Billy Crystal: Oscars' Favorite Host

<b>Mike Wallace</b> Interviews Comedian Billy Crystal

Billy Crystal is an anomaly - a Hollywood comedian who is neither bitter nor angry, and one who, at 56, is still married to his high-school sweetheart.

As 60 Minutes first reported last November, in order to know Billy Crystal, you have to go back to Long Island with him. Correspondent Mike Wallace reports.

Crystal said he had a wonderful childhood that launched him on his comic career, which began when he was just three years old. He and his two older brothers would mimic their relatives at big family gatherings in the living room of their house out in Long Beach, Long Island.

"We'd put on the Persian coats and the hats, and you'd walk out and you'd cough up a character and it would be one of the relatives. And then I would imitate them," says Crystal.

"I'd stand on a coffee table and my cousin Edith would give me dimes and you put the dimes on your head ... And when your forehead was full, show was over."

His house was also filled with famous black jazz musicians because his father produced jazz shows. His babysitter, Billy Holiday, took him to his first movie in Long Beach when he was five. And years later, he fell in love with a girl he spotted on Long Beach -- whom he married four years later, at the age of 22.

"The reason we are together is because she puts lead in my shoes and doesn't let me fly off the earth. And it's always been that way," says Crystal.


He admits that when he was hosting the Oscars, he kept a toothbrush in his pocket.

"When I was growing up in the house we'd watch the Oscars. And they were always so damn long that I'd never know who'd win by the time I went to bed," he says.

"So I'd go in and pick up my toothbrush before I'd go to sleep and I'd make my Oscar speech. 'Thank you all.' So when I started hosting the show, I'd see my toothbrush was backstage and I just took it and I put it in my pocket because I wanted that big audience to feel like the living room. And it did."

According to a USA Today poll, Crystal is the most popular Oscar host ever. But the loss of his mother, a favorite uncle and a close friend last year sapped his enthusiasm for this year's show.

“Stunning blows at the end of the year that I’m just recuperating from, if you ever do. And [I’m] starting to feel like I can be funny again. You know? That’s what’s going on,” says Crystal.

Will he host again? “At some point I’m guessing I’ll go back to do it,” he says.

Crystal was watching TV with his father when he first decided he wanted to become a comedian.

"From the first time I saw Sid Caesar be funny I knew that's what I had to do," says Crystal.

Along the way, he also yearned to play pro-baseball. And when he's in New York, you can often find him cheering the home team at Yankee Stadium. His passion for baseball began when his father took him to his first game when he was 8 years old.

“Mike, this was sacred ground,” says Crystal, as he recounts how he and friends would play pretend World Series, Old Timers Day -- even night games. “We took every lamp out of the house and plugged them in with extension cords in the garage.”

“Mrs. Mark, who lived upstairs, would open [the window] and she would say, ‘Fellahs, I know it’s the World Series, but I have to get to sleep.’”

He turned out to be a pretty good ball player but not good enough. So he settled for show business and got his first big break performing at a televised tribute to Muhammad Ali -- where he imitated the great boxing champion. "We hit it off right away," he says.

He later became a national TV star during just one season on "Saturday Night Live" in the '80s when he played various characters including Fernando. "You look maaaaaarvelous! He does! He does!"

His other favorite characters include Howard Cosell and Sammy Davis Jr.

The Crystals have two daughters and both of them have followed their father's path. Lindsay is a filmmaker and Jenny is an actress who played Roger Maris' wife in the movie "61" about Maris and Mickey Mantle chasing Babe Ruth's home run record. For Crystal, who directed it, it was a labor of love -- as was his movie "Mr. Saturday Night" about a standup comedian.

"That was the first movie I directed and a movie that didn't do very well in the box office, which was tough to take at the time," says Crystal.


After two huge hits, "When Harry Met Sally" and "City Slickers," Crystal had a box office slump before "Analyze This." It was a slump that lasted eight years through five movies.

"You realize it's a career and it happens," says Crystal. "But you have to really be strong, patient, keep dreaming and laugh about it."

And that's his mantra. Outside his home in Los Angeles, there are three stones with the words "Patience, Dream and Laughter" carved in them. And inside his house is a Mickey Mantle glove he bought at an auction for $239,000. It sits on a seat from Yankee Stadium inscribed by his hero: "Wish you were still sitting here and I was still playing."

"Every day, I walk by it," says Crystal. "And I either put the glove on or just look at it. And it just puts me in touch with something good. And I always feel good that I have it."

So, is he in fact what a magazine profile says he is? "In a profession that bristles with anger bitter performers, Billy Crystal seems like the last happy man."

"I think I've far exceeded what I ever thought I could possibly do," says Crystal. "I'm almost shocked that I'm still around after all of these years ... and always grateful that I get another turn to do something."
  • David Kohn

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