Billy Crystal is famed as an actor, stand-up comic, writer, producer, director, television host and avid New York Yankees fan. He is also known for his nine stints as host of the Academy Awards, a number that is second only to Bob Hope‘s 18. Although Crystal will always be associated with Oscar, the irony is that he has never been nominated for an Oscar himself. (He has, however, been nominated three times as Best Actor at the Golden Globes.)
Still, that doesn’t mean he’s any stranger to awards. Crystal has been nominated for two Grammy Awards and hosted the show three times. He won a special Tony Award in 2005 for his one-man show “700 Sundays” and earned two Emmy nominations for the television adaptation of that production. In fact, Crystal, who first broke TV taboos playing a gay character on ABC’s “Soap” in the 1970s, has along the way received 24 Emmy nominations, winning six, including two for hosting the Oscar ceremony.
Crystal is also known for his humanitarian work, most famously with his involvement with Comic Relief, regularly co-hosting the charity’s telethons specials with Whoopi Goldberg and Robin Williams. So let’s raise a glass and salute that all-around good guy Crystal by counting down and ranking his 12 best screen performances. Our photo gallery, ranked worst to best, includes “When Harry Met Sally,” “City Slickers,” “The Princess Bride,” “Analyze This” and more.
12. FORGET PARIS (1995)
Director: Billy Crystal. Writers: Billy Crystal, Lowell Ganz, Babaloo Mandel. Starring Billy Crystal, Debra Winger, Joe Mantegna, Julie Kavner, William Hickey.
Crystal’s second directorial effort was this romantic comedy in which he plays Mickey, an NBA referee who finds himself in France awaiting the casket of his late father who had wished to be buried there. He is aided by airline employee Ellen (Debra Winger) with whom he quickly falls in love. Obligated to return to the States for the basketball season, Mickey’s separation from Ellen begins to wear on him, affecting his nationally-televised job performance. Crystal and Winger bring their two very different acting styles together to make a believable couple, but the film’s biggest laughs are garnered by William Hickey as Ellen’s father Arthur, whose increasing senility prompts him to read out what’s on every business sign as he is being driven down the street. That scene has stayed with me these many years and prompts a laugh whenever I think of it.
11. RABBIT TEST (1978)
Director: Joan Rivers. Writers: Joan Rivers, Jay Redack. Starring Billy Crystal, Alex Rocco, Joan Prather, Doris Roberts.
Most of the films in which Crystal has appeared have reflected, in one way or another, his distinctive comic sensibility. However, in “Rabbit Test,” his first major leading film role, there is another style at work — that of the film’s director and co-writer, Joan Rivers. Although it has a high-concept premise — a virginal young man (Crystal) is set up for a one-night stand with a woman and becomes the world’s first pregnant man — “Rabbit Test” is less about narrative or characterization and is instead much more reflective of Rivers’ brand of comedy. It’s all about the jokes — one-liner after one-liner — and for that kind of film to work, the jokes have to land, such as they did in “Airplane!” Though the film brought a chuckle now and then, most of the film doesn’t work for that reason, and Crystal, as game as he is here, didn’t land another leading film role until eight years later.
10. AMERICA’S SWEETHEARTS (2001)
Director: Joe Roth. Writers: Billy Crystal, Peter Tolan. Starring Julia Roberts, Billy Crystal, John Cusack, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Hank Azaria, Christopher Walken.
“America’s Sweethearts” is a kind of inside-baseball look at backstage Hollywood, so it is appropriate that it was directed by ex-studio head Joe Roth, who knows those very particular ropes. Crystal plays Lee Phillips, a film publicist who, at a press junket for a film that no one has yet seen, must wrangle the film’s two stars — married couple Gwen Harrison (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Eddie Thomas (John Cusack) — who are known in public as “America’s Sweethearts” but who in private are anything but. The couple has separated and not on speaking terms, so it’s up to Lee and Gwen’s sister Kiki (Julia Roberts) to work their wiles to get this couple back together to smile and wave on the red carpet. This is definitely an A-list cast, and Crystal fits in together beautifully.
