On March 17, 1984, Billy Crystal gave Saturday Night Live viewers their first taste of his debonair character, Fernando.

At the time, Crystal wasn’t yet a cast member, but was instead the episode’s host. The comedian had seen his fame steadily rise thanks to his popular standby career, as well as television roles and (briefly) his own variety show on NBC, The Billy Crystal Comedy Hour. Crystal had previously made a guest appearance on Saturday Night Live, performing a monologue during a season one episode. Still, this would be his first time hosting, and he brought a character with him that had been gestating for years.

“Being a big fan of The Tonight Show, I used to love when an actor named Fernando Lamas would come on,” Crystal recalled to the Television Academy decades later. “He was a Latin lover. He was very smooth, very handsome. ... And when he would come on with Johnny [Carson], he was nothing but suave. And he always made me laugh.”

Crystal would do his impression of Lamas for friends, never really intending to do much with it. It was his brother who eventually suggested he turn Fernando into a character.

Fernando's Debut Was Less Than Marvelous

Fernando’s SNL debut was more of a soft launch than a grand opening. Crystal showcased the character during an appearance in the "Saturday Night News" segment (now known as "Weekend Update"). During his appearance, Fernando discussed which celebrities were endorsing which candidates in the upcoming presidential election. Only a few of the jokes landed, but the character did utter one line in particular that would go on to become a catchphrase: “You look mahvelous.”

Crystal would join SNL as a cast member later in ‘84. Naturally, Fernando came with him. The concept was evolved into “Fernando’s Hideaway,” where Crystal, in character, would interview guests in the corner booth at his favorite restaurant. Unlike other SNL sketches, these were entirely improvised.

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"That’s what I loved most about him," Crystal later explained in the book Live From New York. "The danger of it was doing it in the dress rehearsal and getting screams and then trying to recreate it three hours later. But the danger was intoxicating too. Once the set was rolled out, the hideaway, the audience started to get excited, because it was the first sketch they would see where there were no cue cards. And they knew it. They knew it was dangerous. It was a talk show within the show. A whole different energy hit the studio when it happened. I loved seeing the host squirm a little bit, because it was, 'What’s he going to say to me now?' Because I had to switch off from the dress show to the air show, otherwise it would be flat.”

Watch Billy Crystal Interview Ringo Starr on 'Fernando's Hideaway'

Some 'SNL' Castmates Thought Crystal Was 'Selling Out'

Fernando became the most memorable character of Crystal’s tenure on the show. A notable fan was Dick Ebersol, then the executive producer of Saturday Night Live. However, his enthusiasm wasn’t shared by some of the SNL staff.

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“Dick, who is a whore, would try to get [Crystal] to do the same characters over and over,” recalled SNL writer Bob Tischler. “And Billy, who loves attention, would feel no compunction about doing Fernando every week, even though a lot of us were tired of it. Harry Shearer looked at Billy as selling out and made no bones about it. Where other people might see the audience laughing at what Billy was doing — they may not have liked it themselves, but they weren’t abrasive or abusive about it — Harry was just vocal and insulting. He could be insulting to anybody at any time, but he especially picked Billy to mistreat. He was just horrible to him.”

Watch Billy Crystal Interview Howard Cossell on 'Fernando's Hideaway'

Negativity aside, the popularity of Fernando and his “mahvelous” catchphrase helped SNL weather a transitional period in the show’s history. Ringo Starr, Mr. T, Hulk Hogan and Howard Cossell were among the celebrities interviewed by the character.

Though memorable, Fernando's time in the spotlight was ultimately brief. Crystal departed after just one season as an SNL cast member, taking Fernando along with him.

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Gallery Credit: Corey Irwin

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