This interview was originally broadcast on Oct. 17, 2013.
Billy Crystal isn't happy about turning 65, but at least he's finding a way to laugh about it. His memoir — Still Foolin' 'Em: Where I've Been, Where I'm Going, and Where the Hell Are My Keys? — is on the best-seller list.
Crystal got his start in standup comedy, and in 1977 he landed a leading role in the sitcom Soap — playing one of the first openly gay characters on TV. In 1984 he joined the cast of Saturday Night Live and went on to star in the films When Harry Met Sally, City Slickers and Analyze This. He's hosted the Oscars more times than anyone except Bob Hope. In 2007 he received the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. His autobiographical one-man show 700 Sundays won a Tony in 2005 and reopened on Broadway earlier this month.
On how his show business family brought him to comedy early
[I did impressions] of relatives because I heard so many different sounds. You know, my dad was in the music business and of course my uncle was a giant [music producer], but my dad in particular had the house filled with these Dixieland jazz stars — really the best of them, Henry "Red" Allen, Willie "Lion" Smith, Buster Bailey, Cutty Cutshall, Tyree Glenn, Zutty Singleton, these are big names in the Dixieland world. It was mostly African-American [musicians] and my Jewish Eastern European relatives.
The house as I say ... smelled of brisket and bourbon, so you could hear that. I started imitating them. Phrases came out of that, "Can't you dig that?" "I knew that you would." We were at [Passover] Seders and they were confused with the bitter herbs, "Do we smoke these or do we do we dip them in salt water?" "We dip them in salt water, well that's gonna kill the vibrancy of the weed, you know." So that's what I was around. So I would imitate them. That's where it all started.
On losing his father at age 15
At the time it was devastating, of course. My two older brothers were both out of the house and in college, and I was left alone with [my mom] and we developed this incredible bond where I could not let her get too sad, [even] when I felt it in myself. It was a hard thing to juggle. I never felt like I could have a weak moment, I had to always be there for her and keep her up. ...
I'd try to make her laugh, and try to do things with her. ... She is the greatest hero I'll ever know because she kept us all together, she made sure we all graduated college. She always believed in us no matter what we do. My older brother Joel became an art teacher; my brother Rip ultimately became a television producer and singer and actor himself.
For me, it was always, "Whatever you want to do, I'm there for you." I never stopped believing in us and I never felt like I was wanting for anything, except for my father, and that was not going to be. I describe in the book [that] I don't think I ever felt young again in that way. I never felt I had my 15, 16, 17 kind of years the way I maybe should have. It's a huge dent in you that it's hard to knock out and make it all smooth again.
On his early standup days opening for Sammy Davis Jr., who used to lie to the audience about their relationship
I have 40-something intros [that Davis Jr. did]; all are different, none of them happened. And it was hilarious. ... [He did it] because it was show business. Because I think he thought he was doing a good thing for me and for him. He created this whole wonderful fantasy world for the two of us that was part of the show. I was OK with it. I thought it was really fascinating.
I loved him. Every time I was with Sammy it was like going to the show business museum because the stories were so extraordinary, and I didn't care if they were true or not after a while. ... I don't know if he really got high with Humphrey Bogart or not. It didn't matter because he was painting these fantastic pictures.
On playing Jodie, one of the first openly gay characters on television, in the show Soap in the late '70s and early '80s
We were in front of a live audience and I would be acting with the man who was playing my lover, and we used those words, and the audience would titter and laugh, and make me uncomfortable doing the scenes. ... I wanted to sort of stop and yell at them, "What's so funny? What's the matter with you people? Grow up!" It made me very self-conscious at times.
I think back to what we did and the things we talked about, all these years ago, and I'm so proud of what we did. I think it was in the third season Jodie was confused about his sexuality and he has a one-night stand with a woman and she gets pregnant and has a baby. ... Now I have to raise this little girl and so we go to court [to determine] who is going to get custody of the child. ABC did a poll and the poll at that time said 3 to 1 that the country wanted Jodie to get the baby. And I thought, "OK, we did good here."
On hosting the Oscars
I love doing it because I love the danger of it and you have to come through and think on your feet. That's why that show, no matter who hosts it, it really should be a fast-thinking comedian who is really quick on their feet that can handle situations that happen, or somebody with that kind of mentality that can capitalize on something.
On his proudest Oscar moment
I was introducing [director and producer] Hal Roach — Mr. Roach was 100 years old, he was one of the fathers of early days in films, he put Laurel with Hardy, he created the Our Gang kids, and all these silent movies he did — he was a giant. I think it was his 100th birthday and he was just supposed to take a bow. So I'm at center stage and I say, "Ladies and Gentlemen, one of the fathers of this industry, he's 100 years old, Mr. Hal Roach." Big hand, he stands up. And he starts talking and he has no microphone. ... And it's getting restless in the audience and they're all looking at me going, "What are you gonna say?" And I see the red light is right on me, and I looked at the audience and lines are flying through my head and one settled like a slot machine, three cherries, and I said, "Ladies and Gentleman, it's only fitting because he got his start in silent films." It took the pressure away, and that's one time I will pat myself on the back.