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Can One Movie Contain These Two?

Robin Williams and Billy Crystal, friends and foils for years, share top billing for the first time in 'Fathers' Day,' playing a loser and lawyer. Take a guess which one is which.

May 08, 1997|JOHN CLARK | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — Robin Williams and Billy Crystal, Nos. 1 and 23, respectively, on Entertainment Weekly's recent ranking of the funniest comedians working today, are seated in a hotel room in midtown Manhattan. It's hard to believe that they are that far apart in the ranking.

Williams, 45, is well-known for his manic improvisations. Crystal, 49, is more structured but no less fast on his feet. Williams is hot off "The Birdcage" and "Jack." Crystal, of course, recently made a celebrated return as host of the Oscars. Together, they've appeared with Whoopi Goldberg as emcees of a series of benefits called Comic Relief. Because of these appearances and their long friendship and their shared love of the same comic traditions, they often finish each other's sentences.

Here they talk about their relationship and "Fathers' Day," the first movie in which they've shared top billing (both appeared last year in Kenneth Branagh's "Hamlet"). The movie, which opens Friday in general release, is an adaptation of a French film called "Les Comperes," about a lawyer (Crystal) and a loser (Williams) who believe they have fathered the same child.

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Question: Do you get nervous for Billy on the Oscars?

Williams: Yeah, but this year he kicked. I left him a message saying, "You kicked, Daddy." They keep saying, "Why don't you host the Oscars?" I say, "Look at me." I can imagine me doing the Oscars and then Gregory Peck saying, "You grabbed your crotch, boy. You don't need to grab your genitals in front of the world. Don't bring out the puppet."

Crystal: When I was debating whether to do it, we would talk and I would say, "Should I do it?" And he was encouraging. He said, "If you feel you can kick, it may be time to go back."

Williams: But you came out and after that opening thing--it was the best opening they've ever had because it made fun of everything. When you made fun of "The English Patient" right off the bat, you don't come in and go, "Ladies and gentlemen, Jack Valenti."

Crystal: It was a great way to take the stage without taking the stage. We matched the lens sizes [on "The English Patient"] and everything. The lighting across my face. It was the Warren Beatty-on-"Larry King" lighting.

Q: How far back do you guys go? I understand that Robin was on Billy's TV show ["The Billy Crystal Comedy Hour"].

Crystal: Yes, he was. It was 1980, 1981. We did the punk Honeymooners. But we'd met in 1977 when I was doing "Soap" and he was about to do "Mork & Mindy." We did a benefit in San Francisco together. It was the first time I'd seen him perform live and he for me. I did a very quiet little piece about this old black jazz musician I knew as a kid, called Face. And he came out with these make-believe bloodhounds, went through the audience and was wild.

Q: You remember bits from 20 years ago?

Williams: Yeah, they were kind of significant because it was the first good review I ever got. It was also the first time I'd ever played in front of that many people. Over the years it's been a friendship that's grown--the Comic Reliefs have helped--but it's just from hanging out more and more as we get older.

Crystal: We were on vacation together in Hawaii. People go out and play tennis. We'd put on the TV and turn the sound off and do the lines. [Williams starts melodramatically reciting dialogue from what sounds like a Spanish soap opera.]

Q: What did your wives do when you did that?

Crystal: "There they go again." But when we started doing Comic Relief together almost 10 years ago, the stuff we did onstage was always phenomenally. . . .

Williams: When we were finished it was like "Wow." For me it was cheaper than Prozac. It was this amazing exhilaration. Especially the last one.

Crystal: And it developed a persona for us, which was bad boy and daddy.

Williams: Sounds like a number you call. 976-DADDY.

Crystal [laughs]: It developed a Dean and Jerry, whatever you want to call it. It became a way of working with each other that got to be tremendous fun. He'll just go and then he'll look at me and say, "Dad, have I been bad?" "Yes."

Williams: And then with this movie, how do you find that place where you can get that dynamic? I think these characters approach that and stay within the boundaries of human behavior, where he's the center and I'll fly off and he reacts off of that. It's that kind of physics.

Q: Weren't you trying to write a script of your own?

Williams: Years ago we had--what was that one that guy sent about two cops who founded their own religion? Forget about it. The Church of Me. Forget Scientology. I don't know why I'm talking in a Chicago accent. What is that about?

Crystal: A lot of years had gone by and I had changed agencies, and when I went to CAA they said, "Have you ever seen this movie, 'Les Comperes'?" I said I'd heard about it, I hadn't seen it. I watched it that night, and I said this could be great for us. I called Robin and sent it up and he loved it. They were very good characters for us. It was sort of what we had been doing.

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