For years we've seen him impersonating others. We've seen him presiding over the Oscars and stealing scenes in a string of Hollywood hits like "City Slickers" and "Analyze This." But now actor Billy Crystal is taking on a far more ambitious role. He's playing himself.
Crystal wrote and is starring in a one-man show on Broadway called "700 Sundays."
Lauer: "How long have you been working on this show?"
Crystal: "Since 1948."
Lauer: "Technically, yes."
Crystal: "I mean it."
It's two hours of pure autobiography, part comedy, part nostalgia, part therapy session. And it's taken Crystal a lifetime to find the courage to perform it.
Crystal: "I said I don't know if I'm ready to do this. I'm a little afraid of it. It's very personal."
But to see him on stage, Crystal appears more than ready to tell about his childhood, the family members he loved and the ones he lost. He calls the play "700 Sundays" because Sunday was his father's only day off. He calculates they had just 700 together before his father died. Crystal was only 15.
Crystal on stage: "700 Sundays with him. Not a lot of time for a kid to have with his dad. Sunday number one: I'm born. And they tell me it was a rather difficult birth. Keep pushing Helen, the baby's starting to come now. That's it Helen. You know what Helen, we're going to need forceps on this. Oh my God I saw the forceps coming towards me. I said, you know what, maybe this is just a bad time, I'll come back in a little while.'"
Crystal has unearthed priceless home movies and old photos to help paint the picture of his early years with his parents, two older brothers and his extended family in his Long Island neighborhood.
Lauer: "Two things become immediately apparent when you look at the footage and the stills. One, you were an incredibly skinny kid. I mean there was one picture of you with your ribcage."
Crystal:" Oh no, but I sucked, I sucked it in."
Lauer: "I knew you suck it in. But, it's like you can see the spaghetti O's in your stomach. I mean, it's just-- it's unbelievable. The other thing that strikes me immediately is, you were an incredible ham at a young age. All kids ham for a camera. But, you were a little performer."
Crystal: "Yeah. I was always on."
Crystal on stage: "First time I ever performed. I was five years old, tap dancing. But I could only tap dance with my right leg. I took lessons later for my left leg.”
Lauer: "Just the right leg. Did you realize it at the time?"
Lauer: "You thought you could tap dance with both legs."
Crystal: "I thought I was just doing it. I didn't know what I was doing. I just was doing it."
Crystal enjoys laughing at himself, but seems to relish even more using the play to showcase his deep affection for his relatives, like Aunt Sheila.
In one section, Sheila is telling a friend that her lesbian daughter has just married another woman. During the course of the one-sided conversation it becomes clear that Aunt Sheila has come to accept her daughter's choice.
Crystal on stage: "Oh, It was one of the greatest weddings of all time. I'm telling you we were on cloud 12. You could see nine from there. It was fantastic. What do you mean, does it count? Of course it counts. The wedding counts. No. She said I love you. She said I love you. They had cake and they kissed. It's a wedding!"
Crystal: "Sheila's heroic because she dealt with the fact of her daughter's not who she wanted her to be or you think that she's going to be. But she comes through it in flying colors. And she goes and embraces her."
One footnote about Aunt Sheila. She's actually a composite of a few real aunts.
Crystal: "That's me as her. People don't realize that's me up there as her."
But Crystal's biggest heroes were his parents. His father Jack produced jazz concerts and managed a family-owned record store called the Commodore Music Shop in New York City.
Lauer: "Did you idolize your dad?"
Crystal: "Oh yeah. Still do because he was a very fair man. So socially conscious of integrating the bands. You know, at my bar mitzvah there were more black people there than there were Jewish people at times."
The jazz musicians in Crystal's father's world became a kind of extended family for Billy. Passover with Louis Armstrong, his first trip to the movies with Billie Holiday. And he became the little boy they called face.
Lauer: "Why'd they call you face?"
Crystal: "They couldn't remember my name."
Lauer: "But they knew your face."
When young Billy ventured into the city with his father, he took him through the majestic Grand Central Station, a seemingly simple act that still resonates with Crystal today.
Crystal: "It was such a great idea. And so unexpected. It was, where are you talking me? And then up into this huge building. And I remember we came right up here, and he said, take a look at that. And we just sat down and we didn't say much. Except looked at the stars. As I think about it now, that he would come here, maybe, alone, and eat lunch under the stars. What was he thinking? What moved him about it? I'm sort of speechless now looking at it, because it's so beautiful."
These days New Yorkers are gazing up at a different star -- on Broadway.
Lauer: "I guess what I want to know is, what does it feel like, first of all, to turn around and see him?"
