Billy Crystal’s character Miracle Max has a small part in the movie The Princess Bride. In fact, he’s only onscreen for about five minutes. But he still ended up being a major character in our memories, because he crammed a half-hour of comedy into that small role. The story of Crystal’s participation is cobbled together from an oral history, various interviews, and Cary Elwes’ book about the production of The Princess Bride, directed by Rob Reiner.
Reiner wanted the scenes with Max to be outrageous and Crystal didn’t disappoint. In an interview included with a later edition of the movie, the director says that the part of Miracle Max was written in a voice similar to the classic Mel Brooks character, The 2,000 Year Old Man (a bit that he performed with Rob Reiner’s father, Carl Reiner). Brooks’ was a crotchety, kvetching Jewish caricature in the old Catskills tradition, and Crystal had no problem leaning into the part. “I had relatives like him,” he says in the documentary.
Over just three days of shooting in the tightly packed set of Max’s hovel, Crystal’s performance managed to nearly shut down the production. Given pretty much free reign by Reiner, Crystal became a show-stopping gag factory. In his book, Elwes remembers, “For three days straight and ten hours a day, Billy improvised thirteenth-century period jokes, never saying the same thing or the same line twice.”
Which caused a problem: it was impossible for everyone around Crystal to keep a straight face, so take after take after take was ruined. Read about how they worked around the problem of Miracle Max at Atlas Obscura.