December 25, 1989 12:00 PM

Onscreen he is a modern girl’s modern man—sensitive, romantic, warm, someone you can trust. Sit him down for a talk, and behind the twinkle in his eye there’s a glimmer of Saturday Night Live’s Fernando and Sammy and a hundred other free spirits he created in years of comedy. Today, however, the gremlins are locked away, because Billy Crystal has discovered that what audiences want most from him is just Billy Crystal. This is some revelation for the consummate impersonator, but then it has been some year. In When Harry Met Sally…(a film beloved by audiences but not all critics, see page 14), Crystal seemed an unlikely choice as love lead, being short, skinny and longer on lip than on looks. But from these dubious assets he forged an attitude—at once snappy, unselfconsciously sexy and relaxed (even when discovering orgasms can be faked)—that set a new standard for male romantics in 1989.

As a result Crystal now finds his name on rosters of America’s sexiest men. Another honoree might frame the list, but just mention it to Crystal—happily married to his wife, Janice, for nearly 20 of his 41 years—and he squirms with embarrassment. “When people say I’m sexy, I go, ‘What did I do? What did I say?’ It could be the other nine guys were like Bob Dole and Refrigerator Perry.” Or could it be that this year few things are sexier than a charming, crinkle-smiled, funny man getting his biggest cheers by just playing it straight.

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