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Billy Crystal - Biography

TalkTalk have created this exclusive biography of Billy Crystal - we believe it to be the most comprehensive on the web

Billy Crystal

Personal details

Name: Billy Crystal
Born: 14 March 1947 (Age: 68)
Where: Long Island, New York, USA
Height: 5' 8"
Awards: 4 Emmy Wins, 3 Golden Globe nominations

All about this star


Over the last two decades, Billy Crystal has enjoyed many a screen triumph. He broke through as a TV soap-star. On film, he's been involved in several mainstream super-hits. And, as seven-time host of the Oscars, he's regularly performed to an audience of over a billion, causing many to consider him - slick, confident, and wholly unflustered - to be the ultimate professional, perhaps even the face of corporate entertainment. But there is another side to Billy Crystal. From the very beginning of his career, he's really been more of an "alternative" stand-up, often at the centre of comedic controversy. He's also, pretty much from birth, been right on the cutting-edge of political and social revolution. Surprised? You don't know Billy.

He was born on the 14th of March, 1947, on Long Island, New York. His mother, Helen, was a home-maker, and his father, Jack, a concert promoter. There were two brothers - Joel (later a high school teacher) and Richard (a TV producer). Some of Billy's lifelong interests were formed early. In 1956, he attended his first Yankees game and fell in love with baseball but, even before then, other seeds were sown.

Jack, you see, was not simply a concert promoter. He was a JAZZ promoter. Perhaps more importantly, he also ran the famous Commodore Music Shop on 42nd Street and, along with Milt Gabler, had formed the pioneering Commodore jazz label. Gabler had gone on to work for Decca, promoting "race" and "hillbilly" music (ie. R&B and Country) and would later sign Bill Haley, even producing the classic Rock Around The Clock. But the Commodore label was the first big step. Jazz was extremely popular, but still underground. Bigotry was still the industry norm and great artists like Billie Holiday and Jelly Roll Morton had no way of reaching a wider audience. Till Gabler, Crystal and Commodore, that is. They promoted the gigs, and produced the records that would change our musical tastes (and some of our political notions) forever. The greatest ever musical assault on racism, Holiday's notorious, groundbreaking Strange Fruit, was a Commodore recording.

For little Billy this was all great fun. To him, Billie Holiday was not a man-eating, world-changing drug queen. She was that nice babysitter, who called him Face. And the other jazz stars were simply there to provide his backing music. His dad's shop was THE meeting place for musicians and aficionados, and many spent time at Billy's house. He knew them, went with his dad to their gigs and, on numerous occasions, jumped up onstage and performed tap routines. Precocious he was, and already exhibiting the kind of nerve that would allow him to perform faultlessly before a billion-strong audience.

But Billy's preferred stage was not rectangular, it was diamond-shaped. Baseball was his first love, and he was near-obsessed. He was schooled in the past exploits of Yankees like Babe Ruth and, at 14, was thrilled by the home-run race between Yankees Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris (won by Maris with a record 61. Forty years later, Crystal would direct a movie about this contest, called 61*). Billy played the game too, to a very high standard. Wanting desperately to make the Majors, he attended Marshall University at Huntingdon, West Virginia, on a baseball scholarship. It went disastrously wrong. The College's baseball programme was scrapped, and with it went Billy's dreams.

Instead, he switched to Nassau College, back on Long Island, and it was here that several life-changing events occurred. First, he met his future wife, Janice Goldfinger. They would marry quickly, produce two daughters - actress Jennifer and film-maker Lindsay, both of whom have appeared in Billy's hit movies - and, unusually, would stay married for good.

