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Crystal, whose father was a jazz promoter and record label executive, spent most of his childhood in Long Beach, New York. In high school Crystal was an avid baseball player, and after graduating he briefly attended Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, on a baseball scholarship. After a year there he transferred to Nassau Community College on Long Island, where he studied theatre. He subsequently transferred to New York University and pursued film and television directing, studying under director Martin Scorsese and graduating in 1970.
In 1969 Crystal formed a comedy trio with two former Nassau classmates. The group performed at small venues for some four years. Crystal then embarked on a solo stand-up career, frequenting New York clubs. In 1975 he was spotted by a producer casting for the inaugural season of the sketch comedy show NBC’s Saturday Night (later called Saturday Night Live) and was slated to perform in several episodes. However, the deal fell through just before the program’s first broadcast, because of a disagreement; he would appear on the show briefly the following year.
Shortly thereafter Crystal moved to Los Angeles. He acted in a couple of made-for-TV movies in the late 1970s, but his breakout role proved to be that of Jodie Dallas, one of the first openly gay characters on television, on the boundary-pushing situation comedy Soap (1977–81). During this period he also made his big-screen debut, in the Joan Rivers-directed Rabbit Test (1978), which was a critical and commercial disappointment. After Soap ended, Crystal landed his own show, The Billy Crystal Comedy Hour (1982), which ran for only five episodes. In 1984 he hosted Saturday Night Live and was subsequently offered a place in the cast for the 1984–85 season. In 1986 he returned to film work, costarring in the buddy-cop comedy Running Scared. That year he also cohosted the Comic Relief comedy fund-raiser with Robin Williams and Whoopi Goldberg. The trio would go on to host some 10 televised Comic Relief events over two decades.
About this time he started to become an in-demand awards show host, beginning with the Grammy Awards ceremony in 1987. Crystal hosted the Grammys again the following two years and then went on to host the Academy Awards ceremony nine times (1990–93, 1997–98, 2000, 2004, and 2012), in turn winning five Emmy Awards for his efforts (four for hosting and one for writing).
Throughout the 1990s Crystal continued to appear on the big screen, playing memorable roles in the comedy western City Slickers (1991) and its sequel, City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold (1994), and in Woody Allen’s Deconstructing Harry (1997). In 1992 he made his film directorial debut with Mr. Saturday Night, a dramedy that centred on the life of a fading stand-up comedian, which he also cowrote, produced, and starred in. After a series of flops that included his second effort in the director’s chair, Forget Paris (1995), Crystal gained acclaim for Analyze This (1999), in which he portrayed a therapist treating an anxiety-riddled mafioso played by Robert De Niro; both actors reprised their roles in the film’s sequel, Analyze That (2002).
At the turn of the 21st century Crystal lent his voice to the diminutive one-eyed green creature Mike Wazowski in the Pixar hit Monsters, Inc. (2001) and revisited his love of baseball in directing 61* (2001), about the 1961 race of Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle to beat Babe Ruth’s home run record. In 2004 Crystal made his Broadway debut with 700 Sundays, an autobiographical solo show focusing heavily on his relationship with his father; it won a Tony Award for special theatrical event. He adapted the monologue into a memoir, also titled 700 Sundays, in 2005. The stage production was revived in 2013 for a limited run, and a filmed performance was featured in a TV special that aired on HBO in 2014.
During this time Crystal continued to act in films, and his later credits included the family comedy Parental Guidance (2012), the Monsters, Inc. sequel Monsters University (2013), and the drama Untogether (2018). In 2015 he cocreated and starred in the TV sitcom The Comedians, which was canceled after one season. Crystal also wrote an additional autobiography, Still Foolin’ ’Em: Where I’ve Been, Where I’m Going, and Where the Hell Are My Keys? (2013).