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Billy Crystal — The Life and Career of the One-of-a Kind Comedian and Actor

Get to know the man behind Mike Wazowski!

Stand-up comedian, movie and TV actor, author and nine-time Oscars host Billy Crystal has had his share of hits. That being said, it was his turn up to bat at a Yankee’s game that reigns supreme in his eyes. “You mention the Oscars, the movies, all these other things, and they’re great and I’m so fortunate,” he told USA Today. “But being the lead-off man for the New York Yankees was something where I said, ‘Whoa, that’”

Born William Edward Crystal in Manhattan, New York and raised on Long Island, Billy had a talent for making people laugh. He started doing stand-up comedy at the age of 16, but that wasn’t really his dream job.

Billy Crystal, 1973
Billy Crystal, 1973Getty

He wanted to be a professional baseball player, and his idol growing up was Yankees outfielder Mickey Mantle. Crystal spent long hours in the summers playing softball in the middle of Park Avenue with his brothers and father, a former pitcher at St. John’s University.

At Long Beach High, Billy was voted Most Popular by class of 1965, but it was in third grade he had his comedic epiphany. “I was in the school cafeteria,” Crystal told USA Today, “and my tray of food fell, and everybody laughed. But I didn’t feel bad. I liked it. So the next time I came in, I threw my tray down. I’m 76 now and I’m still dropping trays. And it’s wonderful.”

College years and beyond

Billy Crystal, 1977
Billy Crystal, 1977Gregg Cobarr/WireImage

Billy played second base and was varsity captain in his high school senior year. This earned him a baseball scholarship from Marshall University in West Virginia, which he accepted, but sadly, the baseball program was suspended during his freshman year.

He headed back to New York and enrolled at nearby Nassau Community College, majoring in theater. He soon got accepted by New York University, where he majored in Film and TV Direction and studied under legendary filmmaker Martin Scorsese.

I have to admit, I was a little bit of a misfit,” he told Collider in 2013. “I was a film directing major at NYU. I’m still not sure why I became a directing major when I was really an actor and comedian.”

Billy Crystal, 1976
Billy Crystal, 1976Getty

He continued, “Our professor was Marty Scorsese. Marty was a graduate student, or Mr. Scorsese, which is what I had to call him, and still do when I see him, ‘cause he gave me a C.”

After graduating from NYU with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, Billy worked temporarily as a substitute teacher until he was able to book gigs as a stand-up comic — he actually opened up for musicians like Barry Manilow.

Billy Crystal takes the leap to TV

Billy Crystal, 1977
Billy Crystal, 1977Getty

With television becoming a new medium, Billy got his influence from shows like The Honeymooners and The Ed Sullivan Show. Thinking he could become a TV hit, Crystal left the east coast and headed to Hollywood in 1976.

It only took a year before he got his big break when he was chosen for the role of gay character Jodie Dallas on the controversial sitcom Soap. This would be the first time that an American TV show would feature an openly gay character as a regular.

“At first the character was a little stereotypical, but I could see where we could go with him. I was proud of it and still am,” he told USA Today.

Billy Crystal, 1980s
Billy Crystal, 1980sGetty

This role helped put Billy’s career into the Hollywood orbit. When the sitcom ended in 1981, he continued to do his stand-up routines, which were now attracting larger audiences with his growing recognition and celeb status.

Lorne Michaels of Saturday Night Live took note and signed him as a regular on SNL in the mid 1980s. His Fernando Lamas impression with the catchphrase, “You look mahvellous,” became a huge hit with viewers and has become an oft quoted comic compliment.

Crystal the movie star

The actor in 1988
Billy Crystal, 1988Getty

His first film role was in Joan Rivers’ 1978 movie Rabbit Test, followed by a brief appearance in the Rob Reiner rockumentary, This Is Spinal Tap, as Morty the Mime, a waiter dressed as a mime at one of Spinal Tap’s parties. He shared the scene with a then-unknown, non-speaking Dana Carvey, stating famously that “Mime is money.”

Billy was on his way now with starring roles in feature films such as Running Scared (1986) and Throw Momma From the Train (1987). In 1986, he formed Comic Relief with Whoopi Goldberg and Robin Williams, an annual stand-up comedy show which helped raise money for housing and medical care for the homeless.

It was his role in the blockbuster When Harry Met Sally in 1989 that pushed Billy’s career into the stratosphere. He followed this box office hit with City Slickers two years later, establishing himself as one of Hollywood’s most bankable movie stars.

Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal, 1989
Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal, 1989Getty

If there was any doubt about his clout in show biz, it vanished when he was chosen to host the annual Oscars in 1990, an honor he would repeat seven more times.

Taking his talents behind the camera, he made his big screen directorial debut with the 1992 film Mr. Saturday Night, which was about a washed-up stand-up comic who refuses to retire. Not only did he direct, but he wrote, produced and starred in the film.

Hits such as Analyze This (1999), with Robert DeNiro, and America’s Sweethearts (2001) countered flops like Father’s Day (1997) and My Giant (1998). Billy’s childhood passion for baseball and love for Mickey Mantle collided and made it onto the screen with the HBO movie 61 in 2001. As executive producer and director, the film garnered 12 Emmy nominations.

The actor in 1992
Billy Crystal, 1992Getty

Also in 2001, he brought his cheerful personality to Mike Wazowski, the one-eyed green sidekick to Sully in the animated hit film, Monsters Inc. When first introduced to Wazowski by John Lassiter at Pixar, Billy said, “When John showed me Mike, I said, ‘Wow, John, it’s a walking CBS eye!’ But I came to love him. He’s feisty, he’s the runt of the monsters group, but he’s a dreamer. I love that he thinks he’s funny when he’s really not.” He reprised his voice role in the prequel, Monsters University (2013).

In 2014, Billy took on one of his most difficult roles – paying tribute to his late close friend Robin Williams at the 66th Primetime Emmy Awards. Two years later, he gave one of the eulogies for Muhammad Ali at his funeral, sharing stories of their unlikely friendship after Crystal did a series of impersonations of him throughout his career.

What has Billy Crystal been up to lately?

The actor in 2020
Billy Crystal, 2020Getty

Billy adapted his 1992 movie, Mr. Saturday Night, into a Broadway musical of the same title in 2022, reprising his role. He performed a number with the ensemble from the musical at the 75th Tony Awards and received a standing ovation.

In 2023, Billy was celebrated by the Kennedy Center Honors and tributes poured in, replaying his life with accolades from former collaborators – Rob Reiner, Meg Ryan, Robert DeNiro, Whoopi Goldberg, Jay Leno and Bob Costas.

It’s no wonder that he’d described as a stand-up guy with everyone who knows him. He’s still married to his high school sweetheart, Janice, and his two daughters have made them doting grandparents

The actor in 2020
Billy Crystal, 2020Getty

All of these kudos, awards and standing ovations take a backseat to a bright, sunny Florida day years ago that his pal, former Yankee great Derek Jeter set in motion.

“When I was about to turn 60, the Yankees gave me the greatest present ever,” he recalled to USA Today. “I was allowed to lead off for them during a spring training game. I trained hard for it. I didn’t want to look bad. I took a swing at a 90 mile an hour cutter and fouled it off.”

Still not satisfied with his turn to hit it out of the park, Billy Crystal says, “I’d like another at bat.”

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