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TV Preview: Crystal returns to host Academy Awards

Sunday, February 29, 2004

By Rob Owen, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

HOLLYWOOD -- A veteran and a newbie will be running the show tonight for ABC's telecast of the "76th Annual Academy Awards."

"76th Annual Academy Awards"

When: 8 tonight on ABC.

Host: Billy Crystal.

Host Billy Crystal, an Oscar staple, returns after four years off, but the man behind the scenes, executive producer Joe Roth, has never produced a minute of television in his life. Roth is better known for producing films, including "Black Hawk Down," "Daddy Day Care" and "Young Guns."

Roth's biggest worry in mid-January was adding to the "In Memoriam" segment.

"Every time I pick up the L.A. Times and when I look under the fold, I'm hoping another actor hasn't died," Roth said in January. "We've already got so many people. It becomes part of your life. I literally was up last night at 1 o'clock in the morning with anxiety dreams about presenters."

Crystal said hosting is nerve-racking, too, because he knows he's playing to a global audience.

"The world is a rough room," he said. "A billion people are watching you, and to keep the balance of the evening moving, you have to hopefully be witty, hopefully be spontaneous if something happens and get out of the way of the show after a while. It's a big job and a hard one."

His only regret when he sat out the year of "Schindler's List" (1993): An award for art direction went to a woman named Ewa Braun, which sounded like "Eva Braun," Hitler's mistress.

"I had a million lines flying through my head, you know, 'Show the designs of Berchtesgaden.' 'Look at the drapes that she used.' 'Costumes? She works only in brown!'"

Crystal, who has hosted the Oscars seven times before, said he decided to host again after watching last year's telecast, hosted by Steve Martin.

"I thought Steve was magnificent," Crystal said, remembering last year's war-time Oscar show. "I just thought that it was against all odds to get laughs out of that audience in those times. I thought he was sensational."

Feeling refreshed and re-invigorated for the task, Crystal said his goal is to make this year's show feel like a celebration. Old black and white clips show the Oscars to be more like a dinner party that even non-nominees would attend.

"It's our industry show, and everyone should come and support it," he said. "This really is to celebrate all of the good movies, not just the ones nominated, and support your fellow actor, writer, producer, director ..."

Roth said he wants to create an old-fashioned, star-studded feeling for this year's show, which he swears he'll try to bring in at no more than 3 1/2 hours.

"There will not be long, extended periods of Busby Berkeley-like numbers going on on the stage, which is just a personal thing for me," he said. "I've watched the show since I was a kid, and whenever that came on, I could go get some pretzels or a soda. I think it's going to be staged like a comedy show and feel like a comedy show and have the pacing of a comedy show."

Crystal wouldn't talk specifics about his plans, not even whether his famous filmed parodies of the nominated films will return. But patter between Crystal and perpetual attendee Jack Nicholson is likely to continue.

"Jack has been my partner on several of these shows. I've come out and either he didn't know where he was or he just didn't care," Crystal said. "One night, I was in this really cool suit and he talked to me during the monologue. He just went, 'Billy, is this Armani?' During the show!"

Writing the jokes in advance is a time-consuming process, with Crystal and the show's writers beginning their work three months in advance of the telecast.

"We write thousands of jokes," he said. "It's almost like creating a football playbook with options. If this one wins, I can say this; if this one wins... We bank it all, and then hopefully you don't need any of them. The best nights are when you're free and it comes to you right then and there."

Post-Gazette TV editor Rob Owen can be reached at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Post questions about TV to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Q&A.

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