Billy also turned his attention back to entertainment. He'd kept his wits sharp at Marshall by hosting a radio call-in show. At Nassau, he discovered theatre and he threw himself into it, changing his major and even directing and starring in a version of The Fantastiks. Billy was bitten badly, and transferred to New York University film school to study film and TV direction, at one point being taught by Martin Scorsese. He worked as House Manager on a production of You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown. Earning $40 a week, he was also understudy for many of the characters, and an usher. Ever-ambitious, he spotted TV legend Walter Cronkite in the crowd one night. Wanting to make an impression, Billy approached in the darkness and whispered "Mr Cronkite, if there's anything I can do to make you more comfortable . . .", to which Cronkite tersely replied "Well, you can start by getting that flashlight out of my face". Billy was crushed.

But there was yet another string to Billy's bow - comedy. As a kid, he'd loved Steve Allen, Sgt Bilko and the funny guests on the Ed Sullivan Show, and it was in this area that his ambition lay. Returning to Long Island with a BFA and his new wife, he worked as a substitute teacher and gradually built an act. Thanks to his friends and family, Billy had a host of Jewish jokes as his disposal. He furthermore had a real talent for mimicry and, having grown up around all those musicians, he did black people particularly well. He performed at comedy clubs in the city and soon put together an improv group called 3's Company. They didn't last.

It was a real struggle. Billy gigged in New York and toured extensively, to little avail. Eventually, he moved the family to Los Angeles, hoping for a shot, and he got one. Spotted at the Comedy Store by TV producer Norman Lear, he found himself, in 1976, cast as Meat-head's best friend in the mega-hit All In The Family. Oddly, the actor who played Meat-head actually became his best friend in real life. And a big help too, as he was Rob Reiner. Billy would work with him often, notably in This Is Spinal Tap ("Mime is money!") and as a freaky warlock reanimating the dead in Reiner's The Princess Bride.

Good things were now happening. When Robert Klein fell ill, Crystal was called in to replace him at a roast for Muhammad Ali. He did magnificent impressions of both Ali and Howard Cosell and the VIP crowd loved him. Ali told him he would forever know him as "my little brother". Better still, he appeared on Cosell's top-rated variety show.

All this led to the first big break, as Jodie Dallas in the sitcom Soap. This involved two highly dysfunctional and utterly hilarious families, the Campbells and the Tates. The show - bizarre, challenging and farcical - made stars of Katherine Helmond, Richard Mulligan and, in particular, the Tates' butler, Benson, played by Robert Guillaume who'd get his own spin-off series. And it made Crystal too. Jodie was the first openly gay character in TV history and caused a storm, at first in the wrong way. The National Gay Task Force put Crystal down on their "enemies" list, believing Jodie to be a stereotype. Crystal in turn deepened his character, cut down on the flamboyant gestures and made Jodie wittier, more like himself. Jodie thus became the show's most popular character and, as the show was such a hit, helped soften attitudes towards gays. Crystal found himself once again involved in The Good Fight.

Billy now made his screen debut in Joan Rivers' hit and miss comedy The Rabbit Test, starring as the world's first pregnant man (years before Schwarzenegger). He appeared in several TV movies and, as Soap came to an end in 1981, made many TV guest appearances, hosted variety show The Billy Crystal Hour and produced several Billy Crystal specials for cable. He continued his stand-up work, touring often and making a big splash in Las Vegas. Then came the second big break when, in 1984, he was asked to join the cast of Saturday Night Live, the big "alternative" comedy sketch show that had spawned the likes of John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase. Starring alongside Christopher Guest and Martin Short, Billy was a revelation. His impersonations were perfect for the show, the audience loved his Sammy Davis Jr, and his Fernando Lamas - his catchphrase, "You look maaaahvelous" being quoted constantly across the nation. Then he was Willie The Masochist, who'd damage himself horribly and say "I hate it when that happens". He also, with Guest, performed an 8-minute skit where both pretended to be aged black baseball players. Crystal still considers it his finest work to date.

