Two years ago, when Billy Crystal's hosting of the Academy Awards was threatened by a lingering flu virus, the show's producer Gilbert Cates made an 11th-hour call to Tom Hanks, asking the actor and sometime comedian if he would take over if Crystal couldn't make it to the stage.
I was following Cates around that year, doing a story on the behind-the-scenes production of the show, and remember how anxious Cates was over Crystal's condition. It was Friday, three days before the show, and the host still hadn't been able to drag himself to rehearsals.
Hanks didn't hesitate to say yes, even though he might not know until show day whether he was going in or not, and as Cates laid the phone back in its cradle, he let out a huge sigh of relief.
"If anybody could save the show, it would be Tom," he said. "He'd be a brilliant host."
Crystal made the date, of course, and gave what many critics thought was his best Oscar performance. It was the year that weird Jack Palance did all those one-armed push-ups and Crystal milked an evening's worth of gags out of it.
Now that Crystal has decided not to return for a fifth year, citing a bad case of host-itis (he's also emceed three Grammys and six Comic Relief events), Cates should think about redialing Hanks' number and offering him the job, with two months' notice. The producer's instincts were right about Hanks as host: He has charm, dignity, wit, intelligence and, it's worth mentioning, he's a movie star!
You would rather have Howard Stern?
Cates and other Oscar officials are being mum about a replacement for Crystal for the March 21 ceremony, though industry insiders know they have been looking for him or her for more than a month. Bette Midler, Steve Martin, Whoopi Goldberg and host emeritus Johnny Carson have all reportedly been offered the '94 gig and turned it down.
Robin Williams would make a great host. He's an actor, he's funny and everyone loves him. But academy sources think he's a bit too wild for 3 1/2 hours of live television. Hey, the Academy Awards shows we remember best and fondest are those that almost got away, and attempts to reign it in and make network executives feel more comfortable have nearly ruined it for everyone else.
Hanks, apparently, has not been approached because he is almost certain to be a nominee for best actor for his role as a lawyer devastated by AIDS in "Philadelphia." There is the feeling among some academy people that it would be inappropriate to have a nominee doing double duty. They should be reminded that their own presenters are often nominees, and that other awards shows have survived the scandal.
In fact, Hanks' association with "Philadelphia" would make his presence as host fortuitous. In recent years, Oscar presenters have been able to don a pink ribbon on their way to the stage, in a Technicolor but silent call for more AIDS research. Whether Hanks were to win or not, whether he were to even mention the disease, he would be making a stronger statement to the audience than a dozen bows.
If not Hanks, who? Because Johnny Carson had such a successful run as Oscar host, people are inevitably throwing out the names of TV talk-show hosts Jay Leno, David Letterman and Arsenio Hall. Weirdly, Chevy Chase, the 1987 Oscar emcee, seems to have disqualified himself by losing his night job as a TV talk-show host.
The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences ought to remind itself occasionally that though the Oscars show is a television event, the subject is movies. The host doesn't have to be a professional wisecracker. Lionel Barrymore did it one year, so send Jack Nicholson up there.
The movie business is in even worse shape than we thought if, for its most important and public moment, it can't find a genial host among its own members.