How I Convinced Gil Cates to Make Billy Crystal an Oscar Host

Crystal hosted, and he made me laugh until I cried during one of his impromptu bits. He was phenomenal


I discovered one of my favorite artists Thomas Pradzynski on the walls of Gil Cates' magnificent home when Andrea and I had dinner one wintry evening.

Pradzynski primarily depicted Paris street scenes in oil, but on Gil's wall were his rare storefronts of New York.  

So, not only did I experience this incredible artist, but also that two key events in the life of Gil Cates would transpire. He would learn that he was the top candidate to become Dean of the UCLA School of Theatre, Film and Television. August Coppola (Francis brother and Nicolas Cage's father) was the other contender. Other great news followed.

Also read: Gil Cates: The Man Who Saved the Oscars

After dinner, Karl Malden, then head of the Motion Picture Academy, called and asked Gil if he wanted to produce the 1990 Academy Awards. 

A week later, Gil and I meet for lunch at Le Dome. He had just come from Michael Douglas and Jane Fonda to discuss their co-hosting Gil's first producing of the Academy Awards. 

"My design is an international focus of world filmmaking with remotes from Italy, Japan and Russia and Michael and Jane will co-host.  Nobody knows but you at the moment."

"Good thing too, as it is a terrible idea." 

Gil is shocked by my reaction.

"I respect Michael Douglas as an actor," I explained. "And he's a first-rate producer, as well. But as an awards host he's deadly. And Jane Fonda is one of the most hated women in America." 

"Oh, Axe, that's yesterday's news. It's a small group that still hates her …" 

"No, yesterday they wanted her dead, now they just want her to go far away. Just mention her name to that small group — anyone who served in the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force or National Guard during the past 30 years. Horrendous idea, both."

It sounds very metrosexual, but the Oscars to me always was very special. I'm speaking as someone who at age 11 put on a thrift shop tuxedo, with bow tie and French cuffs the night of the awards to watch Bob Hope host in a blackened room in our tiny home on Sparks Street in West Oak Lane, in front of our family 12-inch black and white RCA. That was my special night and it had to be a comic who hosted, who could ad-lib or make you believe he was ad-libbing, who was fast on his feet. 

"You must have a solitary comic standup to host. Even the 1959 Jerry Lewis hosting, considered a disaster, was still fun. Not two actors."

"Carson refuses to do it this year."

"Not Carson, Billy Crystal. Did you see the Grammys?"

"No," Gil said, he hadn't. "Crystal hosted, and he made me laugh until I cried during one of his impromptu bits. He was phenomenal." 

No one in my mind had a quicker wit, the unexpected humor, the ability to talk to an audience as if speaking to one individual — and like a vaudevillian sent back by time machine, the sheer representation of a century of show business "performing" culture in the persona of the "nice guy." ("Nice guy" to those who worked with Crystal is considered dark humor.) 

OK, that was my take on Crystal. And, not only was Crystal not a client, at that moment, I hadn't met him. But it appeared Gil Cates did not know any of that. Or believe. He ripped into my suggestion.

"Crystal is simply not in the league as others who have done this. He isn't Bob Hope or Carson." 

"No, he's hipper." 

"He's just a standup, he doesn't have the stature to host the Oscars."  

When I got back to the office, I asked Pierre Cossette to send Gil the three years of Crystal hosting the Grammys.

A few days later Gil calls and says, "Well you're not wrong, he's very good, but I'm still not certain. The Grammys are not the Oscars." 

Not too long after, the morning trades announced that Gil Cates would be producing the '90 Oscars. Gil was quoted as saying, "When I woke up this morning to learn that I would produce the Oscar telecast, I immediately knew there was only one person who could host and that was Billy Crystal."

It is widely agreed that Billy Crystal is the best Oscar host of it's 83-year history. And most also agree that Gil Cates was its best producer.