Nationality: American. Born: Long Beach, Long Island, New York, 14 March 1947. Family: Married Janice Goldfinger, 1970; children: Jennifer, Lindsay. Education: Attended Marshall University; graduated from Nassau Community College; New York University, B.F.A. in television and film direction, 1970. Career: Substitute teacher at Long Beach Junior High School; worked with Alumni Theatre Group, Nassau Community College; comedian with improvisational comedy groups We the People, Comedy Jam, and Three's Company, 1971–75; stand-up comedian, from 1975; played Jodie Dallas on TV series Soap , 1977–81; host of The Billy Crystal Comedy Hour , 1982; appeared on Saturday Night Live , 1984–85; frequent host of television award shows, including Grammy Awards, Emmy Awards, and Academy Awards; actor, writer, director, producer. Awards: Golden Apple Award, star of the year, Women's Press Club, 1989; American Comedy Award, Funniest Actor in a Motion Picture, for When Harry Met Sally. . . , 1989; four Emmy Awards, 1989, 1991; American Comedy Award, Funniest Actor in a Motion Picture, for City Slickers , 1991; ShoWest Special Award for Comedy Star of the Decade, 1991; Women in Film Crystal Award, 1991; Creative Achievement Award, American Comedy Awards, 1993; Hasty Pudding Theatricals Man of the Year, 2000. Agent: Creative Artists Agency, 9830 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90212, U.S.A.
SST: Death Flight ( SST: Disaster in the Sky ) (Rich—for TV) (as David)
Human Feelings (Pintoff—for TV); Rabbit Test (Joan Rivers) (as Lionel Carpenter)
Breaking Up Is Hard to Do (Antonio—for TV) (as Danny Doyle); Animalympics (Kroyer and Lisberger) (voice)
Enola Gay: The Men, the Mission, the Atomic Bomb (Rich—for TV) (as Lieutenant Jacob "Jake" Beser)
This Is Spinal Tap (Reiner) (as Morty the Mime)
Running Scared (Hyams) (as Danny Costanzo)
Throw Momma from the Train (DeVito) (as Larry); The Princess Bride (Reiner) (as Miracle Max)
Memories of Me (Winkler) (as Abbie) (+ pr, sc); An All-Star Toast to the Improv (Miller) (as himself)
When Harry Met Sally. . . (Reiner) (as Harry Burns); Midnight Train to Moscow (for TV) (as himself)
City Slickers (Underwood) (as Mitch Robbins) (+ pr, sc)
Mr. Saturday Night (as Buddy Young Jr.) (+ d, pr, sc)
City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly's Gold (Weiland) (as Mitch Robbins) (+ pr, sc); Baseball (doc) (Burns—for TV) (as himself); In Search of Dr. Seuss (Paterson—for TV) (as The Voice of America); A Century of Cinema (doc) (Thomas) (as himself)
Forget Paris (as Mickey Gordon) (+ d, pr, sc)
Hamlet (Branagh) (as First Gravedigger)
Fathers' Day (Reitman) (as Jack Lawrence); Deconstructing Harry (Allen) (as Larry/Satan); I Am Your Child (Reiner—for TV)
My Giant (Lehman) (as Sam "Sammy" Kamin) (+ pr, sc)
Analyze This (Ramis) (as Ben Sobol) (+ exec pr); Get Bruce (doc) (Kuehn) (as himself)
The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle (McAnuff)
Monsters, Inc. (Docter and Silverman—animation) (as voice of Mike Wzowski)
With Dick Schaap, Absolutely Mahvelous , New York, 1986.
"Crystal Clear," interview with A. Hunter, in Films and Filming (London), no. 406, July 1988.
Essay in Rolling Stone Book of Comedy , edited by Bonnie Schiffman and Bill Zehme, Boston, Massachusetts, 1991.
"The Stand-Up Delivers," interview with B. Case, in Time Out (London), no. 1183, 21 April 1993.
Allen, Steve, essay in Funny People , New York, 1982.
"Billy Crystal," in Current Biography , 1987.
Lloyd, R., "Pals," in American Film (Hollywood), vol. 14, no. 9, July-August, 1989.
* * *
The poster art for Billy Crystal's hit movie City Slickers (1991)—with Crystal in saddle and spurs, wearing a New York Mets cap on his head—succinctly captures Crystal's ability to reconcile classic Hollywood imagery with his own persona. His wry, skeptical attitude has made him an unlikely romantic hero, and his ability to combine nostaligia has led him to emcee the epitome of schmaltz and sincerity, the Academy Awards.
