So, you want to host the Oscars? Fine. Here are the requirements:

You must be absolutely fearless, smart, facile, topical, extremely funny, a good singer, decent dancer and possess an encyclopedic knowledge of movie history, the business and the stars. You must be reverent of the institution and the 3,400 powerful, anxious, highly neurotic people sitting in front of you, but not a toady, either. Irreverence is essential -- just not Gervasian irreverence.

Being a star of a hit movie doesn't hurt, but -- failing that -- being one of the biggest comics in the world will suffice.

Finally, pay particularly close attention to the person who will step onto the proscenium at the Hollywood and Highland Center (formerly the Kodak Theatre) Sunday night. He is your template. Billy Crystal was all this and much more during most of the 1990s, when he commanded that stage with as much grace and skill as anyone in Oscar history.

Look for the toothbrush

Meanwhile, when he first appears Sunday night, cast a quick glance at his tux pocket. If history is a guide, there will be a toothbrush in that pocket -- the same one a little boy back in the early '50s held up in front of his black-and-white TV set in the family living room at 549 E. Park Ave. in Long Beach. He pretended to award this "Oscar" to some gorgeous, glamorous, untouchable god or goddess on the screen. It's a reminder of who he is, and how far he's come.

So let that be the last piece of advice. Be sure to bring your toothbrush. Humility and an abiding respect for the past -- particularly your own -- aren't such bad qualities, either.

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Of course, there really is only one living person on the planet with these qualities. After Bob Hope -- 18 hosting gigs -- Crystal is the most successful Oscar host in history, with a total of eight outings between 1990 and 2004. To say he is a beloved part of this institution flirts with understatement. While the Oscars have mostly flailed in the hosting department over this past decade, his stature seems to have grown -- as evidenced by the standing ovation he received during the four-minute tribute to Hope at last year's 83rd Academy Awards ceremony.

Disaster recovery

Crystal returns Sunday night in almost sort of a triage role. Last year's Oscar hosts, James Franco and Anne Hathaway, were widely considered a disaster, while the telecast's viewership slid 4 million from the previous year. The academy then decided to shake things up and figured it had just the man to do the shaking -- TV ("Prison Break") and action-movie producer Brett Ratner, who got pal Eddie Murphy to host. But Ratner was fired after making an anti-gay slur in a public forum, and Murphy quit soon thereafter, plunging this year's ceremony into chaos. A member of Hollywood royalty, Brian Grazer, was named producer, and he put out a call to another member.

Why did Crystal leave in the first place, and why come back now? Except for a couple of isolated interviews, neither he nor the academy are discussing his return; they claim they want to preserve an element of surprise (and with Crystal, such elements are expected, like the time he rode onto the stage atop a giant Oscar, pulled by Jack Palance).

But some of the story has already been told. After 2004, the Oscars' youthification movement began in earnest. Producers -- and advertisers -- wanted younger-skewing, or hipper, edgier hosts to attract younger audiences that, after all, were supposed to be going to the movies being celebrated. Chris Rock arrived (unmemorably) after Crystal, followed by Jon Stewart (twice), Ellen DeGeneres and Hugh Jackman. (Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin, the 82nd ceremony's hosts, briefly bucked the youth trend.)

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Moreover, Crystal's cachet has dimmed. Except for a voice part here and there, he hasn't had a major hit since 1999's "Analyze This." When he stepped onto the podium for the first time in 1990, he was just coming off the box office smash, "When Harry Met Sally," and was about to headline another, "City Slickers." Besides that youthful exuberance and quicksilver delivery in those early years, his movie credits were a large part of his appeal -- the big star poking gentle fun at other big stars. "I love Jack [Nicholson] sitting right there smiling at me. I feel like a Laker girl." Or "Jack is so rich Morgan Freeman drove him here tonight," he quipped on the night "Driving Miss Daisy" would be named best picture. Jack laughed. Morgan laughed. After all, they were members of the same club.

In 1990, as in 2012, Crystal arrived at a crucial juncture. The year before, the Oscar telecast had imploded with an opening song and dance number featuring Rob Lowe and Snow White -- an enduring symbol of Oscar indulgence and vapidity. The ceremony had become a parody of itself, and Crystal knew that the second he stepped before the audience. After the applause ended, he said: "Is that for me or are you just glad I'm not Snow White?" That was the left jab. Then came the right. "How about that Chuck Workman," he said, referring to another of Workman's classic montages to the movie year just ended. "There were 330 films in that. According to Paramount, not one has yet to make a profit."

