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Crystal back as Oscar host

No introduction is necessary: Billy Crystal and Oscar already know each other quite well.

The actor-filmmaker-comedian has hosted the Academy Awards eight times, and he's now on deck for his ninth. He'll preside over the movie industry's 84th annual ceremony tonight on ABC and given this year's nominees, don't be surprised if he goes silent like an "Artist," shows some iron in the guise of a former prime minister or sports a dragon tattoo.

Crystal agreed to return after originally scheduled host Eddie Murphy exited, following the departure of initially set producer Brett Ratner (replaced by Brian Grazer, who now is producing the event with award show veteran Don Mischer). In other ways as well, Crystal felt the timing was right for him to take the job again, as he explained to this writer.

Q: Have you kept up with this year's nominated movies?

A: I've seen pretty much everything. There were certain performances I hadn't seen that I went back and looked at to see if a joke might be made, because whoever that person is will now be in the audience. We'd been developing things, but when the nominations came out, that's when we really started grinding for four or five weeks.

Q: You've acknowledged that a lot of expectation comes with your return to host the Oscars. Are you managing that well?

A: Well, I don't know how well I manage anything! Anxiety can be a very healthy thing, too. In the past, I've always tried to top myself in what we've done on the show, and we're going to try to do that again. People seem happy that I'm coming back, and I'm happy that I'm coming back, so I want to give them the best show I can. With that comes pressure to make it as good as you can.

Q: When people anticipate you'll insert yourself into clips from the past year's movies and do your musical satire "It's a Wonderful Night for Oscar," how do you work with or against that to stay surprising?

A: What I like to do and what the audience wants me to do can be two different things. In my mind, I'm not going to do certain things they want then you start thinking about it and go, "Well, maybe I should." I'm just looking to have a good time and hopefully, the audience will, too.

Q: Your relatively brief appearance at last year's Academy Awards got a huge response. How far did that go toward your decision about this year?

A: That was a big part of it. That moment took my breath away, and I'm somebody who's not usually at a loss for words. It was very warm and loving, and it got me a little itchy. This will be my ninth time, second only to Bob Hope in the number of times someone has hosted the Oscars, and being welcomed back in that way made me think about doing it again.

Q: Do you reflect much about often being mentioned with Bob Hope and Johnny Carson as the best Oscar hosts?

A: In those quiet moments, you say to yourself, "Wow. Look at these guys I'm with." I grew up watching them, especially Bob; when I first became aware of the Academy Awards, it was his show, and I always thought he was so great. Johnny was great, too, and when you see your name with theirs, it's incredibly satisfying and humbling.

The best moment I've ever had with the Oscars actually happened the morning after one of the shows, when Johnny called me. He couldn't have been more kind and congratulatory. He just said so many beautiful things to me, I hung up and said to myself, "I don't ever have to do this again."

Q: Since you are doing it again, what are your hopes for the unexpected to happen, as with the night your "City Slickers" co-star Jack Palance won best supporting actor and started doing push-ups onstage?

A: You hope something like that happens and also that you're out there for it. Last year, they had me backstage in a freezing little storage room so no one knew I'd be coming out, and I was watching the show on a monitor. I saw Kirk Douglas come out and play around, then Melissa Leo dropped the F-bomb. Those are the moments when you go, "I want to be there!"