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Billy Crystal revives '700 Sundays' for posterity's sake

When he turned 65, Billy Crystal decided to reprise "700 Sundays," his Tony Award-winning 2004 one-man show. The title refers to the number of Sundays he had with his father, Jack, before he died of a heart attack when Crystal was just 15.

"I never felt that I was done with the show," said Crystal, now 66, relaxing in one of the overstuffed white sofas in his Beverly Hills office, decorated with posters and pictures from his films such as "When Harry Met Sally," "City Slickers" and "Mr. Saturday Night," as well as photos of him with such friends as Muhammad Ali.

"Then I turned 65 and realized I had been 50 years without a father," said Crystal, serious and contemplative. "That is a long time. It felt like I wanted to do it one more time. So I said let's do a limited run."

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Last November he opened a run on Broadway. "The ticket sales were unbelievable," Crystal said. But about three weeks in, he realized "maybe it is time to stop" and that the limited Broadway engagement would ring down the curtain on "700 Sundays."

HBO, with whom Crystal had done comedy specials as well as the Comic Relief shows, had long pursued him to tape the show. And in early January, nine cameras captured two performances of "700 Sundays" at the Imperial Theatre. The special premieres Saturday evening on HBO.

"In one night we will hit more people than we could ever imagine playing to," Crystal said. "I also wanted to document for my kids and my grandkids that this is the family. This is my story."

Nostalgic, sentimental, funny and four-hankie sad, "700 Sundays" is a valentine to Crystal's past.

"It's the best character I ever had to play," he said, smiling. "It's a really great character to play because I go through everything. It just gave me a chance to plug in to all the different things that I do."

Crystal takes us back to his days growing up with his parents, Jack and Helen, and his older brothers Rip and Joel in Long Beach, Long Island. Though the community was sleepy during the off-season, the Crystal household was lively.

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His Uncle Milt founded the famed jazz label Commodore Records, and his father operated the Commodore Music Store in Times Square and produced jazz concerts featuring the likes of Billie Holiday. A lot of these jazz greats would visit the Crystal home. The first time Crystal saw the 1953 film "Shane" in the theater, he sat on Holiday's lap.

Crystal honed his comedic chops performing with his siblings for his colorful, often eccentric family. But in 2001, Crystal didn't have much to laugh about. Uncle Milt died that July, and then Uncle Berns was taken ill. "I spent that summer getting him on his feet," Crystal said quietly.

"Then 9/11 happened. Then my mother died in November, and my godmother died that same week. And this man, [sports broadcaster] Dick Schaap, who was one of my closest friends, died in December. It was like a body shot. I didn't know what to do with myself. Smiling was hard. You could almost feel like cracks in your face."

Out of that pain came "700 Sundays," which was directed by Tony Award-winner Des McAnuff ("The Who's Tommy," "Jersey Boys"), whom Crystal described as a "gentle nudger."

"He was incredibly respectful of the family and their story, but always was strong enough to say how about this or about that. He knew what I wanted to do, but yet he was a bulldog enough to say, 'I don't like that.'"

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The show opened at the La Jolla Playhouse in early 2004 and moved to Broadway in December of that year. After the Broadway run, Crystal toured with the show.

But performing "700 Sundays" is different this time for Crystal.

"Doing it then was very cathartic, it was more emotional," he said. "Now, 10 years later, I found it equally freeing but not as painful. That made the performing of it a little more joyous and a little more carefree. When I came to the emotional parts, those sections became a really wonderful thing to act."

The show, McAnuff said, has also evolved over the decade "because it's improvisational and because Billy never stands stills. It's constantly changing. One of the wonderful things about Billy as an artist is that he's indefatigable."

The HBO presentation opens with scenes of Crystal revisiting his now-empty family home. "I thought it was a great way to center the story," Crystal said.

Because the house has changed over the years, Crystal called the city manager of Long Beach to get the original floor plans. From those plans, his childhood home was rebuilt on a sound stage in New York.

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It was an odd experience walking through this re-creation of his home. "Because it wasn't really the house, I was a little removed from it, but it sure was phenomenal to be there again."

He only got emotional once.

"My mother had a Hastings stove and it was mint green," Crystal said. "We found the right model but not the color."

He asked McAnuff in post production if they could change the color digitally.

"He calls me up right before we lock the picture," Crystal said. "He said, 'Are you in the neighborhood? I want to show you something.'"

The stove, Crystal said, was mint green. "That made me cry."

Crystal said he's "in the zone" in terms of his career. Despite weak reviews, his 2012 comedy "Parental Guidance" made about $120 million internationally. Last summer "Monsters University," in which he reprised his beloved vocal role as one-eyed Mike Wazowski, earned more than $740 million worldwide.

His 2013 autobiography, "Still Foolin' 'Em: Where I've Been, Where I'm Going, and Where the Hell Are My Keys?," was a bestseller, and the audio book version earned Crystal a Grammy nomination.

And he's also returning to series TV next year in FX's "The Comedians" with Josh Gad ("The Book of Mormon," "Frozen").

"It's the story of a veteran comedian and a young comedian who team together reluctantly to do a late-night sketch show," Crystal said. "It's a documentary on the making of the show. It's very unpredictable and very real. It doesn't feel like a sitcom at all."

susan.king@latimes.com

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'Billy Crystal 700 Sundays'

Where: HBO

When: 9 p.m. Saturday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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