The son of a jazz concert producer, Billy Crystal grew up in the company of such music legends as Billie Holiday, Pee Wee Russell, and Eddy Condon. His mind made up by age five, Crystal knew he wanted to become a performer -- not in music but in baseball or comedy. As he later explained to TV Guide, he chose comedy "because God made me short" -- though from all reports he is one of the best ball players in show business.
Learning how to make people laugh by studying the works of past masters Laurel and Hardy, Ernie Kovacs, and Jonathan Winters, Crystal began making the club rounds at 16. He was sidetracked briefly by New York University's film school, where he studied to be a director under Martin Scorsese, but upon graduation it was back to comedy when Crystal formed his own troupe, 3's Company. On his own, he developed into an "observational" comic, humor based on his own experiences and the collective experiences of his audience. He came to media attention via his impression of Howard Cosell interviewing Muhammad Ali. After doing time as an opening act for such musicians as Barry Manilow, Crystal struck out for Hollywood, in hopes of finding regular work on a TV series. In 1977, he was hired to play the gay character Jodie Dallas on Soap. Though many people expected the performer to be typecast in this sort of part, he transcended the "sissy" stereotype, making the character so three-dimensional that audiences and potential employers were fully aware that there was more to Crystal's talent than what they saw in Jodie.
Thanks to Soap, Crystal became and remained a headliner and, in 1978, had his first crack at movie stardom as a pregnant man in Rabbit Test. The movie was unsuccessful, but Crystal's star had not been eclipsed by the experience; he was even entrusted with a dramatic role in the 1980 TV movie Enola Gay. His career accelerating with comedy records, choice club dates, regular appearances on Saturday Night Live, and TV guest shots, Crystal had a more successful stab at the movies in such films as This is Spinal Tap (1984), The Princess Bride (1987), Throw Momma From the Train (1987), and When Harry Met Sally (1989). Riding high after a memorable emceeing stint at the Oscar ceremony, Crystal executive produced and starred in his most successful film project to date, an uproarious middle-age-angst comedy called City Slickers (1991). In 1992, he mounted his most ambitious film endeavor, Mr. Saturday Night, the bittersweet chronicle of a self-destructive comedian. The film had great potential (as indicated by the outtakes contained in its video cassette version), but the end result died at the box office. That same year, Crystal again hosted the Oscar awards, and in 1994 he repeated his earlier success with the popular sequel City Slickers 2: The Legend of Curly's Gold.
Crystal added to his directing credits the following year with the romantic comedy Forget Paris. Unfortunately, the film -- which he also produced, wrote, and starred in -- was something of a flop. He subsequently focused his energies on acting, turning up in Hamlet (1996) and Deconstructing Harry (1997). In 1998 he had another producing stint with My Giant, a comedy he also starred in; like his previous producing effort, that film also proved fairly unsuccessful. However, Crystal bounced back in 1999, executive producing and starring in Analyze This. A comedy about a mob boss, Robert De Niro, seeking therapy from a psychiatrist (Crystal), it won a number of positive reviews, convincing many that the performer was back in his element.
Back in the director's chair in 2001, Crystal helmed the made-for-HBO 61*. Detailing the 1961 home-run race between Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle, 61* struck a chord with baseball sentimentalists and critics alike. Scripting and starring in America's Sweethearts the same year, Crystal also began to cultivate a voice acting career that would prove extremely successful, providing the voices for characters in Monsters, Inc., Howl's Moving Castle and Cars. As the 2010's continued to unfold, Crystal would find himself increasingly able to take the reigns on both sides of the camera, flexing his muscles as a producer and writer as well as actor, such as with the 2012 comedy Parental Guidance.