For his work on SNL, he was Emmy-nominated but, more importantly, he was now hot property. He broke into movies proper with Running Scared, playing a street cop alongside Gregory Hines. There was the dark Danny DeVito comedy Throw Momma From The Train, and Memories Of Me, a bitter-sweet tale of a comedian falling sick, written by Crystal and directed by Henry "The Fonz" Winkler. In the meantime, Billy's fame was boosted further still when, in 1986, he began the US version of Comic Relief, along with Whoopi Goldberg and Robin Williams. He would appear, without fail, at the charity's annual shows, helping to raise over $40 million for housing and medical care for the homeless. He'd also form the Billy Crystal Peace Through Performing Arts Project which, based at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, would bring Jewish and Arab students together in workshops aiming to promote social, cultural and artistic understanding. In this troubled millennium, there is no more important project.

It went from great to amazing. First Rob Reiner cast Billy alongside Meg Ryan in his When Harry Met Sally, Crystal being perfect in the role of the clever, funny, tormented fellow who just can't commit. Then came City Slickers where Crystal, along with Daniel Stern, played a poncey urban type who, in order to find the Real Him, decides to drive cattle from New Mexico to Colorado. Both films were monster hits. In between them, Billy became the first famous Western comedian to play the Soviet Union after the fall of the Berlin Wall, documenting his trip in the TV special Midnight Train To Moscow. He also hosted the Oscars for the first time, going on to do so on seven occasions, winning several Emmies. He got so famous he even had people impersonating HIM, one Mark Neyndorff (who claims to have been born on the same day as Billy), making a very reasonable living as an MC. And when Jay Leno took over from Johnny Carson as the king of late-night TV, who did he call to be his first, guaranteed-to-make-me-look-good guest? That's right - Mark Neyndorff. A joke, it was Billy.

Now, as one of the very few comedians who managed to become movie stars, Billy could do his own thing. He created and produced his own series, Sessions, an intelligent comedy about a fellow in therapy. He got involved in several baseball-based projects, and he wrote his own scripts - for City Slickers 2, the romantic comedy Forget Paris, and for Mr Saturday Night, also starring as an old comic whodoesn't know when to quit (the tag-line was the excellent "It's lonely at the middle").

The mid-Nineties brought several projects with Robin Williams. They both appeared briefly in Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet, then co-starred in Father's Day, both as ex-lovers of Nastassja Kinski and both convinced that her runaway son is theirs. To promote the movie, the pair appeared on Friends, Crystal as a gynaecologist who's slept with friend Williams' wife. Then came Woody Allen's Deconstructing Harry. Allen was a friend of Crystal's from back in the Seventies. The pair had played basketball together and once defeated a much taller pair, an event Allen still talks about. Crystal recalls Allen once telling him on court "Don't guard me too close. I tend to get nauseous".

And the hits kept coming. Analyze This, where Crystal played the therapist of mobster Robert De Niro, was a big hit. And, on the other side of the camera, he was nominated, as director, for 61*, the programme receiving 12 nominations in all. Crystal just can't get enough of the Yankees, in 1999 paying $239,000 for a glove made by Rawlings for Mickey Mantle in 1960.

Making a neat circle, in 2000 Crystal hosted another roast for Muhammad Ali, this time in Louisville, Kentucky. And he hit big yet again, along with Julia Roberts and Catherine Zeta-Jones in rom com America's Sweethearts. Here, Zeta-Jones and John Cusack play a film-star couple who've secretly broken up, just as their new movie is about to be released. Billy is their publicist, desperately trying to keep the truth from the press. The film had the third best rom com opening in history, behind Runaway Bride and What Women Want.

Where the impossibly young-looking Billy Crystal will go next is anyone's guess. The desire for an audience that he showed when tap-dancing beside Jelly Roll Morton will probably see him host the Oscars again and again - the nation demands it, really. He will write more scripts - he's too smart not to. And he will continue to make films about his first love, baseball. A 24-hour documentary charting the history of his beloved Yankees is not out of the question. That's Billy. When he loves, he REALLY loves.

Dominic Wills


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