Memories of Me

If you took Nothing in Common and threw in just the merest dash of Death of a Salesman, the result might be Memories of Me. This film, written by Eric Roth and comedian Billy Crystal, wades through some thick family history that’s been surrounding a father and his far-off son.

They’ve been keeping a continent between them, but when Abbie Polin (Crystal), a New York doctor, suffers a heart attack, he figures it’s a cue to patch things up with his father, Abe (Alan King). So Abbie flies to Los Angeles to spend some time with dad, who’s made his living as a Hollywood extra (though the son prefers to think of him as “a professional embarrassment”).

They’ve never really gotten along, but – as if you couldn’t guess – they come to some sort of understanding as the days go by. To make it all neat and tidy, the script throws a terminal illness in the direction of the father. This definitely focuses things.

What makes this warmed-over material halfway watchable is the sometimes thoughtful, sometimes playful direction of Henry Winkler. This is the first feature directed by the actor best known as The Fonz, and it bodes well for the future. Winkler’s touches tend to be superior to whatever’s going on in the scene, such as the projecting of home movies on a refrigerator, or the deliberate way Crystal slices an apple when he describes his father. Winkler often shoots scenes in long camera takes, allowing the actors to find their own pace and rhythm, a useful approach for this material.

And he’s clearly an actor’s director. Crystal isn’t a deep actor, but he’s easy in this role, and he and King share the automatic timing of the comedian. JoBeth Williams, who has a thankless part as the girlfriend, makes herself ingratiating through sheer energy.

King does nicely as the grouchy old man, who prefers communicating entirely in one-liners. He takes great pride that, although he’s never had a speaking part, he’s considered “The King of the Extras,” and has hobnobbed with all the greats. He imagines his Variety obituary and proudly assumes he’ll be remembered as “the 19th man to yell ‘I am Spartacus.'” King’s pure professionalism almost makes you believe in this man, if not this movie.

First published in The Herald, October 6, 1988

Is it time to bring this movie back? I cannot say, for I have forgotten it completely. The high hopes I had for Henry Winkler’s directing career did not pan out – he did Cop and ½ , a Burt Reynolds comedy I wouldn’t wish on anybody’s filmography, and then a surprisingly small amount of TV stuff. But his other career has maintained. In my mind this film sits on a double bill with Crystal’s Mr. Saturday Night, another showbiz cupcake laced with arsenic.

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