A successful Oscars host has a certain quality beyond that of a typical Hollywood A-lister. The person must be a good comedian; who knows what will happen on stage that will require a pithy one-liner? But they also must appeal across the board — political or bizarre humor falls flat with this audience. And even then, there’s a little something extra that can’t be pinned down, an X factor of likeability that nobody can quite gauge until that person is up on stage poking fun at stars but making their dreams come true at the same time. Whatever it is, Billy Crystal seems to have more than anyone else.
Crystal’s early life was a microcosm of New York. Born in Manhattan, He grew up in and around the local jazz scene. His father was a huge figure, hosting jazz greats like Louis Armstrong and Billy Holiday and promoting concerts from his record store and label, Commodore. In this setting, Crystal and his siblings would often perform their own comedy for the family, imitating then late-night host Jack Parr. Tragically, his father passed away when he was 15, forcing his mother to support the family. For a time in high school, Crystal even tried his hand at his other love — baseball. He was even good enough to play in college. But his love of stand-up ultimately won out.
Crystal’s first big breakthrough came with Saturday Night Live — or at least it should have. He eventually got a lot of laughs with his Fernando character in the 80’s, but he was actually supposed to appear on the show’s very first episode in 1975. When producer Lorne Michaels cut his time for an Andy Kaufman performance, Crystal walked out. He went on to star as a gay television director in the soap opera parody sitcom Soap before his eventual (successful) debut with the Not Ready For Prime Time Players. After his Saturday Night Live stint, his stand-up career took off.
Billy Crystal (Photo Credit: Stephen Shugerman/Getty Images for AFI)
It wasn’t until 1987 that Crystal got his first big film break — earning a small but memorable role as the put-upon wizard Miracle Max in The Princess Bride. While showing off his vaudevillian talents, Crystal earned himself a leading role, albeit still a self-deprecating one. When Harry Met Sally found Crystal alongside Meg Ryan in a breakout performance for both. In 1997, he starred in the City Slickers, written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel. The pair wrote four other movies starring Crystal — Mr. Saturday Night, City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold, Forget Paris and Father’s Day.
Crystal’s on-screen appearances have dwindled of late, but he’s kept up appearances elsewhere. A recognizable voice actor, he’s been heard in a number of roles, Mike Wazowski in Pixar’s Monsters, Inc. being the most notable. (A sequel is coming in 2013). Crystal also fulfilled a lifelong dream by signing a one-day contract with the New York Yankees, just a few days shy of his 60th birthday. He took only one at-bat, managing a foul ball before striking out. Crystal also performed a one-man play about his family entitled 700 Sundays, which won a Tony Award.
Billy Crystal (Photo Credit: Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
Whatever else he goes on to do, Crystal’s return as Oscars host might just be the most anticipated (from a fan’s point of view). Might his ninth appearance (second only to Bob Hope’s 18) include another hilarious song and dance number? Will we see him jumping through each of the big movies from the past year? Can he stay quiet when he’s making fun of The Artist? Nobody knows what Billy will do for this year’s Oscars, but we’re all looking forward to finding out.
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