[Editor’s note: Oprah sat down with Billy Crystal in 2004 after he last hosted the Academy Awards. Now that he’s returning for the 9th time, we’re looking back to see how he became the Designated Host.]
And he's done plenty. At 4 he was putting on shows for relatives. After his father died when he was 15, Billy worked hard on his comedy to try to make his mother laugh. In his early 20s, he formed an improv group with two friends. In 1970 he married Janice Goldfinger, and three years later he was Mr. Mom, caring for his daughter and even taking her along when he performed at New York's improv club Catch a Rising Star. He made his film debut in 1978's Rabbit Test while on hiatus from Soap—a soap opera spoof in which he played Jodie Dallas, one of the first openly gay characters in a TV series. His most successful movie, 1989's When Harry Met Sally, came his way after he joined the cast of Saturday Night Live for one season in 1984. And in February, he hosted the Oscars for the eighth time.
On the afternoon I dropped in for a visit, Billy's Los Angeles home was filled with the people he loves: his wife, daughters, and grandbaby. The house is rich in mementos. In the study sits a gift presented to him by the Anti-Defamation League in 1991: a seat from Yankee Stadium, inscribed by Mickey Mantle. "Billy," it reads, "wish you was still sittin' here and I was still playin'." On the wall is a framed program from a Yankees game Billy attended when he was 8. A few paces away, the wooden door from his childhood bedroom has been fitted to a closet, with the old baseball decals still on it.
As we talked, I had a few surprising "I need a tissue" moments. But Kleenex aside, Billy did what he does best—he left everyone in his presence feeling a little lighter.
Start reading Oprah's interview with Billy Crystal
Oprah: When did you know you could make people laugh for a living—that comedy was serious for you?
Billy: It was always serious for me. I can't do much else. I can field ground balls. I taught for a while. And with help, I can raise babies into women. You see this picture? [Crystal points to an old black-and-white photo.] This is from a high school show in 1964. I did Bill Cosby's "Noah." Just took the routine from him, word for word, and didn't even think it was stealing. Years later my friends started calling me up saying, "There's this guy, Bill Cosby, who's doing your stuff!" And Dad would always bring home comedy albums—Stan Freberg, Jonathan Winters, Cosby.
Oprah: You lost your father young.
Billy: I did—and right now I'm working on a show called "700 Sundays." My dad had two, sometimes three jobs. Besides running the Commodore Music Shop in Manhattan, he did jazz concerts, and he ran this great jazz label, Commodore. So our only day together was Sunday. I figured out the math one day and realized that, starting from the time I could remember, it was about 700 Sundays we had together—days that molded me and pushed me into the right place in what I've chosen to do.
Oprah: Were you funny as a kid?
Billy: I could always improvise. Some of my teachers remember me standing in front of the class with a flower on my head, talking about photosynthesis. I'd stop and say, "Is this working for any of you?" The kids were like, "What is he doing?"
Oprah: Did you perform for your parents?
Billy: Yes. Mom was so funny and loving to us kids. She was our first audience. When my dad died, I was suddenly alone in the house with her, because my two older brothers were away at college. I was the man of the house, and she was the grieving woman.
Oprah: Didn't you have an argument with your father the day you lost him?
Billy: I did. It was about a girl, my first love. She had dumped me the week before: "I just want to be your friend." I was grief stricken. I had a chemistry test and couldn't even open the book. Dad was mad at me. He said, "What are you doing?" We got into it. I'd never been fresh with him my entire life—he was my idol—and I said something to him like "You don't know what it's like." He was pissed when he left to go bowling, and a couple hours later he was dead. The weight of it was horrible.
Oprah: Did you think you'd caused it?
Billy: I sometimes thought so. I got him all worked up, and he had a terrible heart attack. Later a really brilliant therapist asked me, "Did you ever think about what he was feeling that night?" I never had. But I know that if I have a bad moment with my children, I can't wait to say "I'm sorry." When I realized that, it eased up a lot of stuff.
Oprah: I know that you've been married for more than 30 years.
Oprah: I love this quote from you: "I fell in love with the right person, a person I know and who knows me."
Billy: And we still find interesting things to talk about. I think she's more beautiful now than at any other time in her life. I just look at her and go, "Damn, girl, you're beautiful." I tell her that every day.
Oprah: What do you love most about her?
Billy: She's the kindest, most considerate, most honest person I've ever met. Straight dealer. No bullshit. Not a phony moment. And yet I don't recall her ever saying anything mean-spirited. Honesty's a rare commodity, and she's direct in a sweet way.
Oprah: And she knew you before you were "Billy Crystal."
