Billy Crystal Biography

Actor, Comedian (1948–)
Billy Crystal came to fame on the sitcom Soap. After a year on Saturday Night Live, he began a successful film career.


Born in New York in 1948, comedian Billy Crystal made his first appearance on The Tonight Show in 1975. As an actor, his first TV role was on the sitcom Soap. His career took off following a year on Saturday Night Live (1984), with hit films When Harry Met Sally (1989) and City Slickers (1991). Crystal won five Emmy Awards for hosting the Oscars, and received the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 2007.

Early Life

Award-winning actor and comic Billy Crystal was born William Edward Crystal on March 14, 1948, in Long Beach, New York. Billy Crystal has spent much of his life making people laugh. He grew up the youngest of three boys. A born entertainer, Crystal liked to sing, dance, and act with his brothers for family in their living room. "I was the little Jerry Lewis," he later told the Washington Post.

As a child, Crystal met several famous musicians and performers, including Billie Holiday, through his father, Jack Crystal, who acted as a booking agent for jazz acts. His father also ran the Commodore music store and co-founded the Commodore record label with Crystal's uncle, Milt Gabler. Crystal's father sometimes brought home comedy albums of performers such as Bill Cosby, and the recordings were early influences on the budding comic. His parents also let him stay up to watch such humorous television personalities as Jack Paar and Sid Caesar.

At the age of 8, he saw his first Yankees game with his father. The two shared a passion for the sport, which his father had played during college, and spent many Sundays watching games together. When Crystal was 15, he and his family suffered a terrible loss. His father died of a heart attack while out one night bowling.

After his father's death, Crystal played baseball in high school and in college at Marshall University in West Virginia. The university ended their baseball program after his first year, so he decided to return home. There he attended Nassau Community College for a time before enrolling at New York University where he earned a degree in film and television direction. In 1970, he married Janice Goldfinger.

Getting Into Comedy

After graduation, Crystal worked as a substitute teacher. He also started a comedy group with some friends, but he eventually decided to go it alone as a stand-up comedian. While his wife worked at a local college, Crystal took care of the couple's first child—a daughter named Jennifer, born in 1973. He sometimes brought Jennifer with him to his performances. Looking back, Crystal told Time magazine that "I loved those years of being Mr. Mom. One of the saddest days in my life was when Jennifer said, 'Dad, I can wash my own hair.'" The couple would welcome their second daughter, Lindsey, in 1977.

In 1975, Crystal made his first appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. He appeared to be a young comedian on the rise. That same year, Crystal suffered a professional setback when he lost an opportunity to perform on the first episode of the new late-night comedy sketch show Saturday Night Live. He had prepared a six-minute routine for the show, but Lorne Michaels, Saturday Night Live's producer, told him to cut it to two minutes. Unable to meet these demands or work out a compromise, Crystal did not appear on the show. "I remember Gilda [Radner] walking me out to the elevator asking 'What just happened?' And I said, 'I don't know,'" he later explained to the Washington Post. Most of the early Saturday Night Live cast, including John Belushi, Chevy Chase, and Bill Murray, quickly became big comedy stars while Crystal seemed to flounder.

Two years later, Crystal took the groundbreaking role of Jodie Dallas on the situation comedy Soap. He played one of the first openly gay characters on television, which caused quite a stir at the time. Some groups put pressure on Soap's sponsors to withdraw their support from the show because it dealt with homosexuality. Crystal struggled with the decision of whether to accept such a controversial part. "I had a stand-up career that was starting to bloom, and I had a lot of trepidation doing it ... I loved the time, and what we did on the show was important. But I think if I looked back—yeah, I should have waited for something that may have fit me better."

Saturday Night Live

During a break from Soap, Crystal filmed his first movie. He starred in Rabbit Test (1978), a comedy about a man who becomes pregnant. The film was co-written and directed by stand-up legend Joan Rivers. Despite the impressive names tied to the project, the film proved to be a commercial and critical disappointment.

After Soap ended in 1981, Crystal landed his own comedy show. The Billy Crystal Comedy Hour was short-lived, however. Only a few episodes made it to air in early 1982. He did manage to attract some attention with his small role as a mime in the rock music mock-umentary This Is Spinal Tap (1984), directed by Rob Reiner. That same year, Crystal put aside old grudges and finally joined the cast of Saturday Night Live.

