Having Struggled From Warm-Up Act to Headliner: BILLY CRYSTAL

Billy Crystal evokes the demons of comedy in a new movie, giving the perfect Oscar host a shot at his own Oscar

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He proved that his comedy was universal in Midnight Train to Moscow, the first TV comedy special of the glasnost era, a one-hour pastiche of sketches taped live at Moscow's Pushkin theater and interspersed with his search for his Russian ancestors (he finds and dances with his Aunt Sheila.) He wins over the audience, even getting them to stand and sit in an approximation of the human wave that could pass muster on a bad night at Shea Stadium. He mimes a debate between Gorbachev and Yeltsin, offers a tribute to Charlie Chaplin set to Tchaikovsky and, in general, plays on the small-world theme. "I was raised thinking you were the enemy," he tells the Russian audience. "You were raised thinking I was the enemy. We were both wrong. ((Pause.)) It's the French."

FOR SOMEONE SO PREOCCUPIED WITH AGing and loneliness, Crystal doesn't have to worry about either. Offstage, he cuts a youthful figure in his uniform of jeans and T shirts, with his impish face and wiry, still athletic build (in high school he won two letters in baseball and one each in basketball and soccer). With the success of his movies, particularly the box-office smashes Harry and City Slickers, he may never have to go back on the road, which he found unbearably lonely. "There's a scene in Mr. Saturday Night where Buddy is having dinner with his wife in the hotel bathroom, the toilet seat covered with white linen and crystal, while the baby sleeps in the next room. That's Janice and me." When the girls got older and Janice couldn't go along, he would drive all night to get back home. "Doing stand-up, you live for 8:05 p.m. The rest of the day is waiting. Some of my worst moments were being alone in the room and the phone at home is busy."

Playing Buddy Young put him face-to-face, literally, with his older self, at least for the 53 days he was in old-age makeup. The transformation was so complete that for Janice, who was with him on location for much of the shooting -- including the five hours each day getting into the makeup and the two hours getting out -- Buddy Young became as familiar as Billy. After he had finished another 20-hour day of filming at the boat pond in Manhattan's & Central Park, Janice came up behind him and protectively took one arm in hers and slipped the other around his shoulder. They looked for all the world like an old couple walking off into the sunset.

That's what Crystal wants now. "I'm on indefinite vacation," he swears. He putters in his garden tending the zucchini. He says he never used humor the way Buddy did, as a straight-arm to keep people away, but he admits he once had a craving, now banished, for "that extra hug you can only get from strangers." Not needing hugs and wanting to be known more for his movies than his stand-up skills have so far kept Crystal from agreeing to be the host of the Academy Awards for the fourth year in a row. "I love being Captain of Show Business for one night a year, but it is hard to keep doing it better," he says. Gilbert Cates, producer of the Oscars show, says Crystal is "brilliant at it, an absolute joy to work with, and a trouper. He did the show last year with the flu and a fever of 102." If Crystal does it, he makes Oscar history -- the only host eligible to win awards as Best Actor, Director, Writer and Producer. But if he doesn't win, there's always next year. He's considering City Slickers II.

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