Billy: I've never been that to her. She smacks me around!
Oprah: You mentioned earlier that before you were a professional comedian, you were a teacher. What did you teach?
Billy: I was a per diem floater in the same junior high school I went to. I sat in the office and made $42.50 a day, and whenever a teacher was absent, I'd substitute. I taught everything from English to auto shop. I'd be at the front of a class saying, "Listen, I don't know anything about science, but these two guys walk into a bar..." I'd only been out of school for a few years. I couldn't bring myself to call the teachers by their first names. I was like, "Ed, could you pass...? No, no, you're Mr. Graff to me." And the funniest part was being in the teachers' lounge.
Oprah: Isn't it amazing? When you're a kid, you always wonder what's going on in there.
Billy: It was like a mansion. Like Hef's place. Then I found out it was just a room where the teachers could smoke.
Oprah: I once saw my teacher out of school, with her own kids. It was the most shocking thing. I don't think kids think this way about their teachers anymore.
Billy: Now they date them! Around this time, I got out of the draft. God winked at me. Vietnam was raging, and the 1970 draft lottery was on television. I was dying: My life could be decided by Defense Secretary Melvin Laird, with 365 Ping-Pong balls and a hopper. The first 200 numbers called? Goodbye, you're goin' to 'Nam. By the time I got home that day, the first hundred had been called. I dialed Mom and said, "What happened with the lottery?" She said, "There's a two-hour Bonanza on. I didn't see it." Later I was watching The Joe Franklin Show, and they were running a ticker tape of the lottery numbers. I was free. I'd just been offered a permanent teaching job on Long Island, but I didn't take it. Instead I called two friends and said, "Let's form a comedy group."
Oprah: And you did that because you felt like, This is my chance?
Billy: Yes. Freedom. That was the greatest single gift I've ever received.
Oprah: Were you afraid?
Billy: Terrified. Every day we'd been watching this war on television, and it made no sense at all to me.
Oprah: And every day, we'd hear the death toll.
Billy: It was like a telethon: "We're up to 23,000 men killed." It was just an ugly time.
Oprah: So you moved forward—with fear.
Billy: I was hiding with this comedy group for four years. I loved my friends, and we were pretty funny, but I should've been out there by myself. A friend from NYU called me and said, "I need a comic for a frat party on Saturday night. Do you know anyone who can do 15, 20 minutes?" I said, "I'll do it." He said, "When did you start working alone?" I said, "I've been doing it for a while." Lie. He said, "Great. It's at 8 o'clock at the ZBT House on Mercer Street." I was like, "What the hell did I just do?" I hung up, then turned to my 18-month-old daughter and said, "Baby, we're going into show business." I had, like, six minutes of material. So I drive in, and I'm terrified. There are all the kids, sitting on the floor, waiting for the show to start. Then I hear, "The folksinger is delayed. Can you stretch?" I say, "Oh, sure." Now I'm more panicked than ever. Forget the draft—this was really scary. That night I did an hour and a half. I still don't remember what I said.
Oprah: An hour and a half?
Billy: I went berserk. What came out was all the years of frustration with the group. Jack Rollins—the guy who managed Woody Allen, Robert Klein, Dick Cavett—was in the audience, because he'd just started managing our group. A few months before, he'd said to me, "The group's not going anywhere, but if you think you want to do stand-up, I'll be there for you." Since I'd booked this gig myself, I said, "Listen, I'm getting $25, and I'm not paying you a commission." He showed up anyway, in pouring rain. Afterward he said, "Everything you did pretty much stinks, but let's go to work." The next night, when I told the other guys I'd done this, I felt like I'd cheated on them. They were dear friends. I said, "I can't do this anymore. I have to go out and try on my own."
Oprah: Did they understand?
Oprah: Did you take the baby with you to your shows?
Billy: I did. Back then my wife was working at a college, as an assistant to the dean of theater.
Oprah: I read somewhere that one of your saddest days was when Jen said, "I can wash my own hair now, Dad."
Billy: She wouldn't let me in the bathroom.
Oprah: How old was she then?
Billy: Nineteen [laughs]. The maturity fairy hit.
Oprah: So you did the hair combing, too?
Billy: I used to play a character, a hairdresser named Mr. Phyllis, and I'd shampoo my girls' hair and make it fabulous. We had a number of other characters, and we created our own languages. They just fell in with this nonsense.
Oprah: Tell me about Saturday Night Live.
