Billy Crystal, Sparkling Wit
Comic Receives Mark Twain Prize And a Gentle Ribbing From Friends

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 12, 2007

There was almost too much Billy Crystal to cover and not enough time to do it all last night at the Kennedy Center when Crystal was honored with the 10th Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

The short version of the man and the evening would run something like this: movie and TV star. Producer and director. Oscar and Grammy Awards host. Tony-winning one-man Broadway show guy. Stand-up comic. Creator of about a half-dozen memorable "Saturday Night Live" characters and a voice-over cartoon character or two. Philanthropist (co-host of nine "Comic Relief" benefits). Family man (married for 37 years! To the same woman!). "A mensch," summarized his old friend, Robin Williams.

Okay, you knew all that. Or most of it.

But here's Little-Known Fact No. 1 about Crystal: He wrote one of the most memorable lines in movie history. Rob Reiner, another old friend (they met when Crystal was cast as Meathead's friend on "All in the Family") recalled last night that while directing Crystal and Meg Ryan in "When Harry Met Sally," he fretted that Ryan's famous orgasm scene lacked a good closing line. Crystal provided it, and Reiner cast his own mother to speak it, forever certifying Estelle Reiner's place in the cinematic pantheon with "I'll have what she's having."

Little-Known Fact No. 2: Crystal may hold the record (assuming such records are kept) for getting his partner on "The $20,000 Pyramid" to the top of the pyramid faster than any other celebrity guest. Jimmy Fallon introduced a clip of Crystal's appearance on the show from the mid-1980s, as he provided the non-celebrity partner with such clues as "dead flowers" so that she might deduce "Things That Wilt." Clearly, the man has talent.

For most of the night, Crystal, 59, watched the proceeding from a balcony box, surrounded by his family. He accepted the award at the end of the evening, saying, "Whenever I think about Mark Twain, one thing comes to mind -- Cliffs Notes."

Crystal briefly recalled his early years, the inspiration of his extended family (who mostly spoke Yiddish, "a combination of German and phlegm") and his comic icon, Bill Cosby ("We were so alike. He played football at Temple; I belonged to a temple").

Crystal's sweetest words, however, were reserved for his wife, Janice Goldfinger, whom he met as a teenager. "Our marriage is like Mark Twain's big Mississippi," he said to his beaming wife. "You, with your steady flow of understanding and compassion, and me with my big mouth and sandy bottom."

There were, predictably, lots of jokes about Jews and lots more about baseball, Crystal's passion. Sportscaster Bob Costas managed to tie the two themes together, mentioning that he and Crystal grew up on Long Island around the same time, worshiping Yankees slugger Mickey Mantle. "For me, Mantle made me dream of being centerfielder for the Yankees," Costas said. "For him, Mantle made him dream of being a blond, blue-eyed gentile from Oklahoma."

This was followed by the appearance of a real Yankee (and possibly soon-to-be-former one), manager Joe Torre, who got the second-longest ovation of the night after Crystal. Torre said lifelong Yankees fan Crystal has been "like a 26th man on our ball club" and praised the Crystal-directed TV movie "61*" (about Mantle's and Roger Maris's pursuit of Babe Ruth's home run record) as one of the "true great baseball films."

Martin Short, echoing Crystal's musical performances as Oscar host, provided a succinct musical overview of Crystal's career with a medley that noted everything from Crystal's brilliant impressions of Sammy Davis Jr. and Muhammad Ali to his Tony Award-winning one-man show, "700 Sundays." Along the way, he remarked that Crystal played Jodie Dallas on "Soap," the first openly gay character on TV -- "unless you want to count Fred Mertz."

A warm and jovial spirit pervaded on the red carpet before the show. Fallon -- the youngest (by 20-plus years) and tallest (by several inches) of a crowd that included the diminutive Costas, Danny DeVito and Crystal -- said he called up Crystal for advice when he was hired to appear on "Saturday Night Live" in 1998. "He was the first person I wanted to meet when I got on the show," Fallon said. "I picked his brain. It was all solid advice: 'Keep working, keep writing.' "

Short, a frequent presenter at Twain award ceremonies, was asked if he might someday be in line for a Twain Prize himself. "I'm too Canadian," he demurred. "But I could win a Gordon Lightfoot Award."

Williams, looking very Bono-ish in thick-framed glasses, said he and Crystal were friends before they began their long run co-hosting (with Whoopi Goldberg, another presenter last night) the "Comic Relief" benefits in 1986. Crystal, he says, taught him about baseball, a game about which he knew nothing.

Nothing? How is it possible for a boy growing up in America not to know something about baseball?

"I grew up in San Francisco!" explained Williams.

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