On this day in 1948, the comedian and actor Billy Crystal, who will become known for his starring roles in such movies as When Harry Met Sally… and City Slickers, is born in Long Beach, California.
Crystal began performing in comedy clubs as a teenager; after graduating from New York University’s film school, he formed his own comedy troupe, 3’s Company. As a young stand-up comic, Crystal opened for acts like the singer Barry Manilow and was particularly known for his impression of the sportscaster Howard Cosell interviewing Muhammad Ali. After setting off for Hollywood, Crystal landed the role of Jodie Dallas, one of the first openly gay characters on television, on Soap (1977-81). Though his first film, Rabbit Test (1978)–in which he played the world’s first pregnant man–flopped, Crystal’s star kept rising. His popular live performances and regular appearances on TV’s Saturday Night Live landed him roles in a string of movies, including Rob Reiner’s This is Spinal Tap (1984), Running Scared (1986) and The Princess Bride (1987), and Throw Momma From the Train (1987). In 1989, he made his highest-profile star turn yet, playing opposite Meg Ryan in the hit romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally…, also directed by Reiner.
In 1990, Crystal won over audiences with his first Oscar hosting gig, performing silly songs based on the nominated films and popping up in film-clip montages. He would host the ceremony seven more times (1991, 1992, 1993, 1997, 1998, 2000 and 2004), along with a number of other events, including the Grammy Awards and the HBO benefit series Comic Relief, alongside Whoopi Goldberg and Robin Williams. Crystal scored his biggest movie hit to date in 1991, playing a radio executive going through a mid-life crisis in City Slickers (1991), which he also executive-produced. The film’s success led to a memorable moment at the 1992 Oscars, when Crystal’s 73-year-old co-star, Jack Palance, dropped to the stage to perform one-armed pushups when accepting his statuette for Best Supporting Actor. As emcee that night, Crystal wrung maximum comedic potential about the incident with his follow-up jokes. The film’s sequel, City Slickers 2: The Legend of Curly’s Gold, came out in 1994.
Crystal had less success with his next producing and acting effort, the ambitious 1992 film Mr. Saturday Night, which he also directed. In the film, Crystal played the stand-up comedian Buddy Young Jr., a character he had originated in 1984 and later portrayed on Saturday Night Live, among other shows. Mr. Saturday Night received mixed reviews, and was a failure at the box office. In 1995, Crystal wrote, directed, produced and starred in Forget Paris, a romantic comedy co-starring Debra Winger; the film was a critical and commercial disappointment.
Crystal appeared in Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet (1996) and Woody Allen’s Deconstructing Harry (1997), but another producing effort, 1998’s My Giant, also flopped. He came back strong, however, with 1999’s blockbuster hit Analyze This, as a therapist who counsels a mob boss, played by Robert De Niro. A sequel, Analyze That, was released in 2002. In between those big-screen successes, Crystal earned an Emmy Award nomination for directing the HBO movie 61*, about the home run race between Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle in 1961; the project was driven by Crystal’s longtime love of baseball. He also wrote and co-starred in the Hollywood-skewering comedy America’s Sweethearts and provided the voice of one of the lead characters in the animated hit Monsters, Inc., all in 2001.
After a three-year absence, Crystal returned to his Oscar hosting duties in 2004, for the eighth time. He was reportedly offered the Oscar hosting gig for the 2006 ceremony but turned it down to concentrate on his autobiographical one-man show, 700 Sundays, on Broadway. Attendance was so good that the show’s run was extended past its original booking; it also won a Tony Award for Best Theatrical Event. That same year, Crystal became a best-selling children’s book author with the release of I Already Know I Love You (2006), based on his experiences with the birth of his first granddaughter.