Monday, October 25, 2010

Billy Crystal: No More Mr. Nice Guy

By Nicholas Stix

(This article is a follow-up to “Bruno Kirby, Rest in Peace, Pal.”)

August 29, 2006

It was nothing personal, Billy. Strictly business.

A number of folks have discussed my sendoff to Bruno Kirby, specifically the rift between him and Billy Crystal, which wrecked Kirby’s, and severely damaged Crystal’s career. And some, whom I only discovered after publishing my essay, had discussed the rift, as soon as they heard the bad news.

At Hollywood Elsewhere, where Jeffrey Wells was kind enough to post a link to, and discuss my Kirby essay, many anonymous posters, all of whom claimed to be Hollywood insiders, weighed in on Crystal – all negatively.

At the Orlando Sentinel, , entertainment reporter Roger Moore (not to be confused with the eponymous actor) picked up the torch from Wells, linking to me and Wells, asking “Did the guy who ‘made’ Bruno Kirby unmake him?”

Moore wrote, “Here's what I remember about the City Slickers movie junket in New Orleans [15] years ago.

“Bruno Kirby was conspicuous by his absence. Billy Crystal made an effort to avoid chatting about his ‘pal,’ whom he had co-starred with in When Harry Met Sally, and Slickers. And he wasn't even in Slickers II.

“Now, Jeff Wells points out this piece [mine], by a New York muckraker, on the shape of their friendship.”

During or shortly after the making of City Slickers, Kirby and Crystal had a falling out, and not only would Crystal no longer work with Kirby, but neither would any of the many producers and directors associated with Crystal, or even friends of his friends.

“Guy doesn't really make his case that Billy killed Kirby's career. But at least it has traveled from whispers that everybody knew about, to something in print. Not that it matters, now. But you NEVER get a straight answer out of most of these Hollywood people, about anything. Even when they write their memoirs, they gloss over these little feuds, fights, etc.”

Well, what were the “whispers that everybody knew about” about? And if Crystal wasn’t to blame for Kirby’s problems, what or who was? There is nothing, not even “whispers” about drug abuse, alcoholism, insanity or unprofessional behavior on Kirby’s part. And it can’t be that Kirby lost his touch, because he was at the top of his game, when the roof fell in on him, and on the rare occasions when he got roles in major league movie and TV productions, he invariably gave striking performances. (Which isn’t to say that he gave inferior performances in his direct-to-video duds; I haven’t seen those pictures.)

Note for later, however, that Moore strongly suggested that the rift had already occurred by the 1991 release of City Slickers.

At Hollywood Elsewhere on Thursday, Jeffrey Wells wrote,

This article by New York journalist Nicholas Stix (posted on Tuesday and updated today) could have been called “When Billy Shafted Bruno.” It's not mentioned in the lead graph or the second or third graph, but the heart of the story provides indications and quotes supporting a thesis that Billy Crystal “made” the career of the late Bruno Kirby, who died last week, and then he un-made him.

Or so the indicators indicate. Crystal certainly seems to have had an indirect hand in limiting Kirby's acting opportunities and may have been, in a sense, a “career- killing ogre” as far as Kirby was concerned. By all means read Stix's article, but in a nutshell it says the following….

And Wells then gave a thorough, accurate summary of my article, after which his readers commented.


That's a sad story. I wondered what had happened to Bruno (until I saw him on Entourage recently)-- he did seem to just disappear. And Jon Lovitz was NO substitute [in City Slickers II, N.S.], that's for sure….

Posted by: Decker at August 24, 2006 09:54 PM

Years ago during a junket for The Freshman which co-starred Bruno Kirby, I was at film school and working for the Village View, now defunct; I was assigned to interview Bruno Kirby and I can honestly say he was by far the nicest celebrity I ever spoke with. He was warm, gracious, and quick to compliment others (Rob Reiner, Christopher Guest and yes, Billy Crystal among them). He also spoke warmly about his dad, Bruce Kirby and answered questions on a wide range of topics, from the best makeout song to his favorite sports moments.