Only on the show for one season, Crystal created several memorable characters, such as swanky television host Fernando Lamas. This character's catchphrase, "You look mahvelous," became part of popular culture. Crystal also did some spot-on impressions, wowing audiences with his take on Howard Cosell and Sammy Davis, Jr. For his work on the show, he received his first Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Individual Performance in a Variety or Music Program.

Rise to Fame

Not long after his stint on Saturday Night Live, Crystal's career began to take off. He launched the popular televised comedy fundraiser, Comedy Relief, with Whoopi Goldberg and Robin Williams in 1986. The show aired annually for 12 years. In perhaps the biggest role of his career, he starred opposite Meg Ryan in the romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally... (1989). The two played single friends whose relationship evolves into a romance. Directed by Rob Reiner and written by Nora Ephron, the film received warm reviews and became a huge box-office hit.

Crystal scored again two years later with City Slickers (1991). This time, he played an urban middle-aged man who travels with two friends to the West to participate in a cattle drive. The film followed their fish-out-of-water misadventures, and their encounters with a tough trail boss, played by Jack Palance.

Around this time, Crystal also established himself as the ultimate award show host. He hosted the Grammy Awards in 1988 and the Academy Awards in 1990. Since then, Crystal has hosted the Academy Awards eight more times, most recently in 2012. "I love being 'captain of show business' for one night a year, but it is hard to keep doing it better," Crystal once told Time magazine. Over the years, he won five Emmy Awards for his work on the Academy Awards ceremony.

Known for his likeable personality and soft-edged humor, Crystal delved into darker territory with Mr. Saturday Night (1992). He played a bitter, aging comic named Buddy Young in the film. While it was a box office disappointment, the project remains one of Crystal's favorites. He not only starred in the film, but wrote and directed it as well. Reuniting with Palance, Crystal found greater commercial success with City Slickers 2: The Legend of Curly's Gold (1994). He also served as a writer and producer for the project.

Later in the 1990s, Crystal went to work with director Woody Allen on the comedy Deconstructing Harry (1997). He scored another big hit with Analyze This (1999), a comedy about a crime boss (Robert De Niro) who seeks help from a therapist played by Crystal. This humorous odd couple reunited for the 2002 sequel, Analyze That.

Hollywood Success

Around this time, Crystal returned to his love of baseball to direct the television movie 61*. The movie tells the story about the 1961 race between Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle to break Babe Ruth's home run record. "This movie, quite honestly, connected me with my father in the best possible way," Crystal told reporters, reminding him of all the games the two had enjoyed together. Crystal was a fan of Mantle's, and even befriended the baseball legend in his later years, which added an extra challenge to the film. "I would have to say and do things in the movie that were real and honest. It's one thing for older Mickey, when he was alive, to say, 'Yeah, I drank and I fooled around,' but when you see young, vital, handsome Mickey actually doing it ... But it's very important for the story." His hard work and commitment to candor paid off. Crystal received an Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Directing for a Mini-series, Movie or a Special, and the project received a nomination for Outstanding Made for Television Movie.

Continuing to work off-camera, Crystal put his talent for creating interesting voices to use in animated films. He handled one of the lead characters in Monsters, Inc. (2001) as well as a small part in Cars (2006). Crystal also branched out in another direction—as a children's author. He wrote I Already Know I Love You (2004) shortly after the birth of his first grandchild.

In December 2004, Crystal brought his most personal work to the Broadway stage. He wrote and performed 700 Sundays, the one-man show that took its title from Crystal's calculations on how much time he got to spend with his father before his death. Filled with family stories and sports references, the show won a Tony Award for special theatrical event in 2005.

Recent Work

In 2006, Crystal reunited with Robin Williams and Whoopi Goldberg for a special edition of Comic Relief. The trio brought back the comedy fund-raising event to benefit those affected by Hurricane Katrina. As Crystal told People magazine, "The problems are still out there, and what's cool is we're still there. This is the 'We Still Have Our Own Hips' tour!"

The following year, Crystal became the 10th person to receive the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor from the Kennedy Center. He joined a list of other distinguished comedians, including George Carlin, Richard Pryor and Steve Martin, who have also been awarded this honor.

Continuing with his film career, Crystal plays a grandfather in the 2012 comedy Parental Guidance, with Bette Midler and Marisa Tomei. He also has several other projects in the works, including the upcoming animated feature Monster University.

Crystal currently lives in California with his wife, Janice. Their two grown daughters have followed in their father's footsteps—Jennifer is an actress and Lindsey is a filmmaker. Crystal executive produced Lindsey's 2003 documentary, Uncle Berns.

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