Billy Crystal will never forget the day his oldest daughter, Jenny, told him he was going to be a grandfather. It was the first anniversary of his mother's death, which had been a traumatic loss for the entire Crystal clan. "It's been one thing that got me out of the sadness I was in," he says. "When you see how life works -- someone has to leave to make room for the new -- it changes your whole point of view about life. I've been smiling ever since."
The acclaimed comedian and actor, who is the father of two grown daughters, Jennifer, an actress married to Michael Foley, a writer for TV's American Dreams, and Lindsay, a director, describes the months leading up to the birth of his first grandchild as an emotional roller coaster: "It had all kinds of hooks in me, seeing my firstborn looking so much like my wife when she was pregnant with her."
Overwhelmed by his feelings, Crystal sat down one night to write to his unborn grandchild. At the time, he didn't know whether it would be a boy or girl. "Jenny and Mike didn't want to know, which I love," he says. "It's one of life's last great surprises." Crystal, famous for his lovable guy roles in Analyze This, City Slickers, and When Harry Met Sally, had intended to create something that would be bound into a book or framed as a keepsake, but when he finished the first draft that night, he wanted to share what he'd written. The actor sent it to his editors at HarperCollins, who were waiting for him to finish a different manuscript, one about being funny as a child. (It was to have been his first children's book but will now be his second.) The happy result: I Already Know I Love You, a tribute to the special moments grandparents share with their grandkids.
In the heartwarming book, illustrated in soft pastels by Elizabeth Sayles, a grandfather anticipates the birth of his grandchild: "I took your mom to her first movie. I want to take you, too. That will be a special day devoted just to you. When I took your mommy, I never watched the screen. The movie was in her smile -- to her it was a dream."
Now there's a new love in Crystal's life. He's clearly smitten, but she's not talking -- at least, not yet. At 10 months old, little Ella Ryan, named after his mother, Helen Eleanor, and his son-in-law's grandfather, Richard, has the actor wrapped around her little finger. The day she was born, Crystal was knocked out by what he calls "this amazing, emotional gift." To him, having a grandchild reaffirms the legacy of being a family. "There are so many other things in life to worry about, to be afraid of, but when you're given this little gift and you hold her in your arms, all that goes away," he says. "You're literally handed the future. It's pretty awesome."
Luckily, Jenny and Mike also live in Los Angeles, so Crystal and his wife can see their granddaughter several times a week. They've already had several sleepovers with Ella, says the star, who feels it's wonderful being a young grandparent: "It's great to have the energy to be able to babysit and still know what you're doing." The actor, who married at 22 and had his first child when he was 24, is ahead of the curve when it comes to most of his friends, who have teenagers. "They're still asking us for advice about their kids," he says.
The nice thing about being a grandparent, jokes Crystal, is that "you have this new being that you can play with and laugh with, and then you hand her back and go to an early movie." But in all seriousness, the best part for Crystal has been seeing Jenny and Mike settle into their new roles: "It's great watching them be us 30 years ago. I see how natural it is for them to have Ella in their lives."
And just as humor was a big part of his life as a young parent, when he would invent stories and languages to make his daughters giggle, he's finding that it comes in handy with Ella as well. "I like to make her laugh with voices like an Oscar the Grouch kind of character," says Crystal, who is beloved by kids as the wisecracking voice of Mike Wazowski in Monsters, Inc. "My fear is that she's going to think that is my voice. I can just look at her now and make a sound and she lights up. It's better than any spotlight I've ever been in."
This devotion to family is nothing new to those who know Crystal, who is still married to his college sweetheart, Janice, whom he first met at the Malibu Beach Club in Lido Beach, NY. Throughout his highly public career, he's done a remarkable job of giving his daughters as normal an upbringing as possible. His secret? "If you knew Janice, you'd say, 'Oh, I get it,'" he says. "I'm not a tabloid guy. Janice and I have been together for so long that we're like an old pair of shoes. And we just kept it as real as we could." He recalls one point in his life when he was touring a lot and Jenny was just getting into the teenage years: "Janice said, 'I think you should cut back,' knowing how much I loved it and was making a real nice living at the time, and I said, 'Got it.' I stopped going out on the road."
Becoming a parent taught him selflessness: "You learn there's a greater calling than writing jokes." Becoming a grandparent has given him a sense of his place in the world: "There's a part of you in there," he says. "When you see the years of dedication to your kids come to flower as they start this chapter of their lives, it's profoundly moving."
Crystal, who was close to his grandparents as a child growing up in Long Beach, NY, feels strongly that the older generation has a lot to offer children -- so much so that he and his wife produced a permanent exhibit at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles called "Finding Our Families, Finding Ourselves." "It's important for children to understand that grandparents were here first and someone was here before them," he says.
What does the future hold for Ella and her famous grandfather? "I hope we have a lot of laughs," says Crystal, who looks forward to doing all the things lovingly detailed in his book. "It's early yet, but I've already doted several times. I think there'll be more doting to come." In the meantime, he's content to be involved in the day-to-day joys of Ella's young life. "I find myself thanking Jenny and Mike for her," says Crystal. "When I hold her, I just want to say, 'Thank you, thank you for her.'"
Copyright © 2004. Reprinted with permission from the April 2004 issue of Child magazine.