Billy Crystal’s mother advised him, “Do something special on your birthday.
Celebrate the fact that you’re here, that people love you, and you love them.” For his 50th, Crystal booked the ballroom at the Four Seasons and entertained over 250 guests. For his 60th, he wore the uniform of his beloved Yankees as leadoff man during spring training. Luckily for us, we don’t need a personal invitation to attend his 65th. His memoir, “Still Foolin’ ’Em: Where I’ve Been, Where I’m Going, and Where the Hell Are My Keys?,” is his birthday tribute to this milestone event, and we’re all invited to the party.
And what a commemoration it is! This is one terrific book, written by one terrific guy. (Be forewarned: Expect lots of swear words and anatomical humor.) It is poignant, personal and uproariously funny. A fellow baby boomer, Crystal hits many nails squarely on the head. Chapter Four, “Growing Up Crystal,” chronicles his youth in Long Beach, Long Island. With the exception of his father’s untimely death when he was 15, his childhood was cheerful, loving and culturally rich. He played ball with the neighborhood kids until it got dark. His home was filled with laughter, encouragement, jazz and Judaism. He was raised to be the mensch he is today, full of reverence, loyalty, generosity and humble gratitude.
The remaining chapters, with such titles as “Take Care of Your Teeth,” “Buying The Plot,” and “Grandpa,” recount his life, decade by decade, from his twenties to the present. Some read like stand up shtick; some are more serious and factual.
The best parts are the anecdotes Crystal shares from his star-studded career and the dozens of decades-long relationships he formed, nurtured and maintained along the way. These are real gems. We are treated to up close and personal pearls about Mickey Mantle, Muhammad Ali, Howard Cosell, Lew Alcindor, the Saturday Night Live cast and the makings of “When Harry Met Sally,” “City Slickers” and “Analyze This.” Crystal takes us behind the scenes at the Oscars, a show he hosted nine times and hoped to restore to the dignity and class he remembered it having in his youth. We are with him in 1977 when he played Jodie Dallas on “Soap,” one of television’s first unambiguously homosexual characters, and in 2005 as he scripts and performs his oneman Broadway homage to his father, “700 Sundays.” We cheer his well-deserved Emmys, Tony, and Golden Globe and Oscar nominations. The more Crystal reveals his thoughts, his feelings and his character, the more deeply we admire, respect and appreciate him.
These anecdotes are entertaining and voyeuristically satisfying, and Crystal is a gifted comedian and storyteller. But he has a deeper and wiser purpose in sharing his life with us. While he knows he has been blessed with talent, success and opportunity, his message is that family and faith string these pearls together and give them form and substance. He takes parenthood, and now grandparenthood, seriously. He respects his elders and treasures their memories. He is reminded of the legacy they left him, and is mindful of creating an equally meaningful one for his family.
Crystal continuously asks whether anything we do really matters. On the last page, contemplating the simultaneous birth of his fourth grandchild and his 65th birthday, he answers.
“It is a great life with plenty more to go. Time to see how my little ones fare in the world we turn over to them. That is our task after all. Teach them all we know and help them try to be better than us.”
Amen, Billy. Happy birthday, and many more.
“Still Foolin’ ’Em: Where I’ve Been, Where I’m Going, and Where the Hell Are My Keys?” Billy Crystal Holt, Henry & Company, Inc., 2013