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Bring On the Heavy Hitter

Billy Crystal, on deck for the seventh time as Academy Awards host, talks about his return to the show, ghosts and Steve Forbes.

March 26, 2000

Over the past decade, Billy Crystal has emerged as Hollywood's MVP on Oscar night. Why? His flair for entrances: riding his "City Slickers" steed onstage in 1991, wheeled in as a masked Hannibal Lecter in 1992, leaning over the bow as the "Titanic's" King of the World in 1998. The parody song medleys at the start of the shows have become a popular staple, and who can forget the complete Jack Palance joke cycle in 1992? In recent years, Crystal has brought down the house with an opening film montage in which he digitally joins the casts of the nominated films. Whoopi Goldberg worked long and hard in her three appearances as Oscar host; David Letterman cast a much-needed arched brow over the proceedings in his one shot; but it's Crystal who creates a sense of fun in a show that really needs it.

Crystal hosted his first Oscar show in 1990; this year is his seventh. He agreed to answer Calendar's questions about his return to the show--and a few other things.

Question: You're back for your seventh appearance as Oscar host. How did the Zanucks sell you on coming back?

Answer: The Zanucks bought me on EBay.

Q: Where were you on the night of Thursday, March 16, when the 55 Oscar statues disappeared from a loading dock in greater metropolitan Bell, Calif.?

A: I was at home going through the missing ballots, writing in "Analyze This" for best picture. I think we would have swept.

Q: What do you think the academy should do to make sure the envelopes with the winners' names get to the Shrine safely?

A: I think stamps would be a good beginning.

Q: What do you think John Rocker would say if he were an Oscar presenter?

A: "I hope I ain't doing foreign language film."

Q: Would you consider having the designer of Jennifer Lopez's Grammys outfit work something up for you?

A: No, I actually like to wear something.

Q: The Zanucks have said there will be no production numbers, which leaves you to shoulder the burden of the night's choreography in your usual opening medley. How would you describe your choreographic style?

A: It's sort of Fosse meets Herman Munster.

Q: You're now as established an Oscar host as two previous longtime hosts, Bob Hope and Johnny Carson. Do you ever get notes from Hope or Carson?

A: Mr. Hope sent me a great note. He was very complimentary, and told me he would have played my brother in "Mr. Saturday Night" and he wouldn't have needed makeup. And after the last time I did the show, Johnny called me to tell me how much he loved what I did. It was one of the great feelings I've ever had. I first did "The Tonight Show" in 1975 as a very scared stand-up, and here I was getting this call. I have nothing but respect for him.

Q: What moment on the Oscar shows you've hosted has tickled you the most?

A: Performance-wise, it was the moment in the 1992 show when Hal Roach spoke without a microphone. [Film comedy pioneer Roach, who had just turned 100, was introduced in the audience for a round of applause. Although he wasn't scheduled to speak, he began talking. No sound equipment picked up his remarks. Crystal ad-libbed from the stage, "I think that's fitting. Because Mr. Roach started in silent pictures."] Actually that whole show was exciting.

Selfishly, when the audience gave me a standing ovation when I came on stage after a three-year break [in 1997]. I was standing behind the screen, hidden, when we showed the first film of me in the nominated pictures. The audience was taken by total surprise, and they were going nuts. That was very cool to get four minutes of such big laughs without being on stage. And then I walked out to that welcome.

Personally, it was meeting Sophia Loren backstage, (we had gone steady in high school) and she brought [Federico] Fellini over. He kissed me on the cheek and told me I drove the show like a "race car driver." I got so excited I knocked over two of the midget clowns who were his bodyguards.

Q: Your scariest moment?

A: I had pneumonia for the Jack Palance show [in 1992] and got very ill during the second hour and I thought I wasn't going to be able to continue. They gave me fluids and it was OK. Then on the way to Spago, I had to pee so bad from all the fluids, the limo pulled over and I relieved myself in an alley off La Cienega. A small group of people walked by and saw me and I thought I was going to get mugged. What a night, to be in front of the world for three hours and end up getting mugged while you're spraying like a horse in front of the Plaza Hotel in New York.

Oh, there are mini-moments of fear each time out. I'm not really a trained singer, so I don't know how to handle situations with technique. So I've had dry throat in the middle of the medley a few times, and the fear is, can I hit the big note at the end, or will I sound like Roseanne doing the anthem?

Q: Who's the better actor, Robert De Niro, your co-star in "Analyze This," or Gheorghe Muresan, the giant of "My Giant"?

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