Crystal was born in showbiz; his father managed the Colony record store in midtown Manhattan, and an uncle, Milt Gabler, was a jazz producer (according to family legend, Crystal was named for family friend Billie Holliday). Crystal attended Marshall University on a baseball scholarship, and later studied film at New York University under Martin Scorsese. His early professional work was as a mimic, and his loving impressions of Muhammad Ali and Howard Cosell drew praise across the board. Steve Allen noted, "(H)e is more than merely an impressionist, because his essential comic quality is dominant, whereas most impressionists could not succeed as comedians if they did not employ the voices of well-known figures."
Crystal was willing to risk embarrassment in his first major acting roles, playing the TV sitcom's first gay character on ABC's Soap (1977–81) and a pregnant male in Joan Rivers' over-the-top misfire Rabbit Test (1978). During the late 1970s Crystal developed a rapport with a group of cutting-edge comedians and satirists in Southern California, including Albert Brooks and Rob Reiner. And Crystal's monologues included such original characters as jazz musician "Face" and transsexual cabaret singer Penny Lane.
In 1984 Crystal spent a productive season on NBC's Saturday Night Live , where his impressions of TV host Joe Franklin, laid-back actor Fernando Lamas, and superstar Sammy Davis, Jr. earned him widespread acclaim. Crystal immediately left the series to develop his film career. Running Scared (1986), directed by Peter Hyams, gave Crystal the chance to trade smart one-liners with cop sidekick Gregory Hines, and resolve his conflict with his estranged wife. Crystal gave Hines room to act, and he also was effective in the flim's romantic scenes. The Beverly Hills Cop -knockoff was a critical and box-office success.
Crystal scored again in Danny DeVito's Throw Momma from the Train (1987), where his detachment on-screen played well opposite DeVito's matricidal character and Anne Ramsay's passive-aggressive mother. An often-overlooked Crystal movie is Memories of Me (1988, Henry Winkler), where his doctor character reconciles with his aging actor father (Alan King). Crystal co-wrote the script with Eric Roth, and the screenplay effectively switches between Borscht Belt humor and melodrama. Roger Ebert complimented King and Crystal's rapport: "Their timing has the almost effortless music of two professionals who have spent their lifetimes learning how to put the right spin on a word. . . Crystal is very good in a role that must have been second nature to him." Crystal would further explore the life of a middling Jewish-American showbiz character in his directorial debut, Mr. Saturday Night (1992), which resurrected his standup persona of insult-comic extraordinaire Buddy Young, Jr. ("Nice body odor, lady—you smell like landfill").
Crystal's biggest hit to date was When Harry Met Sally. . . (1989), in which he winningly played Meg Ryan's platonic male friend over a 15-year span. Again, Crystal's generosity shone through; he consciously encouraged director Rob Reiner to make Ryan, not himself, the center of the movie's famous deli scene, a scene which catapulted Ryan to stardom. The Nora Ephron-scripted film owed much to Woody Allen films, but When Harry Met Sally. . . demanded more than one-liners to succeed. Crystal's genuinely touching reconciliation with Ryan the night after consummating their relationship gave the movie its strength.
City Slickers (1991) allowed Crystal to hilariously explore the psyche of middle-aged men in the 1990s, as Crystal and his childhood buddies herd cattle as a metaphor for organizing their messy personal lives. In a potent early scene, Crystal poignantly describes the stages of life to his son's grade-school class; to paraphrase Lincoln, he cracks jokes because he must not cry. While out West he and his buddies reminisce about the past (including a touching discussion about baseball), match wits with mythical cowboy Jack Palance (Crystal: "Kill anybody today?" Palance, coldly: "Day ain't over yet"), and reconnect with their wives and families.
Crystal scored his biggest hit of the late 1990s as the shrink of a neurotic Mob don in Analyze This (1999). Once again, Crystal willingly allowed his costar to get the laughs. In this case it was Robert De Niro, the protégé of Crystal's former mentor, Martin Scorsese. Crystal's reactions to De Niro's deadpan quips were priceless, and his presence complemented De Niro's. Though not in the same class with the similarly-themed TV series The Sopranos , Analyze This was a well-produced contemporary movie comedy.
In 1990 Crystal was pegged to host the Academy Awards, a task that had daunted bigger names. In a series of hosting gigs during the 1990s Crystal proved to be the ceremony's best host since Bob Hope, with a crack writing staff backstage to take advantage of spontaneous on-stage goofs, the dexterity to sing and dance elaborate production numbers of each year's five Best Picture nominees, and a strong adlib ability (when 100-year-old honoree Hal Roach's microphone went dead during the 1992 ceremony, Crystal quipped that it was fitting, since Roach began with silent films).
Crystal's most prominent flops have been City Slickers II (1994), a spiritless reworking of the original, and Father's Day (1997), an uninspired teaming with fellow comedian Robin Williams. These failures suggest that Crystal is better off exploring new subjects and collaborators. There's no reason Crystal can't appear on a future Oscar telecast—as a recipient.