When the interview concluded, Kirby turned to me and said ‘So do you do anything else?’. I told him I was at film school and he said, ‘Well you should do this for a living because you ask great questions and you know what you're doing. I mean that’. He was sincere and a nice guy and offered me even more encouragement which I never forgot. I was saddened to hear of his passing. As for Billy Crystal, if it's true that he helped sabotage someone's career, let alone a friend's, that is something he'll have to answer for one day...

Posted by: Daviddb at August 24, 2006 10:58 PM

Billy Crystal may have “unmade” Kirby's career but he didn't “make” it.

Kirby was a very talented character actor sicne the days of GODFATHER TWO and appeared in numerous films with great, juicy roles (GOOD MORNING VIETNAM, TIN MEN etc).

I heard this story about Billy Crystal coming to London and demanding that an art gallery open during a sunday cause he wanted to examine pieces.

I never liked Crystal and I never liked his Oscar routines either. He's one of those comics who has an evil form of neurosis that hirts people.

I'm glad Crystal ain't doing that well now either.

Posted by: Spacesheik at August 25, 2006 03:16 AM….

As I've said before, City Slickers is one of my very favorite nostalgia movies, and a pretty damn good movie in its own right.

This makes me sad. I mean, I guess we don't really KNOW what happened between them, so I think judging Crystal is a bit unfair. But I think Kirby always came off as such a good, regular guy that it's natural to feel hostile towards Billy.

Posted by: NYCBusybody at August 25, 2006 06:21 AM….

Kirby was excellent in Donnie Brasco. His dancing was a riot...

Posted by: Merlyn at August 25, 2006 09:02 AM

Hey, it's not like Billy C's career has gone all that great after the City Slicker flicks either. I mean, that guy hasn't said anything funny in 15 years.

Posted by: MASON at August 25, 2006 09:11 AM

Yes, he was great in Donnie BRasco, and his cameo as a singer in Hoffa is terrific and his great in this episode of Homicide:

The Gas Man

Posted by: jcal at August 25, 2006 09:40 AM….

Just saw an episode of the $20,000 Pyramid last nite with Billy Crystal as a celebrity player. Must have been at least 25 years ago. He has more hair now than then. Hmmm .. I wonder how that could be possible?!?!?

But seriously ... Its a shame that Bruno and Billy couldnt make more movies together. They had great chemistry. Obviously, something pretty nasty must have happened to kill their friendship. Then again, in Hollywood, with all those eccentrics running around, it couldve been as simple as Bruno accidentally ate Billy's Corn Beef sandwich by accident.

Posted by: rr3333 at August 25, 2006 12:24 PM

The few times I've run into Crystal he's been uniformly cool (as in not nice). One time I told him how much I had liked MR. SATURDAY NIGHT, a film which did not receive a lot of love either from critics or the public. His response: “Yeah, whatever.” Way to take a compliment, Bill.

Posted by: Cadavra at August 25, 2006 05:36 PM….

I hear ya, Cadavra. Met Crystal at a theater opening of a show I produced. Told him that, like him, I was from Long Island.
He gave me a “I couldn't give a shit look”. Nice.

Posted by: Dixon Steele at August 25, 2006 08:00 PM

I have worked with Billy onscreen and yes he has more hair now than he did then. Those are little sprouts of hair he glues in all over his head. I've seen them sitting in hair and make up. No one is allowed in the trailer when he is having his magic hair attached.

But Billy is mean. Really mean. His MO is that everyone think he is this “great guy” but he is terribly small inside and easily threatened by talent. He has a cruel streak. Very cruel. Deborah Winger quit acting after working with him in Forget Paris. He wants actors to make him look good (because he's not a great actor) but if you outshine him he will edit you to his favor professionally cut you off at the knees.

I really appreciate the truth of him being aired.

Posted by: sister at August 26, 2006 11:23 AM

A skeptical reader might say:

1. Hey, the complaints are all anonymous;

2. Some anonymous posters argued that I was wrong about Kirby’s career gong downhill, in contrast to Crystal’s; and

3. While one said that what I wrote about the rift was “old news,” and was “just being rehashed” because of Bruno’s passing.”

To which I say, in reverse order:

3a. Duh! If Kirby hadn’t died, I wouldn’t have chosen to write about his life, and thus done the research that led me to the rift story. If you’re writing about a great actor whose career suddenly tanked when he was on top of the world, then you’ve got to explain why it tanked. Thus, that story was essential to the article, and was important to anyone who cared about Bruno Kirby, or simply about good reporting. And if everyone knew about the rift, how come I could only find one story about it, from 2001, and an insider wrote to congratulate me on being the first journalist to report on it, since Kirby’s death?

