look back at his life and career, and his looking forward to a new (but sometimes reticent) stage of his life is a portrait of a person who has enjoyed – and is still enjoying – his life. So Billy, I am very glad you’re still foolin’ – and entertaining – ‘em.
Stuart Nulman’s “Book Banter” segment is a twice-a-month feature on “The Stuph File Program” with Peter Anthony Holder, which now has almost 150,000 listeners per week. You can either listen or download it at www.peteranthonyholder.com, Stitcher.com or subscribe to it on iTunes. Plus you can find it at www.CyberStationUSA.com, www.KDXradio.com, True Talk Radio, streaming on www.PCJMedia.com, and over the air at World FM 88.2fm in New Zealand, Media Corp in Singapore and WSTJ, St. Johnsbury, Vermont. Stuart can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.