Billy: I was asked to be on the very first show. I was doing this piece that took about six minutes. On Friday night, we had a live run-through. George Carlin was the host. Big audience. And the show wasn't very good that night, but my thing worked great. So I thought I was in fat city. Then I heard from Lorne [Michaels, the executive producer of SNL], "You have to do a piece that's two minutes total." But I really didn't have anything that could work in two minutes. So I called my managers. They met with Lorne, saying, "He can do it in five minutes, but we want him to be in the first hour." Lorne said, "Can't do it." I was sitting in the lobby, and my managers said, "Come on, we're going home." I said, "What are you talking about?" They said, "They can't do what we want, and you're not going to look good in this." I wasn't like, "Screw them." I was like, "This is where I belong. What the hell happened?" I watched the show go into history, and I ended up doing Howard Cosell.
Oprah: That must have been difficult.
Billy: I don't blame anyone. It just got all blown out of proportion with the managers. They stood up for me, and Lorne stood up for his show. I understand that. The hard part was calling all the relatives and saying, "I'm not going to be on." They're like, "But we took naps so we could watch this at 11:30, Mr. Big Shot. What did you do, open your mouth?"
Eight years later, I was asked to be a guest host. I hosted twice that season, and it went great. Then Dick Ebersol took over. Lorne was out. Dick said, "Would you think about being a regular if I got Marty Short and Chris Guest?" I said, "If they do it, I'll do it"—and I said it fast, because I knew it was a really smart move to make.
Oprah: As you'd watched all those guys whose careers were built on Saturday Night Live...
Billy: I should have been there. Maybe, in a way, it was a good thing. Maybe I wasn't ready then. When I did come back, I had chops. I had Fernando. [Crystal became known for his Fernando Lamas impression: "You look mahvelous!"] I had the character Chris Guest and I created. [Willie the Masochist would hurt himself and then claim, "I hate when that happens!"]
Oprah: In the moment you create a character like that, do you know it will be a cultural phenom?
Billy: No. You don't know. "You look mahvelous!" hooked in right away, and it wasn't even scripted. We had everybody on the show that year. Ringo, Howard Cosell, Siskel and Ebert, Mr. T, and Hulk Hogan. One night Barry Manilow didn't show up. He was playing Radio City Music Hall, right across the street. We said, "We'll race you over; the first sketch will be at 11:43 and then you're on." At 11:30 he said, "I'm not doing it." No Barry Manilow. I said, "Oh God, what are we going to do?" So I talked to Bobby, a guy who drove a crane for the camera. He weighed 350 pounds. I said, "Bobby, you'll play Barry Manilow." He said, "Okay. What do I do?" I said, "I don't know. Just play him. I'll explain to the audience that Barry couldn't make it, but I can't disappoint his fans, so here is Bobby." I asked, "What's your definition of love? Is it difficult for you to be a sex symbol in this age and to sing the songs that we love so much?" And he started singing, "I Write the Songs." It was priceless. I go, "That's enough," and he goes, "No, no, no" and keeps singing. It was just the best. People think that Chris and Marty and I were on for five years, but it was just one season. And from there, all the movies happened. I was lucky.
Oprah: That was a hot year. Does your brain think funnier after it's been warmed up?
Billy: Oh, yeah. And that year I was oiled. I also knew I was 37 years old, and I wasn't getting the movie parts. I had no visibility. I wasn't making a great living. I'd been playing Vegas and colleges, and I was away from my family. We lived on 13th Street, and when I'd walk to 30 Rock [to the SNL set], I'd have two characters in my head because I'd heard them on the street on the way up. I was ready for anything.
Oprah: Now I want to talk about the Oscars. I think the public's perception is that you really want to do movies—so you've skipped doing the Oscars every year because you don't want to be labeled....
Billy: As DH—Designated Host. I'd find myself getting defensive about it: "But I do other things." And yet it's a weird ability. If I enjoy it, why not do it more?
Oprah: Just accept that you're the best at it.
Billy: I thought Steve Martin was very good last year. That's when I knew I wanted to come back. I wanted to be out there because the war was happening. Pressure can make it really spicy for me, like, "Oooh, that'd be a great one to pull off." But I thought Steve was fantastic in a very difficult year. And Johnny and Bob have been great.
Oprah: I think you're better than Johnny Carson and Bob Hope.