If a rift from 1991 or 1992 is “old news,” then what about When Harry Met Sally (1989), not to mention Good Morning, Vietnam, This is Spinal Tap, going back to The Godfather, Part II? Why talk about Kirby at all? People tend to dismiss reports as “old news,” when they are miffed that they were reported at all.

Thus did the anonymous poster try to turn a positive into a negative.

2a. Those posters obviously did not read my article, or do the comparisons, or they would have seen that although post-Kirby, Billy Crystal made trash, it was trash for which he was very well compensated. Since 1991, Crystal has typically been paid more for a single movie, than Kirby was paid for the entire past fifteen years. And though Crystal is entertaining, Kirby was a much better actor.

1a. Of course, they are all anonymous. If these people really do work in Hollywood, attacking Crystal, even in his present shape, would be career suicide. One must know one’s place. Besides, the posters who attacked me also did so anonymously. But if you check out the comments at Hollywood Elsewhere, you will find that spite of years of Crystal’s efforts with journalists to promote a nice-guy image, no one, not even the posters who put me down, had a single good thing to say about Billy Crystal.

On Saturday, Jeffrey Wells posted a blog about a “Career Chiller Top Ten -- a rundown of the best actors and actresses of the last 15 or 20 years whose careers suddenly stalled for no apparent reason.” Although he never mentioned Bruno Kirby, the idea clearly came from my Bruno Kirby story.

At Jonathan Potts’ blog, The Conversation, there was a discussion about Crystal and Kirby, as soon as the bad news came down (i.e., days before my article appeared). Again, no one had anything nice to say about Billy Crystal. In fact, Sean McDaniel told the two nastiest Crystal-Kirby stories I’ve yet to come across.

don't forget about him in the freshman. he certainly wasn't a leading man, but he always held his own with the big boys. but i never really heard the story behind his bitter falling out with billy crystal. the estrangement also seemed to keep him out of hollywood...and off screen.

i seem to remember him calling crystal a back stabbing rat... considering BC's nearly invulnerable nice guy reputation, the insinuations seemed totally bewildering.

And even better:

according to the internet scuttlebutt, the crystal flap started when kirby offered a tip to BC on the city slickers [set]. supposedly BC told BK not to tell him how to “act” and BK replied... “I was acting before you were an unknown.” who knows it the quote is true. but it's a great one….

A certain Mark Evanier devoted a 926-word article, “Crystal Clear,” in which he never mentioned me by name, or linked to my article, to trying to unman me.

Evanier once made a living writing cartoon movies and TV shows so bad, that with the exception of Scooby Doo and Scrappy Doo, they aren’t even shown on the Crappy Cartoon Channel (aka Boomerang), and even at the nadir of Bruno Kirby’s career, the latter refused to stoop that low.

I mention Evanier’s sordid past, because it seems to be the basis for his setting himself up as the jealous guardian of Hollywood secrets. I have no idea what his current profession is; I only know that it isn’t “journalist.” He has a handsome-looking Web site, an air of omniscience, and is pc with a vengeance, fancying, as he does, that citing New York Times columnist Frank Rich is a sign of erudition.

Against me, Evanier claimed variously (my responses are in brackets):

Ricocheting around the farthest crannies of the Internet at the moment is a “controversy” that strikes me as being based on absolutely nothing. People [that would be me in the plural] who never met Bruno Kirby or his occasional co-star Billy Crystal have taken an unsourced rumor that they had some sort of falling-out and have added a lot of speculation and a great many leaps of logic. The end-product is a theory that Crystal, apparently out of some sort of anger, “destroyed” Bruno Kirby's career. Even if the two men did have some sort of quarrel, that does not lead to the conclusion in articles like this one. (Note if you will that its source is a weblog by someone who has had no contact with Crystal and no inside info, and admits to an “animus” towards him.)

[That’s me, again. Evanier was so unprofessional, not to mention cowardly, that not only did he not name me, but he linked to Jeffrey Wells’ article discussing my article, rather than directly to my article, to make it as cumbersome as possible for readers to find out what a pathetic liar he is.

