I Just Snubbed Billy Crystal
In 1994 I received an exciting phone call. Not just ordinary exciting. I’m talking premium, yee-haw, yeah baby exciting. Would I like to meet Billy Crystal? Hmmm, let me think about that. Would I like to meet one of my all time idols and one of the greatest comic performers in the history of our floating blue planet. I’m going to give you a full caps YES on that one!
Billy was visiting Sydney as part of a publicity tour to promote the film City Slickers II. I considered the movie a disappointing sequel to the brilliant original and I also considered this opinion something I would be keeping to myself when I met Billy. I had things more important to discuss with a man I truly admired.
I arrived at the exclusive nightclub venue, brimming with nervous excitement and anticipation. I couldn’t wait to talk comedy with Billy Crystal. Yes, he has acted in some of the most successful comedy movies of all time but he is also a consummate comedic practitioner whose skillful stand up and impersonations speak to an exceptional talent.
By this time I had spent most of the last twenty-four hours imagining in detail how much Billy would appreciate my comprehensive knowledge of his fine work as a live performer. How relieved and happy he would be to talk to a comedy comrade who knew him for more than just the obvious. We would bond, and this bond would surely lead to an enduring friendship.
“Anthony, the word is that you and Billy really hit it off. Any plans to work together?”
“Well, we’re talking about some projects.”
“Would this be a movie, TV special?”
“Can’t say too much at the moment but watch this space”.
I am standing at the bar nursing a non-alcoholic drink (I want to be clear for the upcoming conversation - crystal clear) when the room suddenly blazes with the lightning of camera flashes. Billy is in the house and that famous smile is exuding a warmth which while authentic seems to conceal the tiredness of a man who has just done a full day’s worth of interviews.
It’s only a few minutes after Billy is settled at a table with his wife and a group of publicity people that I get the tap. I am ushered over to Billy’s table and introduced as one of Australia’s top comics as a sea of photographers capture a moment that is clearly destined to be historic.
Billy is very friendly and seems genuinely interested in meeting a fellow comedian. I shun such tacky conversational gambits as “it must be amazing to compere the Academy Awards” or “that Meg Ryan is so hot but I don’t need to tell you that, right” and hit BC with “I really loved Midnight Train To Moscow.”
I do indeed adore Billy’s 1989 documentary about his journey to Russia to rediscover his ancestral roots while performing stand up comedy for Russian audiences. I had watched it many times and delighted in Billy’s superbly structured routines full of nuanced characterisations that conquered any language barrier.
This is just as I had imagined. I am talking comedy with Billy Crystal. Billy is asking me how I develop new material for my stand up act. My larynx is producing sounds that seem to be an appropriate response to this question as my brain produces visions of City Slickers III starring Billy Crystal, Bruno Kirby, Daniel Stern and…Hollywood newcomer…Anthony Ackroyd!
I see Billy and I on set being interviewed by the perky blond anchor of a fast-paced entertainment show. Billy and I poke fun at each other with affectionate familiarity.
“Actually, Billy and I met when he asked my advice on comedy, which as we know is not his specialty,” I deadpan.
“That’s right,” says Billy, playing along with my riff, “I turned to Anthony in a bar in Sydney one night. What can I tell you, it gets lonely on the road.”
But then, this.
“Hello Anthony, how are you?”
Who asks this question? It is the voice of one man of a group of two men who have walked over and interrupted my conversation with Billy Crystal. I don’t recognise these guys and my mind is searching for solutions as to who the hell they are and why they are talking to me while I’m clearly talking to an international comedy superstar. I’m thinking that they are maybe minders who have come to move me on so Billy can then chat with someone else.
But no. The guys keep attempting to make conversation with me.
“Are you going to do any new television stuff this year?”
My assumption now is that these two guys are not connected to Billy but are talking to me so they can be introduced by me to him. That makes sense. So that is what I do.
“Have you met Billy, guys?”
“Oh hi Billy. So what have you got in the pipeline, Anthony?”
What the…? This is of course the point where I should have said something like, ‘I’ll be with you in a minute. I’m just in the middle of a conversation…with bloody Billy Crystal!’ But I don’t say that because I can’t work out why these two keep asking me questions when they now have the opportunity to talk to the star of When Harry Met Sally. My mind is thoroughly discombobulated.
And then it happens. As I’m answering one of the questions posed by my new pals my peripheral vision registers something horrible. Billy, who in my confusion I have been ignoring for the last five minutes, turns away from me with an ever so slightly annoyed expression and resumes talking to his group. Oh, ye gods! I just snubbed Billy Crystal!
From Billy's point of view I had clearly indicated that his conversation was not quite scintillating enough to hold my attention. Sorry Billy, you may be a comic genius but I’d rather have a chat with a couple of random blokes I’ve never met before who just wandered over for a chinwag. Full caps NOOOOO!
I finally gather my senses and excuse myself from further questioning by my unknown interlocutors. I gently place my hand on Billy’s shoulder. He turns around and I say how fantastic it was meeting him. But it’s over. He’s in the middle of another conversation. We shake hands. He smiles politely. I wander to the bar. Now it’s time for a serious drink.
Three decades later my neural pathways can still retrieve the surge of mortification I felt when I realised I had accidentally snubbed one of the biggest comedy stars in the known universe. But I also view this debacle with much more equanimity these days. I got to have a lovely chat with one of my heroes who turned out to be as warm and charming as the characters he plays.
And in the end, whether we host the Oscars or not, we all put our undies on one leg at a time (well, at least if we're standing up surely). I just hope Billy doesn't still spend sleepless nights wondering, 'Why did Anthony stop talking to me? What did I do wrong?'
And that's a wrap.
©Anthony Ackroyd 2023
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