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Billy Crystal recalls big TV break at Muhammad Ali dinner

Billy Crystal discusses his first time meeting Muhammad Ali, and the start of a long friendship.

On Friday at the massive funeral and tribute to the late, great Muhammad Ali, comedian, actor, writer, and director Billy Crystal, a longtime friend of Ali's, spoke about his first encounter with the former heavyweight champion, in 1974, which was also Crystal's big TV break.

Here's a transcript if you're unable to watch the video:

"I met him in 1974. I was just getting started as a standup comedian and struggling, but I had one good routine. It was a three-minute conversation between Howard Cosell and Muhammad Ali where I would imitate both of them. Ali had just defeated George Foreman and regained the heavyweight title. Sport magazine made him the Man of the Year, and Dick Schaap, a wonderful writer and a great man, was the editor for Sport, and he was going to host this televised dinner honoring Muhammad Ali.

"So Dick called my agent, looking for a comedian who did some sports material. As fate would have it, that comedian was not available, and she wisely said -- it's destiny, man -- she wisely said, 'Listen, I've got this young kid, and he does this great imitation of Ali and Cosell, he'd be perfect for you.' And I don't know why, but Dick said, 'OK, I'll try him. If he stinks, I can cut him out of the show.' I couldn't believe it. My first time on television, and it would be with Ali.

"Mr. Schaap introduced me as one of Ali's closest and dearest friends. Two people clapped: my wife and the agent. I rose, Ali still staring at me, I pass right behind him, got to the podium, went right into the Cosell. It got big laughs. And then I went into the Ali. The audience exploded. See, no one had ever done him before, and here I was, a white kid from Long Island, imitating the greatest of all-time, and he was loving it.

"When I was done, he gave me this big bearhug and he whispered in my ear, 'You're my little brother.' Which is what he always called me, until the last time that I saw him."

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