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A Minute With: Billy Crystal, former host of the Academy Awards

Actor Billy Crystal speaks during a hand and footprint ceremony for actor Robert DeNiro at the TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, California,
Actor Billy Crystal speaks during a hand and footprint ceremony for actor Robert DeNiro at the TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, California,

By Zorianna Kit

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Few people have more experience hosting the Academy Awards than actor Billy Crystal, who was the master of ceremonies for the movie industry's highest honors for the ninth time last year.

As "Family Guy" creator Seth MacFarlane prepares to host the Oscars for the first time on Sunday, Crystal, 64, spoke to Reuters about his own experiences and offered some tips.

Q: What is the secret to being a good Oscar host?

A: "Anytime I've been asked by new hosts - Chris Rock called me, Jon Stewart called me - I always say the same thing: 'Whatever your approach, the world is a rough room. And it's a big room. Not everybody is going to like what you have to say. But when you're up there, look like you want to be there. You're the captain of show business that night. That's your job.'"

Q: Is there a particular way to handle the audience?

A: "You've got the first five rows of people who are all nominated actors. They are really nervous. The women are in uncomfortable dresses. The men aren't used to wearing tuxedos. For most of them, it's the end of a really long awards season. The lights are bright, it's usually really cold in there and there are cameras running everything to get reaction shots. So make them feel relaxed. And you have to be funny."

Q: In those conditions, that sounds like a pretty tall order.

A: "It's a really difficult job because it goes against everything you want to do as a performer and I always found that hard. As a performer who loves his job on stage, I don't really like to see the audience, I like to feel them. So I try to encourage (new hosts) to understand that it's not going to be what they're used to."

Q: Do you have a favorite year of all the ones you hosted?

A: "Definitely my first one (in 1990) because it was the first and it went really, really well. Then the one I almost didn't do (in 1992) because I had pneumonia. I had a 104 temperature and was so sick. I came out as Hannibal Lecter in a mask and was wheeled out on a gurney and went out into the audience and talked to Anthony Hopkins. It was the year Jack Palance won for 'City Slickers' and did the one-arm push-ups. That set me up for an evening of just running jokes about him."

Q: Any mishaps that you recall needing to step in and save?

A: "At the (1992 ceremony) I introduced Hal Roach from the stage. It was his 100th birthday. He wasn't supposed to speak, only wave. But he started speaking, holding himself up by the seat in front of him. You could barely hear him. It went on and on. You could feel people getting restless. Lines were racing through my head and I thought, 'How do you get out of this?'"

Q: And how did you?

A: "I hit on a line and just looked at the audience and said: 'It's only fitting, he got his start in silent films!' It got a big cheer. For me, I could look at that one little moment and say, 'I was okay then. I was a good comedian that night.'"

Q: Did hosting the Oscars ever get old for you?

A: "If it ever gets old hat, you shouldn't do it. The nervous part for me was when we had a good show, trying to top it the next year. It was putting that self-imposed pressure on myself. We were fortunate enough to have some good shows and some not as good as others."

Q: Do you have one particular moment that will always stay with you?

A: "I came up with this idea of putting me in the nominated films. The last piece was 'The English Patient' where I'm walking in the desert. David Letterman had a rough time (when he hosted the Oscars in 1995), so I said, 'What if Letterman is in the plane and he's coming after me because I'm hosting?' So we did that and I thought, 'What if I come through the screen?' So they built a screen and I ran on film and then popped right through the screen and suddenly I was live (at the theater)."

Q: So was that your favorite moment?

A: "Here's my singular favorite moment: My mother was in the audience that night. It was the only time she saw me host the Oscars in person. When I popped through the screen, she and I made eye contact. We just looked at each other ... so that was the greatest moment."

Q: Would you host again if asked?

A: "Today with social media, everybody who can press 'send' is a critic. There's a lot of good ones, but the mean ones are really mean. If you have a thin skin for that it makes it hard ... For me if the show is good, it's expected. If it's a bit off, you get creamed. And I don't feel like getting creamed anymore."

(Editing by Jill Serjeant, Patricia Reaney and Stacey Joyce)

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