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You Laughin’ at Me?

John Clark is a regular contributor to Calendar

Billy Crystal and Robert De Niro might seem as if they’re worlds apart, but they show up to do an interview on a snowy February day in New York wearing almost exactly the same attire: dark green corduroys, black/gray shirts. They look at each other and laugh, appalled. They’re to appear in a few hours on “The Rosie O’Donnell Show” to promote their new movie, “Analyze This.”

Crystal: I’ve got to change.

De Niro: You brought something else?

Crystal: Yeah.

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De Niro: What are you going to wear?

Crystal: A black suit.

De Niro: Yeah?

Crystal: Yeah. I thought I’d look like Johnny Ola.

De Niro: Who’s that guy?

Crystal: He was in “Godfather II.” He was the guy down in Cuba.

De Niro: Right. You’re not going to wear that pinstripe number you had yesterday?

Crystal: No, it’s a very tasteful black suit with a black T-shirt. I’m going all black.

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De Niro: Oh, boy.

Welcome to the Billy and Bobby show, soon to be playing at a theater near you.

In “Analyze This,” Crystal plays a suburban New York psychiatrist with an overbearing father, a boring practice and a nervous fiancee (played by Lisa Kudrow) living in Florida. De Niro is a mob boss who is in the midst of preparing for a big Mafioso meeting when he starts having panic attacks. He enlists Crystal’s more or less unwilling aid to resolve his “issues.” Laughs ensue.

The Warner Bros. film, directed by Harold Ramis, opens Friday. Comedy is a genre that Crystal, 51, obviously knows well. He’s been a stand-up comedian, a player on “Saturday Night Live,” a comic actor (“When Harry Met Sally . . . ,” “City Slickers”), a heralded Oscar emcee (though not this year), a comedy co-host (Comic Relief).

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De Niro, 56, might seem like the one making the stretch here, but he’s often toyed with his tough-guy image, or at least subtly undermined it, in such films as “Mean Streets,” “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull.” He’s done a number of comic films--"The King of Comedy,” “Midnight Run,” “Wag the Dog” among others--though he’s primarily known as a dramatic actor.

Off-screen, each of them has a role: Crystal is the chatty, funny one. De Niro keeps his own counsel. They have an easy, semi-hard-boiled rapport--after all, they’re both New Yorkers--which comes across on-screen as well as in real life. De Niro nods a lot while Crystal talks, like a member of the chorus who’s mouthing the words but not actually singing.

Question (to De Niro): You’re not used to doing press, are you?

De Niro: I know how to do it. Part of me thinks it doesn’t really matter very much.

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Q: Did you do press junkets on the Martin Scorsese movies?

De Niro: Foreign [press] on “Raging Bull.”

Crystal: The “Taxi Driver” junket I heard was good. Souvenir mohawks, the gun that flew into your hand and the “you talking to me?” doll.

Q: I understand you didn’t want “Analyze This” to be a parody.

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Crystal: Yeah, the tone of the comedy had to be right so it felt real. It made it funnier that way. Couldn’t go too far on either side. It’s an interesting line this movie has to and does straddle.

Q: You didn’t want a bunch of one-liners?

Crystal: No. It never was that. When you’re dealing with the therapy stuff, it had to have a good story, it had to make sense for him [De Niro’s character] to have problems, and it had to pay off that way. So I had to find something to solve.

That’s hard to do if you’re doing a “Police Academy” approach, which didn’t interest us at all.

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Q: What sort of pathology do those wiseguys have?

Crystal: Why are you looking at me?

De Niro: Anything’s possible.

Crystal: I think that’s what’s fun about the movie too. Everyone has parents, everybody comes from something. You don’t just suddenly wake up with a gun in your hand.

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Q: Have you been approached with this kind of story before?

De Niro: No, I haven’t. I had an idea about something once--it was about two guys going into each other’s worlds. Not necessarily a psychiatrist but like a Mafia guy and so on. It was just an idea. I never really went far with it. . . . But this [script] came. Billy had it a couple of years before he sent it to me.

Crystal: [Producer] Paula [Weinstein] sent it to me five years ago. It was the day [her husband and partner] Mark [Rosenberg] died. It was in turnaround. . . . Kenny Lonergan wrote the first draft. What was always great was the premise. And then I tried to get her to bring it over to Castle Rock, and she said, “Well, let’s do it together.”

So we started working on it. A couple of writers did passes that weren’t right. And then Peter [Tolan] came up, who had worked with me on a show that I had written and produced on HBO called “Sessions,” which was a psychiatrist show. And so Peter and I worked on a draft. And that’s the one that I sent to Bob. We had a reading of it at [Creative Artist’s Agency] with an audience, and we cast it pretty well. [De Niro] said, “All right, there’s something here, let’s keep working on it.”

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We talked about directing it ourselves together. I don’t know if we’d be friends today.

De Niro: It’s a risk in terms of getting into it. Because I was concerned about whoever would direct would try to make it more jokey and not really understand certain things. I was trying to get Marty Scorsese to do it, and Marty had other things. I don’t know whether he was sure he wanted to do it.

But luckily we found Harold [Ramis], and Harold wanted to do it and was able to pull it all together. . . . We’d talk, how about this, how about that--a writer would come in with another idea. I was concerned that we would really maximize it and get the best [script]--the situation was a good one, but hopefully we haven’t missed anything.

Q: Was this a case of having too many ideas?

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De Niro: Yeah.