First of all, the falling out story isn’t an “unsourced rumor,” but a fact. In my original article, I quoted extensively from USA Today reporter Susan Wloszczyna’s (aka Suzie Woz’s) 2001 interview with Crystal, when she asked him about it, and he practically peed his pants. I had revised my article a second time before Evanier attacked it, with material that came from a very solid source supporting the fact that Crystal and Kirby had had a falling out. Not to mention that every Hollywood-watcher but Evanier seemed to know about this falling out; only its exact origin remained murky.]

I would first argue with the premise that Bruno Kirby's career was destroyed. You can look over his Internet Movie Database listing and see that he worked at pretty much the same volume from when he broke into the field in 1971 until his death this year. [What a whopper! Evanier assumed people would be too lazy to hit his link, and do the comparison. He also knew that I had already anticipated and demolished that claim in my original article, which is reason #1,009 that he didn’t link to it or so much as name me.] He was in hits now and then, flops now and then. It looks like a pretty typical career arc to me. One successful film does not automatically earn you another, especially when you're working in supporting roles, playing the best friend….

There's always an enormous crapshoot involved and sometimes, it doesn't go the way you want, or the way you'd wish the system would work. One of the people [me again!] arguing that Crystal sabotaged Kirby's career noted that “Kirby also won acclaim on Broadway, replacing Kevin Spacey as the male Neil Simon's memory play, Lost in Yonkers, which had won four Tony awards. At that point, Kirby's career was on a trajectory that was leading inexorably to Oscar nominations, and perhaps even a golden statuette.”

That's a completely illogical conclusion. First off, even starring Broadway roles often do not lead to anything beyond Broadway...and rarely does a replacement get any notice at all. (I'm not sure why the guy mentioned the show's four Tony awards since they were won long before Kirby was even in the show. By the way, more than a dozen other actors were replacements in that show over its Broadway run and none of them got important movie offers as a result. Lucie Arnaz, who was one of them, won even more acclaim than Kirby. See any good Lucie Arnaz movies lately?) In any case, no one's career leads "inexorably" to Oscar nominations. Which is why the vast majority of talented, working actors go their entire careers without getting one.

[Dumb, dumb, dumb. He’s arguing that acclaim on Broadway (in Lost in Yonkers) following a string of acclaimed performances in some of the most prestigious and successful movies of the time, would not “guarantee” Kirby more work. Kirby was already a big success in pictures; Broadway was merely the icing on the cake!

Right. Big producers must have said to themselves, “This guy is dynamite! Let’s not hire him!”

Evanier’s counter-example of Lucie Arnaz is irrelevant to Kirby’s case, because she was 12 years past her big Broadway success in They’re Playing Our Song, and had never had a successful career in theatrical movies.]

For the sake of argument, let's assume Billy Crystal and Bruno Kirby had some huge fight...and let's really stretch logic and say Crystal had some reason then to want to nuke Kirby's career. Yeah, I know. It doesn't make sense. Crystal's a huge star whose every live appearance sells out and who's begged each year to host the Oscars. In no way is he ever in competition with Bruno Kirby but just play along. Let's pretend Billy decides that Bruno Kirby's career must be terminated.

[As I pointed out in my article, Crystal has only had two successful movies in the past 15 years – City Slickers and Analyze This – and one of them featured Kirby.]

What could he possibly do? I mean, how might that be accomplished?

A successful career is based on a lot of different producers and directors wanting to hire you. You need a lot because there are always some who don't like you. Perhaps Billy Crystal blocked Bruno Kirby being cast in
City Slickers II and subsequent Billy Crystal movies. It was probably within his power to do so...but how could he stop Spielberg from hiring Bruno Kirby? How could he stop Cameron or Howard or...well, name the top fifty directors in the business these days. If one of them decided Bruno Kirby was the best actor for a given role, would that director say, "Let's go with our second choice. I want to help Billy Crystal destroy Bruno's career."?

[According to Evanier, no prospective employer would ever refuse to hire someone based on what a former employer said about him. So, according to Evanier’s “logic,” when you’re out of work, and a prospective employer calls your previous employer, who hates your guts, and tells him you’re a thief and a child molester, the prospective employer will then say to himself, “I’m not going to pay attention to what Joe Shmo’s previous employer said about him. I’m going to hire the guy!”]