9. RUNNING SCARED (1986)
Director: Peter Hyams. Writers: Gary DeVore, Jimmy Huston. Starring Billy Crystal, Gregory Hines, Jimmy Smits, Steven Bauer, Joe Pantoliano.
Eight years after “Rabbit Test,” Crystal returned to a leading role in this buddy-cop comedy in which Crystal’s Chicago police officer Danny Costanzo is paired with Gregory Hines’ Ray Hughes to track down drug lord wannabe Julio Gonzales (a surprisingly menacing Jimmy Smits). Playing a macho-lite wiseacre is much more in Crystal’s wheelhouse than his previous film roles, and under Peter Hyams’ direction, Crystal makes the most of the role, particularly in his scenes with Hines, with whom he shares enormous chemistry. Hyams was one of the best action directors of the 1980s, and by casting two actors who were not known for action roles, it spun what could have been an ordinary shoot-em-up into a fun action hybrid.
8. DECONSTRUCTING HARRY (1997)
Writer/Director: Woody Allen. Starring Woody Allen, Judy Davis, Billy Crystal, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Elizabeth Shue, Richard Benjamin, Tobey Maguire.
In Crystal’s sole film with Woody Allen he plays Larry, the best friend of novelist Harry Block (Allen), who steals away Harry’s girlfriend Fay (Elisabeth Shue). Harry is devastated but plots his revenge against Larry by planning his next story, a fable in which Harry sees himself traveling down to Hell to take back his lost love (Shue returns as Fay) who has been stolen away by The Devil (who strangely resembles Larry since both characters are played by Crystal), with Harry and The Devil squaring off in a throwdown as to who is more evil. It’s a weird premise, but Crystal and Allen make it work.
7. THE PRINCESS BRIDE (1987)
Director: Rob Reiner. Writer: William Goldman, based on his novel. Starring Mandy Patinkin, Robin Wright, Cary Elwes, Chris Sarandon, Andre the Giant, Billy Crystal.
Crystal has only a small part in Rob Reiner’s beloved fairy tale “The Princess Bride,” but he and Carol Kane make the most of their cameos. Crystal portrays Miracle Max, a folk healer who claims to bring bring people back from their “nearly dead” state by shoving a bellows down their throat or talking to them loudly. Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) brings his dead friend Westley (Cary Elwes) to Max in hopes that he could revive him. Crystal’s bit is pure Catskills schtick (with a little Mel Brooks thrown in), and, under what seems like pounds of makeup, Crystal and Kane are hilarious together, proving that bickering couples have thrived throughout history.
6. ANALYZE THIS (1999)
Director: Harold Ramis. Writers: Kenneth Lonergan, Peter Tolan, Harold Ramis. Starring Robert De Niro, Billy Crystal, Lisa Kudrow, Chazz Palminteri.
For those audiences who were astounded that Robert De Niro could do comedy in 2000’s “Meet the Parents,” I would direct them to Harold Ramis’ hilarious gangster comedy just the year before. De Niro plays Paul Vitti, a mob boss who is suffering from stress and panic attacks, so he agrees to see discreet psychiatrist Ben Sobel (Crystal), who has problems of his own without taking on a gangster as a patient. Yet the two become the unlikeliest of friends, and at one moment, Sobel even becomes the mobster’s consigliere. The film gave Crystal the rare chance to be the straight man in a comedy team, and the two clicked so well that they teamed up again in 2002 for an inferior sequel “Analyze This.”
5. MR. SATURDAY NIGHT (1992)
Director: Billy Crystal. Writers: Billy Crystal, Lowell Ganz, Babaloo Mandel. Starring Billy Crystal, David Paymer, Julie Warner, Helen Hunt, Ron Silver.
