Billy and Bette make quite a ‘Parental’ pair
BY Susan Wloszczyna
Dec 9, 2012
They found it easy and fun to play a married couple experiencing the perils of modern grandparenthood in ‘Parental Guidance,’ opening on Christmas Day.
3:41PM EST December 9. 2012 – NEW YORK ”“ Billy Crystal and Bette Midler know a thing or two about wedded bliss.
Crystal and wife Janice, who have been together since they were teenagers, will celebrate their 43rd anniversary next year.
“We met during the Johnson administration,” says the City Slickers funnyman, 64, attired in what seems to be at least 10 shades of gray. “When I see — pardon the expression — People magazine and they have the hot couples, I go, ‘Who’s hotter than us?'”
Midler, who belies her 67 years while looking like an hourglass-shaped holiday ornament in an emerald-green cardigan and ruby-red dress, took a leap of faith when she said “I do” to Argentinian-born performance artist Martin von Haselberg a mere six weeks after they met in 1984.
“I found the right person,” says the Divine Miss M as their 28th anniversary looms this weekend. “I knew it was him.” One reason they are still together: “He is completely unpredictable.”
Crystal and Midler relied on that same sort of savvy when they agreed to marry their talents for the first time as a couple coping with the perils of modern grandparenthood in Parental Guidance, a family comedy arriving on Christmas Day.
As Crystal, who struggled for 5 1/2 years to bring the multi-generational story based on his relationship with his own three grandkids (including a potty-time ditty about Mr. Doody) to the big screen, says of their partnership, “We are like a pair of old shoes. They just fit.”
The public apparently have given their blessing. “They get a smile when they see the poster,” Crystal says. ” I’ve watched them. They don’t see me in the lobby of the movie theater. I was down in Battery Park the other night and there were people stopped in front of our poster. And I heard, ‘Oh, I love them.’ So here we are.”
Part of that reaction might come from the fact that both performers have spent the past decade away from the multiplex. Midler, whose last role of substance was in 1997’s The First Wives Club, had been concentrating on her three-year stint at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas until 2010. Crystal, who took a break after 2002’s Analyze That, won a Tony and toured in 700 Sundays, his one-man show about his Long Island childhood.
Both have somewhat soured on the medium thanks to slipping standards and the increasingly convoluted process of getting a movie made.
“I’ve produced,” Midler says, “but it just keeps getting harder and harder. Too many meetings and too much angst. If our company generated 87 scripts, we would make one. And I would drag that material, dragging and screaming, from the black lagoon. So I went back to the stage and do what I do. And then this comes along.”
Why this? “Because it was Billy, and I have a lot of faith in him,” she says. That includes sharing a duet on a golden oldie from the ’50s, The Book of Love, probably the sweetest adult moment amid the kid-aimed chaos in Parental Guidance.
Crystal’s excuse for his sabbatical? “I was getting offered stuff that I didn’t like.”
“What were you offered that you didn’t like that became a big fat hit,” asks Midler.
“Nothing,” replies Crystal.
Parental Guidance director Andy Fickman, who still calls Midler “boss” after earning his stripes in the early ’90s as an executive at her now-defunct All Girl Productions, says that — even off-camera — his stars exhibit the kind of rapport that usually comes from years of sharing the same toothbrush holder.
“From our initial meeting, it was as if they had known each other forever,” he says. “We sat down for dinner at Mr. Chow‘s in Beverly Hills and they immediately began to finish each other’s sentences. It was ‘Don’t eat this’ and ‘Don’t eat that’ and ‘Don’t tell me what to eat.'”
A similar exchange occurs as they sit down for the interview and immediately disregard the first question to chat amongst themselves.
Midler: “What time is it?”
Crystal: “I don’t know.”
Midler: “Is it 4? It’s 3. Let’s talk fast.”
Crystal: “It’s freezing in here.” Midler’s command that the thermostat be turned up is instantly granted.
At 48, Marisa Tomei might be a tad too old to be Crystal and Midler’s estranged daughter who is forced to ask her parents to leave their Fresno home and babysit in Atlanta for a week. After all, she tried out to be Crystal’s wife in 1992’s Mr. Saturday Night. But she couldn’t resist the opportunity to work with two showbiz icons she admires.
“They are the best at what they do and I wanted to be around them,” she says. “My father called me at one point and said, ‘I just bet you are having the best time. They seem like pistols.’ And they were a lot of fun. My family likes people who are festive and expressive, who like to move and are physical. And that was Bette and Billy.”
Midler and Crystal crossed paths in the ’60s when they were starting out. Both would eventually find fame by introducing the gay lifestyle to mainstream audiences– she as a bawdy chanteuse who sang in disreputable bathhouses and he as one of the first homosexual characters in prime time on the TV series Soap.
But, as they say, if you remember the ’60s, you weren’t really there.
“I first met Bette when she was in Fiddler on the Roof,” recalls Crystal, referring to the long-running Broadway musical in which Midler rose from the chorus to the pivotal role of daughter Tzeitel. “It was at the Improv.”
Midler, waxing nostalgic about the Big Apple comedy club, “Those were fabulous days.
Crystal: “First time I saw her, she came in a gray sweatshirt. I think it said Yale.”
Midler, with a guffaw: “I doubt it.”
Crystal: “You sang Danny Boy, And Danny Aiello was a bouncer there.”
Midler: “That was in ’78.”
Crystal: “No — ’71 or ’72.”
Midler: “I don’t think so. I was in a club, Upstairs at the Downstairs, and I was on the road. May have been ’69.”
In any case, they now have forged their own professional bond. Since Midler is not yet a granny — daughter Sophie, 26, is “on the career path,” mom says — Crystal filled her in with anecdotes about his grandchildren, two girls, 9 and 6, who belong to daughter Jennifer, and a nearly 3-year-old boy, courtesy of younger daughter Lindsay .
Such as a tradition that originated when his daughters were tykes: bath-time visits by Mr. Phyllis, the hairdresser.
“I would love to shampoo their hair,” he says. “I was this Jose Eber flamboyant guy. I put their hair in all kind of ‘dos and it was hilarious. Until the day came when Janice said, ‘You can’t go in there now.’ Mr. Phyllis had to die. It was the saddest day of my life. So I do it with the new girls now.”
What did Midler and Crystal discover about one another during their time as castmates?
“He’s a great improviser,” says Midler, citing a scene where Crystal, being fired from a sports-announcing job for being too old and out of touch, riffs about Twitter and Facebook. “Warm, funny and very much in charge in a subtle way. And making it right. Not just right but better.”
Her movie husband attempts to be equally effusive with insights about her professionalism, but Midler cuts him off with her own answer: “Size 32D.”