The final days before the Oscars are filled with deadlines and pressure that could topple lesser awards show hosts - but not stalwart Billy Crystal.
Brian Grazer, who co-produces Sunday night's show with Don Mischer, was struck by how cool and funny his Oscar host appeared while shooting one of his trademark movie montages for the broadcast (ABC, 7 p.m. ET/4 p.m. PT).
"It was just Billy shooting against a green screen on the Paramount lot, but you would have thought he was playing against one of the greatest actors in the world," Grazer says. "It was so clear this is an element he loves to live in. It's like he was born to do all of this."
Being the host of the Academy Awards might actually be the 63-year-old Crystal's destiny. This year marks his ninth outing on the marquee awards show's stage (second only to Bob Hope with 18), which have led to four Emmy wins for his performances and writing. But despite his veteran status, it has been eight years since he has put on a tux to helm Hollywood's biggest night.
"There have been so many wonderful hosts through the years, but there are really only three that truly stand out," Mischer says. "That's Bob Hope, Johnny Carson and Billy. He's in that class. When he walks on that stage, it's going to be a really great comeback and a very emotional moment."
That poignancy was born from a fraught time for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In November, the show's original producer, Brett Ratner, resigned abruptly after making offensive public remarks, and scheduled host Eddie Murphy soon followed suit.
Grazer, who produced A Beautiful Mind and Apollo 13, was brought in to assist awards show veteran Mischer on the producing end. Their first mission - to find a new host - was easy, since they already had Crystal in mind.
Within an hour after assuming his duties, Grazer was on the phone with Crystal, who asked to think about it overnight.
The next day he tweeted: "Am doing the Oscars so the young woman in the pharmacy will stop asking my name when I pick up my prescriptions. Looking forward to the show."
"It's funny," Grazer says. "I learned from that tweet that he was doing the show."
Crystal's return represented not only a classy, time-tested choice, but an instant cure to tumultuous times. "Rather than saying he is saving the day, Billy is just what the doctor ordered," says academy president Tom Sherak. "We're in the perfect place and the perfect time for him to come home."
Crystal did his first show in 1990 to great acclaim and followed in well-received spurts in 1991-1993, 1997-1998, 2000 and 2004. But the grueling schedule took its toll.
"It became too much of a part of my year. It became months and months of work," Crystal told David Steinberg last year in an interview for Showtime's Inside Comedy. "After a while, it's sort of a thankless job."
But there was no hesitation once Crystal signed on for 2012.
"He had ideas immediately about directions he could take," Mischer says. "That's what really counts. The host has to want to be there and be comfortable. That radiates from Billy."
Much of the telecast's details have been kept under wraps, and Crystal has avoided interviews and pre-Oscar appearances. Even his news-breaking tweets have come to a halt.
His musical number returns
This is par for the course for Crystal, says Steve Pond, author of the Oscar history book The Big Show. Pond was backstage and attended rehearsals for Crystal's last four stints.
"Everything Billy does before the show is sort of shrouded in secrecy," Pond says. "Whereas Steve Martin would try out his jokes in front of anyone who would listen when he was hosting, with Billy, they don't want anyone to hear his monologue."
Sherak says the traditional Crystal musical number is coming back and will cover all nine best-picture nominees.
"We were hysterical listening to it," Sherak says. "Each time he went over it, he was more and more energized."
He's still fast on his feet
A big part of the hosting duties, after the opening number, deals with reacting to what actually happens during the show. That is one aspect at which the former stand-up comic excels.
"Billy and his writing staff are thinking about every possible contingency - what if this person wins and so on," Mischer says. "It's the most thorough approach to hosting a major show that I have ever seen. He's able to be improvisational because he does his homework. No stone is left unturned."
One great improv moment came during the 64th Academy Awards in 1992 when 100-year-old silent-film director Hal Roach was honored with a standing ovation. Roach decided to give an impromptu speech, without a microphone, from his seat. During the television silence that followed, Crystal waited patiently.
"I think that's fitting since Mr. Roach started in silent films," he finally quipped.
"No one knew that moment would happen," Pond says. "It wasn't prepared backstage, but he just reacted to it."
During the show itself, Pond says, Crystal spends most of the time in the wings with his writers discussing key moments they can react to.
"He's not wandering about talking to people," Pond says. "He's with his writers figuring out what to do next. He's very focused on the show in progress."
Crystal is not expected at any of the parties during the days leading up to Sunday's show. But the buzz around his appearance is apparent.
Speaking at a party Tuesday honoring Charlie Chaplin, supporting-actress nominee Jessica Chastain wondered aloud whether any of her films would be part of Crystal's movie montage: "That's the ultimate tribute. It's mad props."
And Cuba Gooding Jr. talked about how Crystal's re-creation of his Oscar-winning "Show me the money" moment during 1997's show was almost as memorable as winning the award (supporting actor in Jerry Maguire). "Billy had his shirt off; he had my chains on from the movie," says Gooding Jr. "He had me down. I was immortalized."
The jokes don't stop
Crystal has managed some brief moments of respite during the past month: He attended a Los Angeles Clippers NBA game (he's a season-ticket holder) and hit his favorite breakfast spot, the classic Beverly Hills delicatessen Nate 'n Al. But the intense final weeks leading up to the Oscars have left little room for anything else.
"There's no time to do anything," Steinberg says. "I don't even want to call him. There's no normal conversation you can have with someone hosting the Oscars. He's working at it all the time. How can he not?"
But still the jokes keep coming. Grazer recalls cracking up during a recent conversation with the host.
"I called him at 8 in morning. Billy picked up and said, 'I bet you didn't think I'd be up,' " Grazer says. "And then he said, 'Yep, I've been up since 1948.' "