There was only one item that Richard and Lili Fini Zanuck attended to immediately after they committed to producing the 2000 Academy Awards telecast: Convincing everyone’s favorite Oscar host to return. Lili says the annual rite of Hollywood is being retooled in every way except in the hosting.
“I assume every year the first call from the Oscars office is to Billy Crystal,” she says. “When Dick and I decided to do this, we wanted to put a new spin on every aspect but one. My husband went on a huge campaign to get a commitment from Billy. He said to Dick, ‘You know, there’s a cab driver in Chicago who knows you’re trying to get me to do the Oscars again. Everybody knows this.’
“We’re thrilled that he’s approaching the show as a new challenge. It’s amazing how many people want him to do the show. My mother said that I would be a huge failure in this job if I didn’t get Billy. That’s how much people love him doing this,” Lili says.
Crystal places second behind Bob Hope, who has hosted 18 Oscar telecasts (16 solo). Johnny Carson hosted five, Whoopi Goldberg three and everyone else two times or less, some in committee (including Will Rogers, Georgie Jessel, Jerry Lewis, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Jack Lemmon, Fredric March, Jack Benny, Shirley MacLaine, Dudley Moore, Celeste Holm, Conrad Nagel, Irvin S. Cobb, Bob “Bazooka” Burns and Chevy Chase).
“I love Billy Crystal,” says Steve Allen, the television pioneer who included a chapter on Crystal in his book, “Funny People.”
“I did the book around the time that he was just getting really noticed, because I recognized immediately that he was very talented. He’s marvelous and articulate. He also has the gift of wit. If you were to list the 100 most gifted comedians of the century, or last week, few have the gift of wit.
“That’s not a criticism of others, because few really have that gift. Billy deserves to be ranked with the Jack Bennys and Fred Allens and Red Skeltons and Milton Berles and Bob Hopes and Groucho Marx and everyone else.”
Allen says that repetitive hosting of the Oscars helps to solidify a career.
“The office confers the notoriety,” Allen says. “Who knew Gray Davis before he became governor? Bob Hope had that Olympian authority as many of the great comedians did, and Johnny Carson had the authority and familiarity conferred as host of ‘The Tonight Show,’ ” says the first host of “Tonight!” the forerunner of “The Tonight Show” in 1954. “Everyone wants Billy back. He has identity with the Oscars telecast. It’s a terrific plus for the Oscars.”
Crystal was the Oscar host from 1990 to 1993 and returned in 1997 and 1998. The ’98 show, which was dominated by the “Titanic” sweep, including the best picture statuette, garnered a 34.9 rating and a 55 share, according to the Nielsen ratings, and was the highest rated Oscars telecast since 1983, when the co-hosts were Walter Matthau, Liza Minnelli, Dudley Moore and Richard Pryor.
When Lili Zanuck and Allen were asked to name their favorite Crystal moment on an Oscar telecast, each said the spoof of ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ in 1992, in which Crystal appeared behind a mask similar to the one worn by Anthony Hopkins in the film. That same year, Crystal’s co-star in “City Slickers,” Jack Palance, won the supporting actor Oscar, and did a set of one-handed pushups as part of his acceptance speech to prove he was still a tough guy.
“The Oscars show is a very difficult gig,” says Lili Zanuck. “You either pull it off or you don’t.” Among those who didn’t was David Letterman in 1995, a job made even more woeful in memory by the toothy comedian’s hairshirting of it for self-effacing monologue fodder on his latenight talker.
“A lot of hosts are very, very afraid of this assignment,” Zanuck continues. “Not only do you have to be incredibly prepared for three hours of live television work, you have to work off the moment. With Jack Palance, Billy did a riff on that four times.
“For years we’ve heard that standup is tough. Well, this is tougher than standup. And you’re going out to 800 million people. It’s important to be universal, and Billy has an international appeal. He isn’t mean-spirited in any way, but he makes you understand that he gets it. He walks a fine line to react just like the average audience member without ever being obsequious. He walks that line so very well and in a very cool way. He can be cutting to some degree, but he is not mean or arbitrary,” Zanuck emphasizes.
“Billy is hip and esoteric in his humor, but, like Bob and Johnny, he’s a great ad-libber,” Hal Kanter once said. “He has the ability to make people in both Beverly Hills and Davenport, Iowa, laugh,” added the veteran of 30 Oscars shows and a former staff writer for Hope.
Crystal is noted for doing spoofs of the Oscar-nominated best pictures to kick off past Oscars shows. Zanuck says that even she doesn’t know what the routines will be. “The last thing we want to do is stick our noses into something that works perfectly,” she says.