Billy: It's hard for me to say it, but I think one of my strongest shows was in 1998. The morning after that show, I got two phone calls—and people know that when I'm doing a show, never call me at 8:30 in the morning, because I'm basically just getting in. So Mickey Rooney—one of the greatest talents of all time and someone I'd never met—called me. He said, "I was in the audience last night." I said, "Oh God, I didn't see you." He said, "Is that a short joke?" I said, "No, I just didn't see you." Then he said all these nice things. Five minutes after I hung up, Johnny Carson was on the phone. I went, "Hello?" He said [imitating Johnny's voice], "Billy? It's Johnny." I went berserk. I was sweating. So Johnny said, "I was sitting with some people, and I said, 'Look how great he is.' And Alex said to me, 'Why don't you call and tell him?' And you know what? Damn it, she was right." I said, "Johnny, this is the greatest moment in my life." He went, "Oh, bullshit." I said, "No, I'm telling you, I've always wanted to be able to say, 'Johnny Carson called me.'" Boy, did that mean a lot to me.
Oprah: Now that it's become popular to rag on the Oscars, do you pay attention to the critics?
Billy: I don't read anything anymore.
Oprah: You don't?
Billy: The press is usually very nice to me. But when I've gotten criticism, it's that it's too long, too soft, didn't hit the government hard enough. Then when I do hit the government, they go, "What's he doing hitting the government?"
Oprah: When you did your eighth Oscars, were you as nervous as you were the first time?
Billy: I knew I wanted to knock the doors down by making a movie, and all those special effects take a long time, so I started in September. I got together with my staff of five, and we started figuring out which movies would be nominated. We put together eight different films, then did two days of reshoots once the nominations were out. So I was relaxed because I knew we had good stuff.
Oprah: Is there a muscle you use for performing?
Billy: Yes—my brain.
Oprah: I read somewhere that for you, being a stand-up comic is a lot like being emotionally naked.
Billy: This year I was naked. After we shot the film, the Janet Jackson thing happened. I freaked out. I must have called [producer] Joe Roth ten times in one day: "We can't do the film. ABC is not going to let us put it on the air because I'm naked." Nobody batted an eye.
Oprah: That's because it's you. It must be difficult to go onstage when your goal is to be funny.
Billy: It's an odd job. How do you find what's going to make everybody have this strange reaction in their bodies, this response that's sort of chemical and physical all at once—this noise and emotion that changes how you sit? A laugh is a weird sound, and when you get a couple thousand people making it at once, it's really strange. But when I can feel proud of myself for causing it, it's great.
Oprah: Speaking of gratifying, let's talk about something you told me earlier: After raising your kids, it's a full-circle moment to see Jenny raise a daughter. Weren't you there for the birth?
Billy: I wasn't in the room, but I was at the hospital with Jenny and her husband, Mike. If I had a son, it would be Mike. Before the C-section, we put our hands together, and we went, "Go, team, go!" When Jenny came out of the recovery room with Ella, it was such a privilege to be with her. An hour after I came home, I wrote I Already Know I Love You.
Oprah: I love the title. It's more than a children's book—when I read it, I got a little misty. I thought about what it would have been like to have somebody anticipate your coming and love you so much.
Billy: I just showed it to Jenny last week, because I was waiting for the right moment. This book was the easiest creative birth I've ever had. And Ella has come at such a perfect time in our lives. My wife and I are young. We still feel great. Ella is an enormous marker, this little beauty. I'm not getting maudlin here, but I go, "Let's say she's 25 when she gets married. Oooh, I'll be 81." That makes you love every second more. After the rough period we've been through with losing Mom [Crystal's mother died last year of a stroke], it has made me reexamine this time in my life.
> When Mom was in the hospital, my brother Joel's daughter, Faith, came to visit—she was six or seven months pregnant then. Mom said to her, "There's that baby girl." I said, "Mom, how do you know it's a girl?" She said, "God told me." To this day, I believe it. God was saying, "All right, Helen, here's what's gonna happen. I'll take you, but Faith will have a girl." Two months later, Holly was born.
Oprah: Wow. You've got me boo-hooin'.
Billy: The weekend before Mom died, I had to leave her to do a show. I hated to go, but the doctors assured me she'd come through. When I called the hospital, my two brothers were with her, and she got on the phone. She asked about the show, and I said, "Mom, there were 6,000 people there." She said, "Let me ask you one thing." I said, "What?" She said, "Were you happy?" I said, "So much." Then she said, "Well, isn't that everything?" That was the last time I spoke to her.
Oprah: Where is the tissue?
Billy: I know—I've wrecked this room. This is supposed to be fun.
Oprah: Thanks, Mr. Funny Man.
Billy: I can't help it. It's my life right now. But Janice and I have nothing to complain about. Our kids are adults and fulfilled in what they're doing. They need us in a different way, and we need them in a different way. And I think it's all pretty great, because, as our folks used to say, it goes by so fast. So damn true. When it goes by and it's good, it's nice.
Oprah: It's what your mom asked: "Are you happy?"
Billy: Yes, and what else is there?