Crystal: "So crazy."
Lauer: "And then you get ‘Billy Crystal 700 Sundays.’ If you duck down here you get ‘Phantom of the Opera.’”
Crystal: "’The Producers.’ ‘Sardi's.’ And we're here, it's wild."
"700 Sundays" is Crystal's Broadway debut but it turns out he does have a bit of history at the theater just across the street. That's where Merv Griffin used to tape his TV show and Crystal was an occasional audience member.
Crystal: "I would sit there, and when it was quiet, during the tapings, I would go like this: ‘ahem.’ Taping would end. I'd then take the train home. Merv Griffin would come on at 10 o'clock. I'd sit there, and I'd watch the show, and when it was quiet, you'd hear, ‘ahem.’ That was the first time I was on television."
Lauer: "It's not an Emmy moment but, you know what, you remember it.”
Crystal: "Yeah. I you don't get one going, 'Thank you everybody for -- ahem. ’That was me. And whoever wrote ‘ahem,’ thank you so much.'"
But everything changed in Crystal's charmed childhood on an October night in 1963. His high school girlfriend had dumped him, he was having terrible trouble studying and his father read him the riot act.
Crystal: "He really lit into me about responsibility. About don't let this ruin your life. What are you doing for this girl? There's going to be other girls. Look at you."
Lauer: "What did you say to him? You said something like...."
Crystal: "'What the hell do you know?' And he just looked at me like. And he just gently said, 'Don't talk to me like that.' And, he said 'please' at the end of it."
It was a fight that would haunt Crystal. That night at a bowling alley his father had a massive heart attack and died at the age of 54.
Crystal: "There was a part of me that said, 'did I make this happen?'"
Lauer: "You tell a story that was so hard for me to listen to about your next door neighbor hears your mom crying."
Crystal: "Ceil Weinstein."
Lauer: "And she yells through the bushes."
Crystal on stage: "He had a heart attack tonight. He's gone Ceil. Jack died. 'Oh no. Helen. No! Who's going to take Billy to the ball games?'"
Lauer: You heard her say that?
Crystal: "Oh, you couldn't help but hear Ceil."
Lauer: "Who's going to take Billy to the ballgames?"
Crystal: "First thing she thought of. You know."
Lauer: "Fifteen years old. Your dad's gone. This is the guy who took you to the ballgames. Went to see the first Yankee game with him."
Lauer: "You then say in the show that the day your dad passed away, your mom became your greatest hero."
Crystal: "She was 50 years old. We had nothing."
But Crystal and his mother did have each other. Helen Crystal knew she'd have to get a job in order to send her youngest son to college. So she commuted two hours round trip to secretarial school. Billy would have dinner waiting for her when she returned.
Lauer: "Did she complain?"
Fast forward some 30 years. Crystal's mother has had a stroke. He talks with her from across the country.
Crystal on stage: "Mom listen, I can't get out of something tomorrow. But I'm flying back the next day and I'll be there and we'll all be together again. And she stopped me once again and simply said, darling, don't worry I'll see you when I see you. And that's the last time we spoke."
Lauer: "That was a powerful moment in the show. You talk about when your Mom died and you say, 'I was an orphan.' Most people don't put it that way. I mean, you think of an orphan being eight."
Lauer: "Or 11, you know, not 53."
Lauer: "We're supposed to, I think, get over the death of our parents, you know. It's kind of God's plan. And yet, it's been very hard for you. And I'm just curious why you think that is?"
Crystal: "I guess because I was so attached to them. As I say in the show, I was 15 the first time, 53 the second and the tears taste the same. Yeah, it was hard, I think, because I loved them so much."
Towards the end of his very personal play Crystal finds a way to make peace with his grief and with the guilt he felt having argued with his dad just before he died. In a recurring dream the Grand Central Station of his childhood memories has become a metaphor for heaven where Billy is reunited with his father.
Crystal: "And I come in up the same route that I took when I was a kid. Except the room is all filled with men dressed like my father. That's the way I remember him, in a white shirt, sleeves rolled up. Collar loose, knit tie hanging. And they're all fathers waiting for their sons. And the stars are all real. "
Crystal on stage: "And I see him. And he looks great. He looks healthy. He doesn't look worried. He doesn't look upset. And he doesn't look mad."
Crystal: "He doesn't look mad."
Lauer: "And isn't that important?"
Crystal: "It's so freeing. And we walk to each other, there's plenty of time. And I just say hello and I smile proudly. This is who I am, Pop. And then he just simply says 'Did you eat?' And we're right back into our life again."