Billy Crystal can boast to a number of achievements over the course of his storied Hollywood career: He’s the star of hit ’90s comedy City Slickers; one of the best Oscar hosts ever; and the director of a Hall of Fame-worthy baseball movie. But in his own mind he’ll also be remembered for one other less-than-boastworthy thing: “I’m the schmuck who turned down Toy Story,” Crystal confesses to Yahoo Entertainment about his biggest career regret. (Watch our video interview above.)
Here’s the deep dish direct from Pizza Planet: Back in the early ’90s, the then-upstart computer-animation company known as Pixar was trying to recruit A-list stars to join the vocal cast of their inaugural cartoon feature. After securing Tom Hanks as earnest cowboy Woody, they turned their attention to finding the right voice for his enemy-turned-friend, Buzz Lightyear.
Toy Story director John Lasseter believed that Crystal was that voice. The actor didn’t agree, though, and passed on the opportunity. That opened a door that Home Improvement star Tim Allen all too happily walked through — a door that led to an industry-transforming blockbuster, multiple hit sequels and an upcoming “sidequel” starring Chris Evans.
Of course, Crystal’s career didn’t exactly suffer after turning down Toy Story. Still, a quarter century later he can’t help but ponder what might have been. “At the time, it wasn’t because of any work — it was something else,” he explains now. “I didn’t think I was the right voice for that [character]. And Tim Allen is great. He has this resonant, big voice of this character who’s full of himself.”
Crystal eventually got a chance to see what his version of Buzz might have looked like when Lasseter showed him the “screen test” that Pixar made while courting him for the part. “They took dialogue from a scene in When Harry Met Sally when I get mad at all of them … [and I say] ‘Someday you’ll go 15 rounds over who is going to get this stupid wagon-wheel coffee table,'” he remembers. “So it’s Buzz Lightyear doing those lines, and then at the ‘stupid wagon-wheel coffee table’ it cut wide and little Buzz is standing under a big stupid wagon wheel coffee table. And then when he goes, ‘I was being nice,’ the visor from his helmet closed. I went, ‘You know what? I was wrong.'”
Suffice to say, the next time that Pixar came knocking, Crystal made sure to answer. Six years after Toy Story, the actor eagerly accepted the role of one-eyed green monster Mike Wazowski in Pete Docter’s Monsters Inc., which was released 20 years ago, on Nov. 2, 2001. “I’m in my office … and John Lasseter’s on the phone,” he recalls of how that opportunity came his way. “I said, ‘All right listen: Whatever it is, yes!'”
Monsters Inc. paired Crystal with John Goodman, who voices Mike’s fearful-looking, but good-hearted best friend, Sulley. The duo became fast friends in real life, thanks largely to the fact that they were able to record their lines together during production. “I insisted that we work together: [John’s] such a great actor, a great improviser and a wonderful audience,” Crystal says of those freewheeling recording sessions. “I would just go off and say, ‘Can I fill something here? I got an idea.’ Stuff just happened.”
Much like Allen and Buzz Lightyear, playing Mike has become a regular gig for Crystal. The actor reprised the role in the 2013 prequel Monsters University, as well as the recent Disney+ series Monsters at Work. “Mike is one of my favorite characters — if not my favorite character — to play because I’m so free with him,” the actor says of his ageless alter ego. “It’s just audio, it’s not like we’re shooting it. It was a great experience [then], and it continues to be.”
Monsters Inc. is currently streaming on Disney+.