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‘Hilarious’ story brings Billy Crystal back behind the camera

In addition to starring in ‘Here Today,’ the veteran funnyman directs and coaxes a ‘very loving’ performance from Tiffany Haddish.

Tiffany Haddish and director Billy Crystal watching footage on the set of “Here Today.”
Tiffany Haddish and director Billy Crystal watching footage on the set of “Here Today.”
Sony Pictures

Billy Crystal hasn’t directed a movie since 2001’s “61*,” the story of the 1961 home-run race between the New York Yankees’ Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle — but he’s behind the camera again and also is the co-writer and star of the bittersweet comedy/drama “Here Today.”

It’s based on a short story by his longtime friend, the veteran comedy writer Alan Zweibel.

“I saw Alan on ‘Letterman’ telling this story,” Crystal said. “There was this horrific charity lunch he had with somebody who bid on him, and he was the prize. Aand he finds out she only paid $22 for him. Then, she proceeds to have an allergic reaction to seafood salad. He then has to call an ambulance for her. He has no idea who she is, and she doesn’t have insurance. So this charity luncheon cost him $2,300.

“So I actually emailed him as they were going to commercial, and I said, ‘Alan, this is the beginning of something. This is a great way for these two to meet. It’s hilarious. But then: Who are they?’ ”

This was the foundation for “Here Today,” now in theaters, in which Crystal plays Charlie Burnz, a celebrated TV/movie/stage comedy writer in the early stages of dementia, and Tiffany Haddish is Emma Payge, a brassy but warmhearted street singer who becomes unlikely friends with Charlie and sticks with him through funny times and moments of true pain.

And, yep, their first meeting in the movie is at lunch, where Charlie learns he was a $22 prize at a charity auction, and Emma has a terrible reaction to seafood.

Crystal said it’s been so long since he last directed because he hadn’t found another movie project till now “that I loved to the point I really wanted to give up a year or two of my life. During that time, I was on Broadway twice and touring and doing things that were very satisfying, things I didn’t want to give up. Then, when we started talking about [this movie], and we started to drill into, ‘Who are these two people?’

“When Alan I discussed somebody for me to play, we both hit on this guy who was a mentor to both of us. His name was Herb Sargent.”

Sargent was a longtime writer/producer on “The Tonight Show” and “Saturday Night Live,” for which he co-created “Weekend Update” with Chevy Chase.

“He was a wonderful editor, writer, bon vivant and such a lovely guy,” Crystal said. “And so I thought of him” in creating the character of Charlie.

“And then I was taking care of a relative who had the onset of dementia. She wrote six books and was the editor for the Book of the Month club. And one day she came to me and said, ‘I need your help, I’m losing my words.’ I thought it was so powerful that somebody whose currency is words was now going broke.”

In “Here Today,” when Charlie begins to lose his words, he can’t turn to his grown children for help because his relationship with them has been strained ever since his wife, their mother, died under tragic circumstances. Charlie’s daughter, in particular, blames him.

It’s Charlie’s relatively new friend Emma who says she’ll help as much as she can for as long as she can. Though Haddish has a couple of her signature, over-the-top, big-swing comedic scenes, she also plays gentler notes in the more serious moments — a side she hasn’t shown in a lot of roles.

“She was very open to stretching herself into what Emma needed to be,” Crystal said. “That’s why I think it’s a fantastic performance and a very loving one. She had to get very emotional in one scene where she hears about the darkest moment in [Charlie’s] life, and she needed to cry, and she was really scared about doing it because she hadn’t onscreen — and, in her own life, she’s very protective of her emotions.

“So I cleared the set, it was just [the two of us], and the cameraman shooting over me, onto her, and she’s not getting there, and then I just started talking to her about her life and not be afraid,” he said. “It was almost like landing a plane with someone who’s not a pilot, ‘And with the left pedal, ease it down, ease it down.’ And then she gave me the moment, and it was a beautiful thing.

“That’s the beauty of movies and the frustrating thing about making them. They’re forever. They’re forever. And you have to get it, as an actor, you have to stay in those moments no matter how uncomfortable it can be with all those people around you. You have to find that space to … stay in that character.”

In addition to his Wikipedia-bursting biography as a writer, filmmaker, actor, Broadway star, etc., etc., Crystal has hosted the Oscars nine times. So I had to ask: If the phone rang, and it was the Academy asking him to come back one more time in 2022, what would he say?

“Oh, this was going so well, Richard,” came the reply, accompanied by laughter and followed by the dodge of an old pro.

“If they called, I would say, ‘I don’t know. Why don’t you watch “Here Today” first?’ ”