“He’s my favorite character I’ve ever played,” Billy Crystal once said of Mike Wazowski, the frenetic, green, cyclopean monster from 2001’s Monsters, Inc. and 2013’s Monsters University. Billy’s voice acting and improvisational talents brought the excitable, soft-hearted Wazowski to life, making the character, as Billy once explained, “fast and edgy; speedy and nuts; aggressive and romantic… and positive.”
It’s a versatility that has served Billy well in his varied career as a comedian, actor, writer, director, producer, host, and… major league ballplayer?
From the very beginning, Billy was drawn to the life of an entertainer. Born in New York City on March 14, 1948, his father Jack was a music promoter while his uncle was legendary record producer Milton Gabler. His mother, Helen, once even provided the voice of Minnie Mouse in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Billy grew up surrounded by jazz legends, but the real stars of the household were he and his two brothers. The trio performed a constant stream of skits and variety acts—many “borrowed” from comedy albums they discovered at their father’s record store—at family get-togethers and local events.
After briefly attending Marshall University on a baseball scholarship, Billy wound up graduating from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in 1970. He began to work the improv comedy circuit in New York City, and eventually found his way into an appearance during the first season of Saturday Night Live (1975–1976).
Billy’s big breakthrough came with his groundbreaking role as Jodie Dallas on Soap, which aired on ABC from 1977 – 81. He joined the cast of Saturday Night Live for its 1984 – 85 season, where his character Fernando famously coined the catchphrase, “You look mahvelous!” In 1986, he hosted the first of many Comedy Relief charity fundraisers alongside friends Whoopi Goldberg and fellow Disney Legend Robin Williams.
An appearance early in his career on All in the Family led to a long friendship with actor and director Rob Reiner, who would bring Billy to movie screens in the 1980s. Two small-but-memorable roles in Reiner films, This Is Spinal Tap (1984) and The Princess Bride (1987), led to a starring turn in 1989’s When Harry Met Sally. That performance earned him a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor, a feat he would repeat with City Slickers (1991) and Mr. Saturday Night (1992).
In 1993, Billy guest starred on the Jim Henson Productions-produced Muppets Tonight for ABC. After initially passing on the role of Buzz Lightyear for Toy Story, he joined the Pixar family as the voice of Mike Wazowski in Monsters, Inc. It’s a role he has revisited in the 2002 short film Mike’s New Car, as a cameo in Cars (2006), and in 2013’s Monsters University. He also provided Mike’s voice for the Disney California Adventure attraction Monsters, Inc. Mike & Sulley to the Rescue! (2006). For the 2005 Studio Ghibli production Howl’s Moving Castle, he voiced the character Calcifer.
For ABC television, Billy hosted the Academy Awards® broadcast nine times between 1990 and 2012—more than any performer save for Bob Hope, and earning him four of his six Emmy awards. His love of baseball—he is a lifelong New York Yankees fan—led him to direct 61* (2001), based on the 1961 race to break Babe Ruth’s single season home run record. It earned him an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Directing for a Miniseries, Movie, or a Special. Billy is a part owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks club, which won him a World Series ring in 2001. For his 60th birthday in 2008, the Yankees signed him to a minor league contract—for a single day.
On the Broadway stage, Billy wrote and performed the two-act, one-man autobiographical play 700 Sundays, about his childhood on Long Island. It ran for 163 sold-out performances in 2004, won the 2005 Tony® Award for Best Special Theatrical Event, and brought him the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding One-Person Show.
For his lifetime of achievement, Billy was awarded the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 2007.