The Billy Crystal Incident

For, April 1, 2013

My one and only interview with Billy Crystal came early in his movie career. He was fresh off of "Saturday Night Live" and had made a buddy-cop picture in 1986, "Running Scared," a comedy-thriller that paired him with Gregory Hines and was his first shot at movie stardom. Perhaps he was inspired by fellow "SNL" alum Eddie Murphy who shot to movie superstardom four years earlier with another buddy-cop comedy-thriller, "48HRS."

"Running Scared" wasn't Crystal's first film, of course. He made his film debut as the lead character in Joan Rivers' 1978 attempt to ape Mel Brooks, an off-the-wall farce about the first pregnant man titled "Rabbit Test." (Which was, coincidentally, the first movie review I wrote for the Deseret News.)

That film was made when Crystal was a hot TV property in "Soap," playing a gay character and breaking down barriers for prime-time TV. But his only other theatrical films between "Rabbit Test" and "Running Scared" were a voice performance for the animated feature "Animalympics" and a cameo in the seminal "mocumentary" "This Is Spinal Tap."

When he did interviews for "Running Scared," Crystal was constantly being asked to do his most famous catch-phrase from "Saturday Night Live," the kicker to his impersonation of Fernando Lamas: "You look mah-velous, dahling."

Now, this interview was for TV, and I was seated in the KSL studio watching a monitor that showed Crystal and Hines sitting side by side in director's chairs. As was the standard at the time, I watched them on the monitor during the interview but they couldn't see me; they could only hear me.

Hines was cheery and friendly but Crystal seemed a bit surly. Realizing I only had five or six minutes, I tried to bring Crystal out a bit by asking, "So how many times have you been asked to do the ‘You look mah-velous' line today?" It was a miscalculation on my part. Crystal apparently misinterpreted my question as a request to do the line, which I had no intention of suggesting.

"I'm here to talk about ‘Running Scared,' he said with an edge in his voice. So I just dropped it and moved on. No time to try and make clarifications. When my time was up, they'd be directed to some other TV interviewer in some other city in some other state.

Afterward, I felt the interview was OK, but Hines was clearly the better of the two, offering lively responses in a soundbite way that I could edit down to a couple of minutes for my segment on Friday's 6:30 p.m. news program.

But when I played the tape back in an editing booth and got to the end, it recorded Hines and Crystal for another minute or so after it was supposed to have been cut off, and I watched as Crystal said of me, "What a boring (expletive)."

That arrogant, unprofessional comment really got to me, and I never accepted an interview with Crystal again … not that he would care about showing up on KSL in Salt Lake City.

Of course, Crystal went on to become a big movie star and I reviewed all of his films through 1995, and a couple in more recent years. I'd be lying if I said I didn't think about that incident whenever I had to go to one of his movies but I tried to be fair when reviewing his subsequent pictures, and he did receive praise from me when I felt it was warranted ("When Harry Met Sally," "Throw Momma From the Train," etc.).

I did speak with Hines again for a later film, this time in a more relaxed face-to-face, one-on-one interview, and I thought about bringing that incident up, but then thought better of it.