Crystal: It finally needed a voice. It needed someone to go, “Here’s what I think it is, and this is what I’m going to do.” And Harold did a pass and we liked the form of it and then that changed. Right before shooting, I was very squirrelly about it. It just didn’t come out right for me and for the character. So we took 10 days and wrote 50-something pages. Brought back Peter, Harold and me. And actually Barry Levinson came in. We had a bunch of ideas about how to change it.

We sat around and came up with [this]. I wasn’t married, I was going to Miami to get married, [De Niro] follows me. Then it felt great.

Q: So the part of your fiancee underwent transformations?

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Crystal: Yeah. We were already shooting, and I flew back to California to read with actresses. We couldn’t find the right person.

De Niro: He wanted RuPaul, and I said, “You’re going too far, you know?”

Crystal: It’s another way to go. . . . I flew out, and Lisa [Kudrow] walked in. She’s a terrific actress. She had read it before, and she said, “Oh, God, [now] I’m your fiancee.”

Q: She had read it when the character was your wife, right?

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Crystal: Then she had a baby. She had given birth in real life 10 days before. I met her on a Saturday. This is at Harold’s office at Fox. And on Thursday she was in New York shooting with a baby, doing whatever you have to do with a baby.

Q (to De Niro): Was there more of your family in it originally?

De Niro: Yeah.

Crystal: [There was] one scene where I came over to his apartment and he introduced me to the kids.

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De Niro: Kid beat him up.

Crystal: It was a flesh wound. [He] tried to whack me.

Q: Was there a lot of stuff that ended up on the cutting-room floor?

Crystal: Tons of funny stuff. A couple of the therapy moments that were really funny.

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Q: Did the therapy sessions go on too long? That must have been a temptation.

Crystal: They weren’t too long. There were just so many of them. There’s only one that I miss, the one on the beach.

De Niro: Yeah. How much of it was cut?

Crystal: All of it.

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De Niro: The whole scene was cut?

Crystal: It’s left with just the walk and talk about “I thought I was going to have [a panic attack].”

There was a scene where I had to draw a house in the sand. We kept thinking of Art Carney and Jackie Gleason. I started taking so much time drawing this thing. And then I put in a satellite dish. He [De Niro] would just stare at me because it should take 10 seconds. [He asked], “Where are the people?” “Well, they’re all in the Witness Protection Program. They’d come out and say hello, but it’s very sad.” It was a good joke, but it just took too long. That happens. We had a lot of fun finding those moments. Those Rorschachs [that were later cut] were funny too--[mimics De Niro: “That looks like the Goldenberg boys when we threw them off the cliff.”]

Q: Did Bob give you any acting tips?

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De Niro: What’s your motivation? What’s your intention? What’s your action?

Crystal: You help each other. We’re partners. He’s tremendously open to what else we can do here. When that happens with whoever you work with it’s great because good things can happen, but when it comes from him, it just made everyone feel great.

What was terrific about working with him is that he’s so fast and stuff comes at you so quickly and it’s always so different. That’s the lesson. And I have to listen to him and react like a therapist would.

Q: What about Billy?

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De Niro: Billy was helpful. Sometimes I would do something and say, “Well, what do you think?” Because maybe he would have a feeling about something and I wasn’t sure maybe.

Q: What about De Niro’s character, this whole thing with his father? Was that there all along?

Crystal: They both had problems that were similar in some ways, and they both had to help each other and uncover stuff. It made it more interesting. And then that changed. Everything kept changing. It was good that that’s not hammered at, that Vitti [De Niro’s character] is streetwise and smart. He says, “Oh, you’ve got problems with your father.” That’s one of my favorite moments.

We switch roles. It used to be much heavier. It was cut back. It was getting too much like the wrong kind of movie. . . . Scenes like “Dad, let me be, I’m a doctor, damn it!” All that stuff came out.

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De Niro: That’s when I started with my English accent.

Crystal: Hilarious. We’re rehearsing, and he’s got a very strong b.s. factor. When he smells it, it’s “Get out of here, that’s it, it’s over.” So in this scene he starts talking in an English accent. It was the scene where I break him down in the junkyard. It just made the words look so stupid. Instead of “I hate these words, what is this crap, don’t write this,” he would just go, “Oh, yes, my faaaaather” --he did it for hours. It was just so funny.

Q (to De Niro): That was your way of saying this stuff is lousy?

De Niro: It was. It was a little tendentious, to say the least. So I was trying to illustrate how to deal with this.

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Crystal: How am I going to act in this scene? He won’t say these words. So how do we trim it? How do we get it so he won’t do that accent? God, it was funny. Suddenly I’m looking at Paul Scofield. He was laughing so hard. Harold’s got a pencil in his hands rewriting these lines, thinking, “What does he want to do here?”

Q: What have you guys got coming up

De Niro: Well, I did a movie called “Flawless” with Joel Schumacher. I’m doing “Rocky and Bullwinkle,” playing a cameo in that.

Q: Who are you playing?

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De Niro: Fearless Leader.

Crystal: I just love hearing you say, “I’m doing ‘Rocky and Bullwinkle.’ I hope to do ‘Felix the Cat.’ ”

De Niro: That’ll be next.

Crystal: I’m writing a one-man play now to hopefully bring here [to New York] in another year. Multi-character. I love being here. It’s time to come back. This city is the best, working on a good thing, Yankees were amazing. And it’s my own. It’s just better here.

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Q: Well, I guess I’ve tortured you guys long enough.

De Niro: You have, huh?

Q: See, you do enjoy this process.

De Niro: Oh my God, yeah.

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Crystal: I thought you were a jabber-mouth today.

De Niro: Blah blah blah blah . . . .


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