It’s warm and dry late on this October afternoon at Ghost Ranch, and the sun lends a picture-postcard quality to the mesas of northern New Mexico. As the wind starts to whip up around him, Billy Crystal, as a contemporary dude in training, finds himself in the middle of a scene straight out of the Old West. A crusty cowboy (Jack Palance) has just brutally roped an unruly young cowhand by the neck, jerked him back against the corral fence, and tossed a huge knife at his crotch. His point made, the old cowboy gets on his horse and rides off toward the sinking sun. Dumbstruck by this episode, Crystal mutters, ”That’s insane — it was like watching Gunsmoke on acid.”
He’s done it again. Another ad-lib, another out-of-left-field zinger that cracks the crew up. And so this becomes take six, no, take seven of scene 34 of Crystal’s City Slickers. Yet the funny line will end up on the cutting-room floor: Crystal is not only the film’s star but also its executive producer, and he has had the fortitude to cut most of his ad-libs and stick to the script. If you were among the many people who made City Slickers No. 1 at the box office during its opening weekend, with a $13 million take, you know that in place of the Gunsmoke crack, Crystal says, ”Did you see that guy? That is the toughest man I’ve ever seen in my life. Did you see how leathery he was? He was like a saddlebag with eyes.”
Apparently destined to become the comedy of the summer, City Slickers is a coming-of-middle-age Western. Crystal plays a New York radio ad salesman who has just turned 39 and is falling fast into a funk. His hair is vanishing where it should be and appearing where it shouldn’t. He feels trapped by his wife (thirtysomething‘s Patricia Wettig), his kids, and his job. Then his two best friends (Bruno Kirby and Daniel Stern) take him off on a birthday trip-a two-week ”fantasy vacation” as a cowboy on a cattle drive from New Mexico to Colorado. Palance plays the taciturn trail boss, and Helen Slater is the only woman on the cattle drive.
Of the eight films he has made (including 1989’s When Harry Met Sally), City Slickers is closest to Crystal. It has been his baby from start to finish. He came up with the idea, developed it with the Parenthood writing team of Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, and personally selected director Ron Underwood (Tremors). ”We’re not making Police Academy on the Range here, that was never the intention,” says Crystal, who, for the record, is 44, has been married to wife Janice for 21 years, and has two daughters (Jennifer, 18, and Lindsay, 13). ”The film has to have a real hard look for it to work.”
To that end, the set, located about an hour north of Santa Fe, was created from scratch. A 200-head herd of cattle was brought in. Cast members were ) taught not only how to ride well but how to cut, separate, and rope cattle. In terms of cowboy correctness, the film looks kosher.
”I wanted to make Deliverance with laughs,” says Crystal, who leans in and confidentially whispers, ”I haven’t told Bruno yet about the ‘squeal like a pig’ scene. It’s going to be a musical number.”
One might reasonably expect Crystal’s responsibility over this $25 million- plus production to make him a little more sober-minded. But unlike many comic actors, who aren’t interested in being funny while slouched in their chairs between takes, Soap and Saturday Night Live veteran Crystal is perpetually on. In fact, trying to interview him and his costars is like finding yourself in the middle of an impromptu horselaugh opera. Consider, for instance, Daniel Stern (Home Alone) reporting that his riding is getting much better.
Stern: Now I can gallop and smile at the same time. Crystal: You cannot smile. Stern: I can, too. Crystal: It’s a grimace. Stern: C’mon, I plaster that smile on my face and kick the horse in the ass. Crystal: It’s the horse that’s smiling. Stern: Thank you, Mr. Expert — Mr. Gene Autry over here. Crystal: I didn’t ask to be talented. Stern: No, really, I’m not scared anymore. In fact, I’m looking forward to going over there in a few minutes and jumping on my horse. We keep him tied up, of course, but I’m looking forward to jumping on him. Crystal: I think the Velcro saddle has been the best invention for the film. It’s the noise when Danny gets off that’s been causing some problems.
Crystal was watching TV, flipping through limp Harry Met Sally-type scripts, when the inspiration for City Slickers struck. “I got offered a lot of things after Harry, but nothing looked like it was going to be as satisfying,” he recalls. “So I was watching one of those programs about fantasy vacations, baseball camps, stuff that men do to make themselves feel young. And it happened in a second — ‘cattle drive’ came to me. Three guys, the secrets that friends have from each other, that kind of thing.”
The trip from the living room to the open plains has not proved simple, however. The start of the cattle drive, a sequence that will run just a few seconds on-screen, takes all morning and into the afternoon to complete. The actors are riding with all 200 head of cattle — and herding the critters back for each take is slow work, but Crystal is unfazed. “I’ve waited longer for actors to come out of their motor homes,” he says. “The cattle are real pros.”
And the executive producer is a busy man. Up at 5:30 a.m., Crystal works all day in front of the camera, goes to see the dailies around 8 p.m., grabs some dinner, discusses the next day’s shooting, and finally makes it to bed about midnight. Then he does it all again. “But as they say in those ski movies,” says Crystal, “It’s a good tired.”
In fact, weighing the time and energy he has invested in this film against the return, Crystal is a happy man. “It’s a very satisfying feeling to have this great team and cast together,” says the comic, whose next film will be Mr. Saturday Night. “I’m having the most fun I’ve ever had on any movie. There’s more of me in City Slickers than anything else I’ve ever done. I created and tapered the character to something I could plug all my talents into.” Which is? “I hope to become the first of the Jewish Western action heroes.” Mazel tov.