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When they told Billy Crystal he was going to be the 18th immortal of motion pictures to be saluted by the American Museum of the Moving Image, he looked over the list of the previous 17.

"Marty Scorsese?" he said aloud. "What did he do? Kazan? Not funny."

That's what funnyman Crystal said aloud, anyway, breaking up the room -- the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria -- where some 500 admirers had come to pay tribute to him at the 18th such black-tie AMMI bash.

The self-deprecating-by-inversion Scorsese-Kazan wisecrack came at the end of a sprightly three hours, last Wednesday evening -- Lincoln's birthday -- during which Billy Crystal's life and career were reprised all the way from 1977, when, on the Dinah Shore Show, 30-year-old Billy (looking 17) awestruckenly batted the breeze with his lifelong hero Mickey Mantle, to this very year, when Billy again plays nervous, unwilling shrink to Robert De Niro's nervous, explosive Mafia boss in the "Analyze That" sequel to the hilarious "Analyze This."

On the Dinah Shore clip, blue-jeaned Billy pulls out a Yankee Stadium program of the 1956 Memorial Day double-header he had attended at age 9. "See," he says, showing the Mick the program's photo of the Stadium, "you hit it from here" -- home plate -- "to my grandmother's house over here" (the Bronx, out past the center-field scoreboard).

There were four Academy Award winners in attendance at the Waldorf -- Kevin Spacey, Jack Palance, Robin Williams, De Niro -- all of whom had reaped their Oscars somewhere during the seven years that Crystal so sparklingly MC'd the show. Now they had come to repay him in kind.

Spacey went spacey trying to bring out the fine points of "Throw Mama From the Train," a 1987 black comedy starring Crystal and Danny De Vito, directed by De Vito, then replayed Billy's role in the Meg Ryan orgasm scene of "When Harry Met Sally" in the unmistakable accents of a not-so-long-gone president who knew how to appreciate such things as orgasms.

That humor and visceral seriousness go hand in hand, not least in Billy Crystal's hands, was underscored by a quick cut to the scene in the same movie where Harry confronts Sally at a New Year's Eve party and, spilling his guts, shouts out the love that has taken him -- and her --12 years to recognize.

"As Buddy Hackett might say," said Kevin Spacey, "12 years, what were they on -- methadone?"

Robin Williams, a Crystal pal from the "Saturday Night Live" days until now, delivered the greater part of his encomium in a sort of Sid Caesar quasi-Nazi high-Germanic hysteria, leading into a clip from the 1996 "Hamlet" in which Billy the Gravedigger hands the skull up to Ham, so that Kenneth Branagh, evincing stomach ache, can intone: "Alas, poor Yorick . . . "

Jack Palance will of course always be remembered -- and at the Waldorf he now publicly remembered it once again -- for the one-armed pushup with which he diverted the elite of Hollywood and countless millions around the world on the night he got his Oscar for his performance as rugged old Curly in "City Slickers."

"You were fun to work with," Palance now gravel-growled at the Billy who, on the other side of the campfire in that 1991 movie, keeps right on playing the harmonica, scared out of his wits, until the huge old knife-wielding Curly throws back his head and softly begins singing along to "Tumbling Tumbleweed."

The harmonica player's own tribute to his grizzled "City Slickers" costar toward the end of the AMMI evening was: "You could swipe credit cards through that face."

And De Niro -- well, let us save De Niro until a little later . . .

In between the four Oscarites there were compelling testimonies from a half-dozen other Crystal gazers.

Bob Costas, for instance, of NBC Sports, who said of his friend, the baseball and Yankees nut case: "This is a guy who weeps when he discusses Joe Pepitone's hairpiece."

Again, but with truth beneath the gag: "Billy Crystal turned down a baseball scholarship at Marshall College. He didn't want to be just another Jew in Appalachia."

And again, with no joking at all, anent the 1999 Crystal-directed HBO film "61*" -- a cinematic reconstruction of the year in which Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle hit homers neck and neck down the stretch until Mantle went out with an injury and Maris went on to break Babe Ruth's record with an (asterisked) 61st home run: "He [Billy] did right by Maris, he did right by Mantle, did right by that incredible season of 1961." In short, Costas wants you to know, the man is no phony.

Molly Shannon, an actress who had worked with De Niro and Crystal in "Analyze This," introduced a clip from "Midnight Train to Moscow," in which 1989 documentary Billy Crystal does a solo standup in the big jam-packed Pushkin Theater, first talking passable Russian -- about his grandmother from Odessa -- and then, in English, bringing down the house with: "We were taught you were the enemy. You were taught we were the enemy. We were both wrong. It's the French."

