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When Billy Met Rob : Comedian Billy Crystal leaps into a romantic lead under the direction of a special friend, Rob Reiner

Sitting in the back of the UA Marketplace Theater in Pasadena on May 31, at the first test screening of their new comedy, “When Harry Met Sally . . . ,” Billy Crystal and Rob Reiner were understandably nervous, their congenital Angst cranked up several notches. Longstanding pals, so attuned were they to each other’s psyches they hardly needed to voice their mutual anxiety.

For Reiner, the fifth movie he has directed and the first to be produced by his own company, Castle Rock Entertainment, represented his first undisguised attempt to address adult issues, specifically the difficulties faced by men and women in trying to establish friendships amid the quicksands of sexual desire.

Having borrowed heavily from his own raw experiences as a divorced man, Reiner, who has since remarried, figured that older audiences would sympathize with his obsessively verbal characters, but what of the callow teen-agers in the crowd? Would they respond to a movie that offers melancholy jokes about inconvenient ex-wives, untrustworthy old boyfriends and clashing tastes in interior decoration?

For Crystal, the ordeal was, if anything, even more pointed. Having established himself as a congenial stand-up comedian, with a chameleon talent for losing himself in ethnic accents and facial tics, a sort of Jewish leprechaun with a special sympathy for aging hipsters and show-biz types, Crystal couldn’t help but wonder whether audiences would accept him as a reluctantly romantic leading man.

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His last movie, the unabashedly heartfelt “Memories of Me,” in which he more or less played straight man to Alan King, had sunk without a murmur. And though, as this new movie’s womanizing Harry Burns, he had more than his share of laugh lines to fall back on, Crystal worried that moviegoers might dismiss the guy as an unregenerate heel, because, in the movie’s first few minutes, Harry kisses his old girlfriend goodby and then, without missing a beat, makes an obligatory pass at her best friend.

“This guy is horrible,” Crystal had kvetched to Reiner. “Look at the stuff he does to this girl--he’s constantly challenging her.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Reiner had said in trying to calm his fears. “They’ll like you. And that’s what makes her attracted to you. You can do the worst possible things to her, but, for whatever reason, Sally will say, ‘That Harry, he’s interesting.’ ”

And so, they sucked in their breath. And waited.

But not for long.

Because as soon as Harry climbs into the front seat of Sally’s 1976 Toyota Corolla for the overnight ride that will take them to New York and lead them into an 11-year courtship, Crystal has a bit of business that leaves the audience howling: He eats some grapes, turns to spit the seeds out the window . . . only the window is rolled up and the seeds just stick there, embarrassing evidence of his masculine callousness.

Reiner and Crystal knew they were cooking. By the picture’s midpoint, when Meg Ryan’s engagingly rigid Sally Albright demonstrates in a crowded delicatessen how easily a woman can fake orgasm, the audience had lost control.

“Yo!” Simultaneously, the right arms of Crystal and Reiner shot into the air, as if they had made a tie-breaking basket from midcourt in the final seconds of play.

“It was frightening how much the audience loved it,” Crystal later observed. “As soon as the credits started rolling, they started talking about the film. I think that’s great. I’ve seen all the summer blockbusters, and nobody says a word when they leave them.”

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With the advance industry buzz already hailing the $14-million feature as a summer sleeper, Crystal couldn’t be faulted for any sense of vindication he might have. Back in 1975 he had walked off the original “Saturday Night Live” when, as a young and largely unknown comic, he refused to cut a seven-minute routine down to two minutes. Afterward, as his own career plodded along while “SNL” launched successive waves of comedians into movie success, he often had reason to wonder whether he had blown it.

Eventually, “Saturday Night Live” would put Crystal back into the limelight’s full glare--after four years of playing Jodie, the first avowedly gay character on network TV, in the spoofy serial “Soap”; after his own abortive attempt at a network series with “The Billy Crystal Comedy Hour” in 1984; after a disastrous first feature film, playing an improbably pregnant man in the Joan Rivers-directed “Rabbit Test.” Crystal joined a born-again “Saturday Night Live” for its ’84-85 season, and his “Mahvelous!” impersonation of Fernando, the seedily Continental Latin lounge lizard, became a household punch line.

