Interviews


Billy Crystal


Occupation: Actor, Comedian, Director, Producer, Writer
Date of Birth: March 14, 1947
Place of Birth: New York, N.Y., USA
Sign: Sun in Pisces, Moon in Sagittarius
Relations: Wife: Janice; kids: Jennifer, Lindsay; father: Jack (jazz promoter; deceased); mother: Helen (homemaker); brothers: Joel (high school teacher), Richard (TV producer)
Education: Marshall University, Nassau Community College, New York University Film School

 

BILLY CRYSTAL has been a successful stand-up comic and talk show guest since his twenties  he's been hamming it up even longer than that. Born in Long Beach, New York, to a homemaker mother and a jazz promoter father who also managed the Commodore Music Shop on 42nd Street in New York City and founded the Commodore jazz record label, Crystal was steeped in show business from a young age. As early as 5, he would spontaneously jump up on stage and tap dance with some of the nation's top jazz talents, many of whom the Crystal family called friends. One such fond associate was jazz luminary Billy Holliday, who would frequently babysit young Billy; she affectionately referred to her precocious charge as "Face."

But a career as a performer didn't hold a candle to Crystal's real dream: from the spring day in 1956 when his father walked him down Jerome Avenue for his first Yankees game, he aspired to be a professional baseball player. Toward attaining that goal, he played the game up through high school and then headed off to Marshall University in West Virginia on a baseball scholarship. Once there, he kept his wit razor-sharp by hosting a campus call-in radio show. When the baseball program was abolished the following year, Crystal transferred to Nassau Community College in Long Island, leaving behind forever his dreams of becoming a major league shortstop. One year later, he enrolled at New York University, where he studied film and television direction, partially under the tutelage of filmmaker Martin Scorsese.

After completing his B.F.A. in 1970, Crystal wed his college sweetheart, Janice, and returned to his hometown of Long Beach. Settled into married life, he supported himself with substitute-teacher jobs and began crafting a comedy act that he eventually performed at various comedy clubs in the city. He gained further exposure and experience by touring for several years with a generally unsuccessful improv group he helped form called 3's Company.

Performing on his own in the mid-'70s, Crystal moved his family (daughter Jennifer was born in 1973) to Los Angeles, where he continued doing his stand-up routine. After being spotted by television producer Norman Lear during a gig at L.A.'s Comedy Store nightclub, Crystal was entrusted with several TV assignments of varying importance (several appearances on All in the Family; a guest spot on Howard Cosell's quickly-euthanized variety show) before Lear handed him the role of Jodie Dallas, television's first openly gay character, on the controversial soap-opera satire Soap, which debuted in the infamous 1977-1978 "season of sex." Initially lambasted by conservatives, religious groups, and the National Gay Task Force (the group put him on its "enemies list" for advancing gay stereotypes), Crystal eventually toned down his characterization and became a favorite character on the five-season hit. Comedienne Joan Rivers was so charmed by his performance as the acerbic Jodie that she tapped him to star in her 1978 directorial-debut film Rabbit Test, in which Crystal played a man who discovers that he is pregnant in the wake of a one-night-stand atop a pinball table.

Understandably, Crystal's rather odd film debut didn't exactly launch him into the cinematic stratosphere. Returning to New York in the early '80s, he instead advanced his small-screen career by appearing in several cable specials, TV movies, and series guest spots, and by hosting a short-lived comedy hour. Meanwhile, he honed his stand-up skills and improvisational savvy by touring nightclubs and college campuses, specializing on note-perfect impersonations of Sammy Davis Jr. and Fernando Lamas ("You look mahhhhhvelous!"). His meticulous training paid off when he and his Sammy and Fernando were invited to join the cast of Saturday Night Live, in 1984. During his one season on the show, Crystal emerged as the most popular cast member and earned an Emmy nomination in the Best Individual Performance category.

Despite the patent absurdity of his feature-film debut outing, Crystal went on to turn in memorable performances in Rob Reiner's This Is Spinal Tap (as Morty the Mime) and The Princess Bride (as wizened wizard Miracle Max). In a leading-man capacity, he headlined the so-so cop action-comedy Running Scared and the ferociously funny Danny De Vito swap-murder comedy Throw Momma From the Train, before achieving big-screen star status in Reiner's gushy romantic vehicle When Harry Met Sally . . . and the mid-life-crisis-sufferer comedy City Slickers. He made a return move to Los Angeles, where he capitalized on his mounting screen success by writing, directing, producing, and starring in Mr. Saturday Night, a bittersweet and heartfelt film about the six-decade career of a stand-up comic that unfortunately stiffed at the box office. Also disappointing were the routine sequel City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly's Gold and Forget Paris, a comedy inspired by the events and experiences of Crystal's own quarter-century-long marriage. He failed to hit his comic groove opposite longtime friend Robin Williams in Fathers' Day, Ivan Reitman's 1997 remake of the French comedy Les Compères; both funnymen fared better with their minor assignments in Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet and Woody Allen's Deconstructing Harry.

In 1998, Crystal scored points in the role of a cynical two-bit talent agent who exploits and ultimately befriends his good-natured behemoth of a client (played by freakishly large Washington Wizards star center Gheorghe Muresan) in the Crystal-produced comedy My Giant, and the following year witnessed him in good comic form as a psychiatrist who reluctantly treats a Mafia don on the verge of a nervous breakdown (Robert De Niro) in the Harold Ramis-directed comedy Analyze This.

Should his film career ever give up the ghost entirely, Crystal can always fall back on his gig as America's favorite Oscar host. He has won several performing and writing Emmy Awards for his inspired and exuberant emceeing of the star-stuffed event, which he has hosted six times. Since 1986, Crystal has united with fellow comedian-actors Williams and Whoopi Goldberg to co-host the popular HBO Comic Relief benefit specials. Now armed with the star power to produce, direct, and write for the big and small screens, Crystal has also expressed a desire to someday mount a one-man show on Broadway.

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