Overtones, anyone?

Jimmy Fallon, another who goes back with Billy to "Saturday Night Live," introduced a kaleidoscope of quick clips showing young Crystal's amazing versatility as what used to be called an "impressionist," with dead-on takeoffs of Muhammad Ali, Joe Franklin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Howard Cosell . . .

And then there was David Paymer, who preceded the clip of an embittered, high-tension scene between the two brothers of "Mr. Saturday Night" (1992) -- himself and Crystal -- with a recollection of how he landed the role:

"I auditioned, and went home and told my wife I thought I'd blown the audition. Then the phone rang. 'Hello, Dave? It's Billy Crystal. How'd you like to be my brother?' I had the part! Ten minutes later the phone rang again. 'Hello, Dave? It's Billy Crystal. Did someone just call, pretending to be me?' "

It once took this writer approximately six hours to boil down to one line a definition of the American Museum of the Moving Image, across the river in what was once the Astoria Studios, so in the interests of sanity we may as well use it again: A storehouse of dedication to the art, history, and technology of the motion picture.

May as well add invaluable -- an invaluable storehouse, etc., etc.

Rochelle Slovin, AMMI's director, had opened the proceedings on the upbeat note that "this year, New York has 14 Academy Award nominees," and her affirmation "I am a realistic optimist" come the economy what it may.

Now it was time for Herbert S. Schlosser, chairman of the AMMI board of trustees, to cite Edmund Kean's "Dying is easy -- comedy is hard" as he handed Billy Crystal the 2003 embodiment of the award that had previously gone to Sidney Lumet, Elia Kazan, James Stewart, Sidney Poitier, Mike Nichols, Martin Scorsese, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Barbara Walters, Steven Spielberg, Robin Williams, Goldie Hawn, Dustin Hoffman, Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Steve Martin, and Mel Gibson.

"Oh God," said the actor from Long Beach, Long Island, who was born 56 years ago next month, and who now cited his grandfather saying: "If you hang around the store long enough, sooner or later they'll give you something."

The grandson told the Waldorf guests what had steered him into his profession in the first place:

"I was a little guy in the third-grade having lunch in the cafeteria on the first day of school when I dropped my tray by accident. Everybody laughed, and I liked it. The second day, I dropped my tray on purpose. Everybody laughed. The third day, I was in show business."

He talked of his father's record store, on 42nd Street between Lex and Third, and of the great jazz musicians his father brought home, and how, as a kid, "if you could make the jazz cats laugh, that was the cool thing to do." Once Robert Mitchum came to the house and told 8-year-old Billy: "I've thrown up older Scotch than you."

That same kid watched Sid Caesar, Jonathan Winters, Jack Paar, Steve Allen, Ernie Kovacs, Phil Silvers, "The Honeymooners"; listened to Bob Newhart, Nichols and May, Bill Cosby, Stan Freberg on the comedy albums his father brought home. What clinched it for the youngster to try to be an actor -- he said, looking out into the audience at Jack Palance -- was seeing young Brandon De Wilde In "Shane."

Crystal thanked his wife Janice -- "my costar in every movie I've ever done" -- and their daughters Jennifer and Lindsay, actresses both. He thanked a bunch of other people, and with a touch of pride mentioned the character he'd played on "Soap" -- "the first gay character in America on a TV series, and that was 1977, a different time, when even Elton John said: 'I'm just flamboyant.' "

Tribeca's Robert De Niro, who is not notably garrulous in public, had given a rushing, fumbling introduction an hour or so earlier to the memorable made-for-Oscar faux documentary in which Billy Crystal stars in films opposite Chaplin, Brando, James Dean, Kirk Douglas, everybody.

Now, at the end of his thanks to all, the star of the evening looked out into the ballroom and directly at De Niro. "Bob, what can I say?" said Billy Crystal. "What can you say? 'I want to do it again, till I get it right?' "

Even as the audience roared with laughter, there was a stirring at Table 20. De Niro stood up, made his way to the stage, took the microphone and said: "It was something I put together not as well as I should have. You are a great person, and I love you."

Actually he had said it all before, as Paul Vitti who has just advised Dr. Ben Sobel: "If you turn me into a fag, I'll kill you" but a moment later, overcome with gratitude at the doctor's insights, waves his forefinger forcefully in the shrink's face and exclaims, with something way beyond admiration: "You . . . You . . . YOU!"

As somebody was saying the other day -- I think it was Freud -- talent defies analysis.[Tallmer]

This article was previously published in The Villager.

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