And it's all based on speculation about some things we know nothing about. Maybe Kirby wasn't in
City Slickers II because the writers, producers and/or director didn't want him or his character back. Maybe he had a schedule conflict or he held out for an outrageous sum of money. Who knows? Certainly not the folks [That’s me, again!] spreading the Crystal Conspiracy Theory.

* * *

In fact, the producer of City Slickers II didn’t want Kirby back – because the producer was named Billy Crystal! But then, Evanier didn’t even need to look up that fact; I’d already provided it in my article. The director, Paul Weiland, was a Crystal figurehead, whose career was largely limited to “Mr. Bean” TV episodes. As were writers Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, who had also scripted the original City Slickers, and the bomb, Mr. Saturday Night, and would go on to script two more Crystal duds, Forget Paris and Father’s Day.

Looking at the sunny side, Evanier cites me as if I were at least four different writers!

There was a time during the mid-to-late 1990s, when I use to write under three different names, both to protect my teaching career (a lot of good that did!), and to make it seem as if there were multiple men who were experts on things like college remedial education, all of whom were eviscerating it. But usually, someone who wants to make you look bad, portrays you as an isolated crank. So, that’s something to be grateful for.

Again assuming that his readers would be too lazy to examine Crystal’s career, Evanier also misrepresented its post-Kirby trajectory. And since he doesn’t permit comments, his readers would in any event be unable to point out his falsehoods at his site.

And if Evanier had taken the time to see what people wrote about Kirby, and honestly reported on it, he would have had to say the opposite of what he did about Kirby’s influence on the movies he was in. You can agree or disagree with those posters’ judgments, but a lot of fans thought Kirby was the best thing in movies like The Freshman, When Harry Met Sally, and City Slickers, and that he was central to those pictures’ success. Or are all actors, as Evanier implies, interchangeable?

Finally, Evanier says that I had no contact with Crystal, and that I had an animus towards him.

True and true. But he leaves out that I had mentioned contacting Crystal’s publicist more than once. There is no rule that you cannot write about someone, unless he cooperates with your piece.

As far as animus is concerned, when you read a rip job by a writer on a public figure, the writer usually had an animus towards that figure. However, such writers will almost never admit to having an animus towards someone they’re ripping. Thus, Evanier is taking my honesty, and using it against me.

Besides, it cuts both ways: Evanier clearly had an animus against me. Is his animus the disqualifying factor, or his dishonesty?

If I had to write the article over again, I would have added that I had felt no animus towards Crystal when I initially heard of Kirby’s death, and decided to write a tribute to the latter.

When I wrote a series of brief reviews for the best pictures of 1989 for my magazine, A Different Drummer, I waxed theological about Crystal, saying that but for him, God would have demolished Crystal’s (and my) hometown of Long Beach, N.Y. (And no, I’ve never crossed paths with Crystal, who is eleven years older than me.) It was only through researching Kirby’s career, that I discovered that Crystal was the key to its post-1991 collapse. That, and that alone, caused me to harbor animosity towards Crystal.

When I write about murderers and child rapists and corrupt politicians and lying journalists, I also have an animus towards them, and that animus drives me to expose them, while others maintain silence. Ideally, a journalist speaks for the voiceless and, ultimately, like homicide detectives and historians, he speaks for the dead. There is nothing wrong with having an animus, as long as it does not cloud one’s judgment, and is not used as an excuse for becoming dishonest and/or lazy.

Following Evanier’s “logic,” only sycophants could ever write about anybody. Or rather, about anybody famous, since Evanier has no problem ripping me. But in neither case – celebrity or civilian – would a reader ever learn the truth.

Unfortunately, sycophants like Mark Evanier are all too typical of what passes for writing on Hollywood. In today’s information tidal wave, no one has to settle for that anymore. But readers must be ever vigilant against hacks like Evanier who, once the truth has been uncovered, seek to re-cover it.

And yet, for all of his pathetic, dishonest attacks on me, on behalf of Billy Crystal, Mark Evanier did not say a single nice thing about Crystal.

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