Probably next to his love for Major League Baseball (especially the NY Yankees) is Crystal’s love for comics, no matter what their age. In “Mr. Saturday Night,” his directorial debut, Crystal assumed the persona of aspiring Brooklyn comic Abie Yankelman, who changes his name to a more comic-like Buddy Young Jr. in the 1950s. With the help of his brother Stan (Oscar nominee David Paymer), Buddy makes it to the Catskills and meets his soon-to-be wife Elaine (Julie Warner), finally growing in fame to earn his own Saturday night television series. Buddy’s penchant for bitter self-destruction, however, eventually causes him to lose his popularity. Crystal is not afraid of showing the unlikable side of the comedy world, and for his performance as Buddy, Crystal earned his third Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor.
4. MONSTERS, INC. (2001)
Director: Pete Docter. Writers: Andrew Stanton, Dan Gerson. Voices: Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, James Coburn, Jennifer Tilly.
Crystal earned an entire new generation of fans with his acclaimed performance in this 2001 Pixar film as the voice of Mike Wazowski, whose name may sound like he’s a regular Joe, but he is in fact a circular, two-legged one-eyed monster with a Brooklyn accent. Along with his partner, James P. “Sulley” Sullivan (John Goodman), Mike works at Monsters, Inc., a factory that provides energy to the monster world by generating power by the screams that young children provide when they see the monsters. Yet their world is turned upside down with a little girl wanders into the factory to see how it all works. The contrast between Crystal and Goodman’s voices and the characters that they portray is just a delight, and they reunited for a 2013 prequel, “Monsters University.”
3. THROW MOMMA FROM THE TRAIN (1987)
Director: Danny DeVito. Writer: Stu Silver. Starring Danny DeVito, Billy Crystal, Anne Ramsey, Kate Mulgrew, Rob Reiner.
Danny DeVito’s homage to Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train” turned into a hilarious box-office hit, with Crystal as Larry, an author suffering from writer’s block, thanks to his ex-wife Margaret (Kate Mulgrew) stealing his latest novel and passing it off as her own, to enormous success. DeVito’s Owen is suffering as he is forced to live with his horrible Momma (Oscar nominee Anne Ramsey) and at the suggestion of Larry, his teacher in his creative writing class, Owen watches “Strangers on a Train” and gets the idea of agreeing to kill Margaret if Larry agrees to murder Margaret. It doesn’t quite work out that way, but both writers get great books and enormous financial success out of their partnership. Crystal and DeVito are a hoot together.
2. CITY SLICKERS (1991)
Director: Ron Underwood. Writers: Lowell Ganz, Babaloo Mandel. Starring Billy Crystal, Daniel Stern, Bruno Kirby, Jack Palance.
Uncharacteristically, Crystal, a lifelong NY Yankees fan, wore a rival NY Mets cap in this Western comedy and one of his biggest hits. As Mitch Robbins, a radio ad executive, Crystal’s character goes out of his way to avoid a midlife crisis. His friends Phil (Daniel Stern) and Ed (Bruno Kirby), seeing his friend’s anxiety, give him a birthday present of a two-week cattle drive from New Mexico to Colorado. Phil and Ed, who are having individual romantic problems of their own, decide to join Mitch on the drive, and the trio must suddenly confront their new boss, a surly cowboy named Curly (Oscar winner Jack Palance). Crystal, Stern and Palance returned for a 1994 sequel, and for the original film, Crystal earned his second nomination for a Golden Globe Award.
1. WHEN HARRY MET SALLY… (1989)
Director: Rob Reiner. Writer: Nora Ephron. Starring Billy Crystal, Meg Ryan, Carrie Fisher, Bruno Kirby.
Rob Reiner’s “When Harry Met Sally…” is one of those films that come immediately to mind whenever the term “rom-com” is mentioned and with good reason. Crystal and Meg Ryan both scored their career bests here as two friends who happen to keep running into each other every five years or so, catching each other up on their latest respective relationships until many years later when the light dawns on these two and they come to realize what the audience knew all along. Here Crystal has honed his everyman persona to perfection, and Ryan reveals new depths of character with her every meeting with Harry. “When Harry Met Sally…” may not change the way you look at love, but you’ll never eat a pastrami sandwich the same way again. For his performance as Harry, Crystal was nominated for his first Golden Globe Award as Best Actor.