Crystal's routine was both homage and parody. His closing song-and-dance number -- "It's a wonderful night for Oscar! Oscar! Oscar! Who will win??!!" -- was an inversion of the moldy and by then insufferable opening numbers that had led so many ceremonies for so many years. (He would later insert himself in the Workman montages.)

Mixed feelings

Nevertheless, Crystal was and always has been conflicted about the job. After a three-year term as Grammys host, he told Gene Siskel just before the 1990 telecast, "when Gil called, I was wary because 'When Harry Met Sally' had just become a hit, and I didn't know if I wanted to be thought of as 'the host guy' or as an actor." (The other minefield -- potential employers were in the audience: "I do have to be careful," he told Siskel. "I can't say everything I feel about the nominees.")

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This Sunday, the prodigal Host Guy returns to help steady a reeling institution, and summon nostalgia -- especially key with "Hugo" and "The Artist" in the mix. And nostalgia is what Crystal may do best of all. He reconstructed his own past in "700 Sundays," his one-man show on Broadway about a childhood filled with "gifts of love, laughter, family, good food, Jews and jazz, brisket and bourbon, curveballs in the snow, Mickey Mantle, Bill Cosby, Sid Caesar . . . "

Crystal also once wrote and starred in "Mr. Saturday Night," a 1992 movie about a washed-up comedian, Buddy Young, who got one last shot at the big time. It was partly a paean to his own past and one that almost eerily reflects his present. Buddy had one last triumph. Billy has another one -- guaranteed -- Sunday night.

 

Billy Crystal: From Long Beach to Hollywood

 

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BY ANDY EDELSTEIN, andy.edelstein@newsday.com

 

Billy Crystal's parents, Helen and Jack (who managed the family business, Commodore Records, a store and record label specializing in jazz), moved from the Bronx to Long Beach in 1950 with their three sons -- Billy, 2, Richie (nicknamed Rip), 4, and Joel, 8. By the mid-'50s, when the family had moved to a two-family house on Park Avenue, the Crystal boys were famous in the family for their living-room routines.

Laughter kept Crystal and his brothers close. "You had three very energetic children in a very little place," Crystal told Newsday several years ago. "It must have been unbelievable. Dinnertime was pretty wild. We loved making each other laugh. It was good stuff. There was the occasional mashed potatoes and peas in the nose, but that was too easy."

And, of course, there was the influence of that new medium, television, where young Billy soaked up the humor of "The Honeymooners," "Your Show of Shows" and such performers as Red Skelton, Ernie Kovacs and Jonathan Winters.

Crystal's brushes with show biz luminaries weren't limited to the tube. When he was 8, he was having dinner with his family at Russo's restaurant on Park Avenue in Long Beach, when Alan King and his wife entered the room. "He looked like a huge star, he just floated in," Crystal recalled. "I was in awe of King -- after all, he was a regular on Ed Sullivan." That regal entrance burned in young Billy's brain for 35 years and finally was used in his 1992 film, "Mr. Saturday Night," in which Crystal played a stand-up comic.

As a teenage busboy at the Lido Beach Hotel, Crystal met Sammy Davis Jr., who later became a friend as well as one of his favorite entertainers to parody.

In the interview with Newsday, Crystal recalled his growing-up years in that South Shore city with a genuine fondness, remembering best its sense of community. "Everybody knew each other," he observed. "No one seemed more special than anyone else. We're talking about 1952 or '53, when Long Beach was a small, wonderful community. No matter where you were, you fell asleep hearing the waves. It was just a great place to develop. You felt safe, and when you feel safe, you can do anything.

"You always felt like there were so many places to go," he continued. "We had different hangouts -- swimming at the pool, seeing movies at the Laurel Theater, noshing at Beach Burger, getting a slice and a Coke for a quarter at Gino's pizzeria. . . . And, of course, you'd hang out on the boardwalk, or under the boardwalk if you were lucky."

Crystal had other kinds of luck on the boardwalk. "I was really was good at Skee-ball. I still have the tickets (which were given out according to how high your score was) at Faber's and Seidel's. I always wanted to win my mother a set of dishes . . . and never did."

Crystal actually spent 26 years in Long Beach, staying until 1976 when he was 28, married with a child and at a point in his career when Hollywood took him from his last home there, a second-floor apartment a block from the beach.