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BILLY CRYSTAL IS RIDING HIGH

The way Billy Crystal sees it, midlife is not a crisis. It's confusion. "The Persian Gulf was a crisis. Kuwait is a crisis. Midlife is a guy going, "I'm 43. When did it happen?'," says Crystal, who's 43, whose hair is thinning and whose latest movie, City Slickers, deals with midcareer, midmarriage and midlife confusion.

"I've experienced it to a degree," Crystal acknowledges. "The stuff just comes flying by, and you say, "Wait a second, I want to hold on for a while.' "

The week before Crystal started shooting City Slickers, he took his elder daughter, Jenny, to college.

"That's a big one. That was hard for me. I had been dreading it for a year," Crystal says after breakfast at a hotel overlooking the Mississippi. "The family unit was changing. And sometimes you judge your age not by how you look but by how your kids look."

The feelings were useful baggage for City Slickers, a comedy about three vacationing yupsters on a cattle drive from New Mexico to Colorado. Crystal dreamed up the movie's premise while watching a television show about adventure vacations. His intent was to dig deeper than all of his movies before When Harry Met Sally. . .

"I wanted to make a movie about trusting your friends with your pain. I wanted to make a movie about the time in your life when you start becoming your parents. I wanted to make a movie about this cattle drive called "life,' " explains Crystal, a small, eternally hyper man dressed in jeans, gray T-shirt and blue jacket.

"I didn't want City Slickers just to be funny," he says. "It has this great weight without hammering at it. It's the funniest movie I've ever been in. And, it's the most impassioned movie I've ever been in."

Right on the first count. A bit of an overstatement on the second. When Harry Met Sally. . . is a more moving study of relationships, although they're of a different kind.

When Harry Met Sally. . . concerns men and women. City Slickers concerns men and men. It's a bonding movie without gunplay. It addresses the uneasy friendship some men have difficulty achieving while maintaining their guard.

"(Parenthood screenwriters) Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel and I wanted to talk about the secrets friends have from each other _ the withholding of what's really going on _ where your friends might judge you or think you're not the greatest guy anymore," Crystal says.

His character, Mitch Robbins, is a radio ad salesman feeling static in his job and his marriage. Daniel Stern, one of the bungling burglars in Home Alone, plays his grocer buddy, Phil, who snoozes at social functions to avoid his wife's haranguing. Bruno Kirby, Crystal's journalist buddy in Harry and Sally, is sporting goods salesman Ed, a professional Peter Pan who dates women half his age to chuck his responsibility and retain his tenuous grasp on youth. Each attempts to maintain a relatively cheery facade.

As a matter of ritual, the trio band together each year for an adventure. City Slickers opens with Crystal being gored by a bull in Pamplona, Spain. He swears that excursion is the group's last.

But the next fall finds them alone on the range, at a dude ranch where greenhorns pay to drive cattle. Crystal, Kirby and Stern are joined by the brotherly founders of an ice cream empire, a pair of dentists and a landscape architect, the sole female on the trip. They're led by a grizzled trail boss, played by Jack Palance. (Crystal says he wrote Palance's name on the original story sketch. Palance starred in Shane, the first movie Crystal can remember viewing.)

After a decade of mismatched buddy movies like Running Scared and Throw Mama From the Train, and some truly horrid drivel like Joan Rivers' Rabbit Test (Crystal played the world's first pregnant man), Crystal is finally coming into his own in movies.

When Harry Met Sally . . . cast him as an obnoxious charmer whose off-again, on-again affair with a college acquaintance (Meg Ryan) takes years to blossom. It demonstrated Crystal's sensitivity and his depth, elements that previously had eluded the camera.

"Harry and Sally was (director) Rob Reiner's and (screenwriter) Nora Ephron's movie. I just sort of stepped into it. They lent me the clothes," Crystal says.

"City Slickers is mine from before the idea. It's different. I made the suit of clothes to walk around in," he says, explaining how his proximity to the project translates into a better story and a funnier movie.

Crystal was City Slickers' executive producer and its star. That forced him to balance creative inspiration with bottom-line accounting. He recalls:

"Many times I had to take myself outside to say, "Will you just stop? Will you stop improvising? You're costing me so much money and film.'

"And, I said, "Look, I'm just trying to make it better.'

"But then I'd say, "Better-schmetter. C'mon, we're in the middle of nowhere, and you're costing me a fortune.'

"So, I took me out to lunch, had one glass of wine and that settled both of me." Crystal grins at the image of Billy the actor grappling with Billy the producer.

Then he explains that the $25-million City Slickers was so carefully scripted that nearly everything was shot as written. Only after Ron Underwood had filmed what was storyboarded did Crystal improvise for a couple of takes.

The scene where Crystal's steed moonwalks was a fluke; the horse did it without cajoling. Career day at Crystal's son's school was largely stand-up schtick; Crystal tells the kids they can look forward to minor surgery when they're 50, deafness at 60 and mall walks in Fort Lauderdale in their 70s and 80s.

The career day scene is hilarious. But it also carries the sting of truth. This is what Crystal wanted.

"I've always said I'd rather sacrifice a laugh for a real true emotion in an audience anytime," he says. "If I can really move an audience and at the same time make them laugh, then I think I'm doing good work."

Unlike many of his cohorts on Saturday Night Live, Crystal appears to be carefully plotting his career to maintain an enduring screen presence. His pictures have grown increasingly serious _ some like Memories of Me have been outright tragic _ and now he appears poised to take on additional responsibility as the producer, star and director of his next movie.

He says he will likely direct his next movie, Mr. Saturday Night, which grew out of a skit from a 1987 HBO comedy special. Crystal will play Buddy Young Jr., a comedian who evolves from stand-up hit to burned-out has-been. The drama, which takes a Raging Bull approach to comedy, is a Castle Rock production like City Slickers.

City Slickers forced Long Island-bred Crystal to learn to rope and ride. Crystal also did most of his stunts, feeling that audiences have become savvy enough to recognize when a stunt double is being used, destroying the effect in a movie.

That meant he had to struggle with a baby calf while filming in the rain-swollen rapids of the Los Pinos River in Colorado. And, he had to hang from a Joshua tree as a herd of 350 cattle stampeded past. (Crystal says the animals were motivated by dynamite blasts and the threat of "being turned into a pair of golf shoes" if they didn't behave.)

Crystal liked his quarter horse, Beechnut, so much that Castle Rock gave it to him as a present at the conclusion of filming. He stables it near his home in Southern California and rides it on weekends. ("It's the gift that costs $17,000 a year to maintain," he quips.)

He hires a trainer to ride the horse when he can't find the time. That's more often than he likes, he says, because he's committed to sharing as much time as possible with Janice, his wife of 20 years, and his 13-year-old, Lindsay, who plays his daughter in the movie.

At this point, Crystal says he's trying to live life the way the trail boss does in the movie.

"When Curly (Palance) says, "There's nothing like bringing in the herd,' it's a metaphor for the whole movie; it's finishing what you set out to do," Crystal says. "That means raising your family, doing the best work you can, honoring your commitments."

One commitment Crystal might not make is emceeing next year's Academy Award ceremony. It has its benefits, like 1-billion viewers. ("It's better than 20 years of touring," he says.)

But after two years of Oscars and a stint as host of the Grammys, Crystal recognizes a down side.

"TV Guide called me the new Toastmaster General. I don't want to be that. I don't want to be the D.H., the designated host," he says. "Whenever anybody says I've got a job for life, I don't want it."

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