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The Return of Billy the Kid

After his last movie bombed, the comedian returns with a ''City Slickers'' sequel

In the middle of a picture-postcard landscape, surrounded by red sandstone buttes that tower toward the cloudless Utah sky, Billy Crystal mops the sweat from his brow with a rumpled blue Mets cap. Roasting in the blazing desert sun, he says, "Good thing they put sunblock 95 in my makeup." The scene here — where Crystal and more than 70 compadres are shooting City Slickers II — is far from Hollywood-plush. There's no sign of the industry's favorite, and most conspicuous, addiction: cellular phones (the location's too remote). The two most crucial crew members are the water man, who constantly stocks the cooler with bottles of spring water (600 downed per day), and the snake man, who combs the set every morning for rattlers.

And today, as Mitch (Crystal) and his two fellow slickers (Daniel Stern and Jon Lovitz) gear up for a buried treasure hunt, the Wild West seems more like Old MacDonald's farm gone awry. A particularly pungent goat keeps spooking the horses and mules, and a troublesome pig ruins shot after shot by knocking down props and oinking at inopportune moments.

Director Paul Weiland is losing his patience. "Bloody pig," he mutters. "Somebody shoot the pig." The crew trades bacon jokes. Crystal, the movie's even-tempered star, laughs it off, saying, "And in the next scene there'll be a boa constrictor and 10 Hassids yelling about something." But as the swine continues to run amok, Billy Crystal, the movie's producer, takes over. Rushing out from under a canvas lean-to, he yells, "I want the pig off the set."

The disparity between Crystal the actor and Crystal the producer says something about his current position in Hollywood. Since his breakthrough in 1989's When Harry Met Sally..., the 47-year-old comic actor has increasingly seized control of his projects. First he created and executive-produced 1991's City Slickers. Then he directed, cowrote, and starred in 1992's Mr. Saturday Night. When that movie bombed at the box office, Crystal was bitterly disappointed. "It was a stunning blow. And a sad one," he says. "L.A. is a tough town to not do well in. You walk into a restaurant and people don't see Billy. They see, 'Oh, there's 4.5 first weekend.' You feel it. Whether it's real or imagined, you just feel it."

So Crystal retreated to safe and familiar ground: producing, cowriting, and starring in a sequel to his biggest hit, the $123 million-grossing City Slickers. He says he considered directing City Slickers II "for about a second," then decided it would be healthier just "to have a good time, get out of L.A. for a while and ride the horses." Yet as producer, he made damn sure CSII stayed on track. "Even though I really enjoyed the process [of making the sequel], I found myself frustrated," Crystal confesses a few weeks before the film's opening. "Not by any wrongdoings of anybody else, just by my wanting to go, 'Action!' I had to catch myself now and then."

That didn't make Weiland's job any easier. A director of British commercials who's best known in America as the auteur of Leonard Part 6, Weiland admits it wasn't easy winning the trust of Slickers veterans Crystal, Stern, and Jack Palance. "If you've been on a movie from the beginning and you cast the actors, they sort of owe you for hiring them," he explains as the film wraps on a Culver City, Calif., soundstage. "But if you come on after, you have to work doubly hard to get their respect. And I'm the new guy. They can go, 'Wait a second. We've done this before.'"

But Crystal seems comfortable letting Weiland call the shots. Later that day, in the middle of muddy tunnels and stalactite-filled caves, Crystal whispers to Weiland that maybe Palance isn't striking the right balance between crestfallen and angry. Weiland shakes his head in disagreement. And that's that.

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