Now that many of the original “SNL” alumni are trapped in cookie-cutter comedies, Crystal, 41, does not seem unhappy that his own career took a slower, and possibly more rewarding, route.

“I didn’t feel jealous or anything,” he says. “I felt left out. It was because of getting bumped from the show--and they were all friends of mine. It felt like a blown opportunity even though things were going very well on ‘Soap.’ And now, with this, I don’t feel any sense of ‘Hah, I told you.’ I just feel personal vindication that the work is good.”

That the part of Harry Burns has afforded him such an opportunity is less a tribute to Reiner’s foresight (the part was not specifically written for Crystal) than it is a measure of the psychic connection between the two collaborators.

And for that connection, producer Norman Lear, who first cast Crystal as Rob Reiner’s best friend in an episode of “All in the Family,” deserves the credit. Crystal vividly remembers first meeting Reiner, who proved far cannier than the lumbering “Meathead” he played on TV.

“I was on the set,” Crystal remembers. “Rob came out and said, ‘I saw you on the Cosell show (Howard Cosell’s variety series). It was good.’ And I was nervous. I said a stupid word, ‘Yeah, it was friendly.’ The whole rest of the day, I kept thinking what a stupid thing to say. But that week, you could see then that Rob was clearly the smartest one at the table. He would rewrite, and you could see he was really good at it.”

It wasn’t until about seven or eight years ago, however, that the two realized how deeply attuned they were.

“We were sitting at my house talking about when we get depressed how it manifests itself physically,” Crystal recalls.

Reiner admitted to headaches that felt like rubber bands across his eyes. Crystal likened his to “The Buddy Rich band tuning up at the back of my neck.” Suddenly, the two were in hysterics. “It was two guys talking to each other like I don’t think guys talk to each other,” Crystal says.

Eventually, they refined their communication to the point that Reiner only had to say “Rubber bands” or Crystal “Buddy Rich” and either would know the other was in trouble.

“Comedy might have been the initial thing that drew us together,” Reiner says of their particular brand of male bonding, “but now there is so much more going on, it is almost like the comedy is almost secondary now, it really takes a tremendous back seat.”

The late night split-screen telephone conversations that Harry and Sally share in the film as they compare notes on “Casablanca” were actually drawn from Reiner and Crystal’s own habit of comparing notes by phone as they watch TV.

“Rob and I are like Spin and Marty,” Crystal says with a laugh. “If we lived next door to each other, we’d be connected with two paper cups and a string.”

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Crystal admits that he experienced an extra measure of anxiety when Reiner would tell him of his progress on the early drafts of “When Harry Met Sally. . . . “

The project, which matured over four years, had grown out of a let’s-all-do-lunch meeting between Reiner, producer Andrew Scheinman and writer Nora Ephron. During the requisite small talk, Ephron began interviewing the two men about their troubles as single men. Following his divorce from fellow sitcom-star-turned-director Penny Marshall, Reiner wasn’t at all thrilled by his re-entry into the single scene. So he threw out one of his pet theories: “Men and women can be best friends, but (only with) some sort of sexual something or other being thrown into the mix. The sexuality is always out there--it’s either acted upon or not acted upon. If it’s not acted upon, one or the other or both will find someone else that they can be sexually involved with, and once they are, the friendship will eventually decay.”

Ephron, a longtime observer of the battle of the sexes, was inclined to agree, and she began fashioning a screenplay while Reiner was busy filming “The Princess Bride.” It was only several drafts later--with Ephron having mined so many of Reiner’s true-life confessions that the director could claim the movie was autobiographical in spirit if not in fact--that the collaborators turned to the matter of casting.

Impressed by Reiner’s own script readings, Ephron says, “I went through almost the entire casting process praying that Rob would come to his senses and play the part.”

But the balding Reiner had no interest in playing the young Harry. For a while, he was leaning toward Richard Dreyfuss, an old high school pal, but Dreyfuss argued for script changes showing other aspects of Harry’s life, at which Reiner balked. Eventually, after considering a long list of actors, he finally made the call to Crystal.

