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CRYSTAL, BILLY: AMERICA'S SWEETHEARTS

CRYSTAL CLEAR ABOUT LIFE
Family and friends are his top priority, as Billy Crystal makes crystal clear to Jenny Cooney Carrillo, and hosting the Oscars again depends on him coming up with something new. Meantime, heís one of America sweethearts.

There is a lot to know about Billy Crystal, the three-time host of the Academy Awards show, star of hits such as When Harry Met Sally, Analyze This and City Slickers, writer of the new hit comedy Americaís Sweethearts, starring Julia Roberts and Catherine Zeta-Jones, and director of the recent TV baseball movie 61*, which earned him an Emmy nomination earlier this year.

But who would guess that one of the most revealing things you may discover about the 53-year-old comedian is why his all-time favorite song is an obscure Tony Bennett tune titled It Was Me. "I remember it was 1967 and it had a beautiful lyric about a young man telling this girl how he fell in love with her and I was brought up in a musical family with my uncle being a legendary producer of records by Billie Holiday and Sammy Davis so I loved the masters," Crystal says with much animation, always the jokester and the storyteller as he paces around the carpet of a plush New York hotel suite and wonít be persuaded to sit down Ė as if the stand-up comedian in him works better in front of a sitting audience.

"So of course that song is very special to meÖ."

"I had just met my girlfriend Janice at the time - now my wife of 31 years - and I had only known her a couple of weeks and she was going away for a month with her family and I was crest-fallen. So I took this song and wrote down the lyrics and gave it to her as she went away and told her it was something I wrote," he laughs. "I still have that letter and when Tony Bennett was doing Analyze This with us, he was shooting on the night of our 29th wedding anniversary in a New Jersey backyard and I told him the story and he sang it for us that night. We just danced all alone in somebodyís backyard and then he cut a CD of just that song for us," he adds dreamily. "So of course that song is very special to meÖ."

Although heís been making us laugh since he made his TV series debut back in 1977 on Soap, Billy Crystal has another side that is rarely written about: Billy Crystal the husband, the father and the friend. If Oscars were handed out for doing those jobs well, it seems heíd have a storage locker full. At home he proudly boasts about his daughters Lindsay, 25 and Jennifer, 28, but falls back to his self-defense mechanism of laughter when asked how they would describe him. "Probably as the grumpy guy in the morning," he smiles. "I was incredibly protective when they were younger. Growing up we had a deal that there was no sex until after Iím dead and that seemed to work for a while! But I think Iíve become a better actor over the years because of them, because of how I have to listen to them and learn how to say the right thing. Janice and I have this really grounded relationship where Iíve never missed a game that they played or show that they did and if I did, boy Iíd feel bad for weeks. I may have missed out on some things career-wise but I never cared about that because what else do you leave behind but this?" he shrugs.

Crystal takes his friendships just as seriously

Crystal takes his friendships just as seriously, proud to acknowledge close relationships with a delightfully diverse list including boxer Muhammad Ali, actor Robin Williams and baseball greats Joe DiMaggio and the great Mickey Mantle. An avid Yankees baseball fan who entered Marshall University in West Virginia on a baseball scholarship in 1964, Crystal finally combined his passion with his job earlier this year, directing the critically-acclaimed 61*, which told the story of the friendship between baseball greats Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle during the year that they were in competition to break Babe Ruthís record for most runs in one season.

"Mickey and I had become very good friends and I ended up co-writing his eulogy when he passed away," Crystal recalls. "And during Joeís first season with the team he gave me his numbers and said, Ďcall me, we are going to be in Californiaí. You should never give me your card and say Ďcall meí because I do," he says grinning. "We became great friends and have a great relationship to this day. They give me full access to the team and I work out with them and play. I was at spring training and I am in a uniform and I am with all of these guys and I have to tell you it feels like where I belong. Itís the weirdest thing," he adds, "but I am so comfortable with them."

And how did the spritely comic become buddies with the great boxing legend Ali? "I did my first television show with him in 1974, when he had defeated George Foreman," he remembers. "I was a school teacher but I was being a comedian at night and I had this very good imitation of him and just by chance I got to perform on this television special and I did him and no one had ever done him, especially a white guy, and he went wild! He had me at the training camp and still to this day I talk to him once every month at least and am on the Board of Directors of his new museum. At my fiftieth birthday he showed up as a surprise and I love this guy because he is an amazingly close friend and not just some celebrity guy."

some of his most treasurer possessions

Indeed, despite having won a variety of the most prestigious awards in Hollywood, Crystal also acknowledges that some of his most treasurer possessions are actually baseball memorabilia. "I have a seat from the original Yankee Stadium that Mickey signed ĎWish you were still sittiní here and I was still playingí," he nods proudly. "And I have one of Mickeyís gloves that I bought at an auction which sits on the chair at home. I also have a really nice art collection but when you walk into my house, people just go right for the seat!"

The Long Beach, New York native worked part-time as a teacher back in 1969 while working on his stand-up comedy career but it wasnít until his first regular role on TV as Jody Dallas in Soap that things really got off the ground, leading to a series of TV movies, a fleeting variety show of his own and a busted pilot before he eventually became a crucial member of the Saturday Night Live ensemble, which then included Martin Short, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer during the 1984-85 season. From there Crystal transitioned to movies, with a small role as Morty the Mime in Rob Reinerís This is Spinal Tap before finally consolidating his box-office standing as the romantic lead in Rob Reiner's When Harry Met Sally in 1989.

Ironically it was this movie which set the foundation for the idea that would eventually become this yearís hit comedy Americaís Sweethearts, starring Catherine Zeta-Jones and John Cusack as a famous but estranged movie star couple who must reunite for one weekend at a press junket to promote their last movie together. Julia Roberts plays the mousy assistant and sister to the diva, secretly in love with the soon-to-be-ex-husband, and Billy Crystal gives a side-splitting performance as the studio publicist who will stop at nothing to plug the film.

People under pressure are funny

"I was doing a junket for another movie and this journalist in Italy said to me (in his best mock-Italian accent somewhere between De Niro and Benini); "Why donít you make another movie with Meg Ryan? You two were Americaís sweethearts and I want to see you again. I miss you. When you kiss somebody else, it donít seem right. When she kiss somebody else, it donít seem right. You should be sweethearts!í" he stops to compose himself. "So on that same press tour I went to London and an English DJ said the same thing and Meg had been there about a week before and he kept saying it didnít seem right to see us kissing other people because we were Americaís Sweethearts, and I started thinking about what if we had done five or six of those movies and we were married but we were apart and had to come back to a public place for the junket? People under pressure are funny and junkets are very pressurized situations."

And speaking of pressurized situations, itís only four months after Steve Martin has pulled off his first stint hosting the Academy Awards, with mixed reviews, and Crystal admits one of the most frequently asked questions at this current press junket is just when we can expect him to take on the greatest show on earth again. "I donít know what to tell you because itís not even July yet, right?" he says with an almost painful grimace. "I enjoy doing it when I have a good idea how to do it but after doing it seven times, I donít have any fresh ideas and I canít do something when I donít feel happy doing it. I donít have anything to prove to myself anymore about doing the show and I love that fans of how we do the show miss me when I donít do it, but I canít have that pressure on my head all the time."

Published October 11, 2001

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