“In the back of my mind I had been wondering why isn’t he talking to me about this thing. Inside I was dying a little bit,” Crystal confesses. “Then one night he called. It was almost like he had been cheating on his wife or something. He said, ‘I had to see everybody, I had to go through the process just to make sure you’re the perfect guy.’ I said, ‘I haven’t read it yet. What if I don’t like it?’ He said, ‘I guarantee you’ll like it. You’ll hear your voice in it.’

“The script was already on its way, so I read it, and it was the first time I said yes to anything without conferring with agents or managers. I could see me having a field day with this guy.”

Still, final revisions proved delicate.

“I had to get Rob out and move me into Harry, and that’s difficult when you’re playing things that happened to somebody,” Crystal says.

The grape business, for example, developed during rehearsals. Crystal also suggested he speak in a patented funny voice, borrowed from a bartender he once knew, in the Temple of Dendur sequence. And he urged Reiner and Ephron to include a scene where Harry encounters his ex-wife.

Harry’s troubled admission that his wife has left him, which takes place while he and his buddy, played by Bruno Kirby, are sitting at a New York Giants football game--an admission that is incongruously interrupted by a human wave--came out of an old idea Crystal and Reiner had about two men having a serious conversation in the midst of a ball game.

“I got the idea at Dodger Stadium,” says Crystal, “so when the script came around, we said, ‘Boy, let’s put this speech in the wave.’ Rob and I have always talked about the most depressing stuff while we’re doing something else.”

“Billy always can be counted on to stick a line in, and there’s a certain amount of that that worked very well for us,” confirms Ephron. “But the essential script didn’t really change.”

Confronted with the Reiner-Crystal juggernaut, Meg Ryan could easily have found herself odd woman out when filming finally began. But, she says, “If they ever thought they intimidated me, it would shock them. But their stature in the comedy world is awesome, so that was intimidating. They were very conscientious about making sure I felt OK, because it was very much like a pre-fab relationship that I’d come into. Usually, everyone comes in and negotiates their respective positions on a movie. That didn’t happen on this one.”’

“There were times for her it was hard in the beginning,” Crystal himself suggests. “But we’re really open people. Meg, we just opened our arms to.”

In fact, it was Crystal who had reason to maintain his own distance from Reiner. Married 19 years, he felt he had to work to capture the emotional fallout of Harry’s divorce. During filming, “I didn’t live in the same hotel as Rob,” he says. “I chose to live alone. Got every sad Frank Sinatra record I could. Didn’t call home as much. And when I did call people, I’d call Meg or spend a lot of time with Bruno. So I don’t know if I lived the part, but there were parts of it I had to feel that way.”

Lending his imprimatur to the finished film, Norman Lear, Reiner’s creative mentor, proclaimed: “For me, Rob has drawn John Garfield out of Billy Crystal. Billy makes the first transition I’ve ever seen from a stand-up comedian to a leading man. We’ve seen stand-up comic to actor, but never stand-up comic to leading man. And it’s Rob’s push to go that extra step that makes that happen.”

Crystal isn’t waiting to gauge the public reaction to “When Harry Met Sally. . . .” This week, he’s off to the Soviet Union to explore his family’s own roots and, in the process, film an HBO special, “Midnight Train to Moscow,” for airing in October.

“I’m sort of the Ugly American in this,” he promises. “It’s sort of a comic’s eye view of what’s happening in Russia now. I’m not pulling any punches. What’s good about Russia I’ll say is good, and what’s bad I’m going to talk about. I think it’ll look like what would happen if Marvin Kalb freaked out in Red Square.” He bursts into laughter at the thought.

Beyond that, nothing is definite, but Crystal expects to set up shop at Reiner’s Castle Rock when he returns. One project on the drawing board is a screen biography of his favorite among the characters he has created--the aging comic, Buddy Young Jr. And eventually, after he acts in two or three more films, he wants to direct “Here Comes Mr. Sleep,” an autobiographical screenplay dealing with his father’s death when Crystal was 15.

When asked if that means he intends to get more overtly serious, Crystal demurs. He doesn’t rule out straight dramatic roles, but he says he would hate to give up the thrill that overtakes him when a daring comic riff pays off.

As he puts it, “I really like sitting in a movie theater and being able to put your arm up and do that victory sign.”


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