After eight seasons on a hit sitcom, Spring’s Crystal Bernard is spreading her Wings with a country CD—and seeing how far she can push her good girl image.
HERE ARE THE THINGS CRYSTAL BERNARD misses about Texas: The house in Spring where she grew up; digging dirt in her back yard; her grandmother, who lives in Houston; Christmases; and the weather. It was muggy—she misses the muggy weather. Otherwise, she doesn’t remember much about the place, even though she spent half her life there. But lounging around one October afternoon in her dressing room on the set of her hit sitcom, Wings, she is trying to jog her memory by thumbing through an issue of Texas Monthly. She first stares at the cover, which shows three ranching types, one of whom is a woman. “I think I recognize her,” Crystal announces hopefully, but then decides she doesn’t. Luminous and tiny, the 35-year-old flips from page to page before stopping cold on an ad for LeAnn Rimes’s chart-topping country CD, Blue. Crystal glowers at the blond prodigy, who grew up in Garland, and grouses, “She’s in everything.”
Crystal, who recently cut her own country CD, The Girl Next Door (River North), could do without another reminder of Rimes’s popularity—especially today. This is an “add day,” when radio stations nationwide decide which songs make it onto each of their high-rotation playlists. If Crystal’s sentimental tune “Have We Forgotten What Love Is” doesn’t measure up to new songs by Rimes and other “new country” sensations, it—and she—will be ignored. “When you get an ‘add,’ that means they add you and take someone off,” she explains. “And they have to get rid of Reba or someone, so it’s really hard.” To improve her odds, Crystal has been visiting radio stations in three cities a day. When she hasn’t been plugging the CD—which features several you-dumped-me ditties along with sudsy songs she co-wrote—she has been back in Hollywood running her music video production company or shooting Wings, which is now in its eighth seasonon NBC. The pace of life has her frazzled. “There’s just so much on me that I go and do things like drink way too much coffee and smoke cigars,” she says, reaching into her purse to produce a dainty cigarillo.
It’s truly odd to watch Crystal Bernard puff on a cigar, even if it is a girlish one. The sight just doesn’t jibe with the image of her character on Wings, Helen Chappel Hackett. Sunny Helen is the childhood friend of Joe (Tim Daly) and Brian Hackett (Steven Weber), brothers who own a one-plane airline on Nantucket Island, off the coast of Massachusetts. Though she dreamed of being a world-class cellist, Helen is pretty much content to run the airport’s lunch counter. Two seasons ago, she fulfilled her other great dream—to marry Joe; this season she will finally consider having “baby sex” with him. Such is also the ethos of The Girl Next Door, on which Crystal as the girl warbles longingly for commitment, mostly to a perfidious cad who bolts for another woman. Unswervingly wholesome, she sings, “Frankly dear, I don’t give a . . .” but just can’t bring herself to say “damn.”
The real Crystal, however, isn’t entirely this confection. “Boy, she says words she can’t say on TV,” says pop star Peter Cetera, who invited her to sing with him on his hit “Forever Tonight.” Furthermore, unlike Helen, Crystal is far too ambitious to sling hash. At age eighteen, as a sophomore in college, she fled her life in Texas, a place of limited possibilities for a girl on the make. “I just couldn’t stay there anymore,” she says. “School was easy for me. I was itching for a career. I wanted stimuli.” Her determined ambition, in fact, makes a mockery of Wings’ idealized domesticity. Not only does Crystal not want babies; she says she has never even fallen in love. “I’m too busy,” she explains. “Crystal expects a lot from a man,” says her mother, Gaylon Bernard. “She used to tell me, ‘You know, Mama, there’s a lot of great guys out there, but there’s something wrong with every one of ’em.’” Indeed, while Crystal divides her time among an adoring gaggle of what she calls “guy friends,” she seems more consultant than girlfriend to them. “I’ll see something in a man that he’s not doin’ for himself career-wise,” she reports, “and I try to nourish that.”
What Crystal and Helen do have in common is a comic appeal. “She’s about as funny as she is on TV,” observes Cetera. Gaylon Bernard recalls that whenever her other daughters were getting attention, Crystal would “do something to try to take the show, like turn upside down or lift her dress up and stick out her bottom.” She doesn’t stick out her bottom on Wings, but she does use her body to good effect, with much flailing of the hands, the occasional crying jag, and the rare leap into some male’s arms. Her trump card is a sweet, jabby drawl that goes up and down, up and down. Never mind that the accent is a bit illogical: Helen supposedly lived in New England until she was ten, then moved with her family to Texas and returned to Nantucket as an adult, yet her sister Casey has no accent whatsoever. But even though Crystal says she can curb the twang “to a certain extent,” her bosses don’t want her to. “When we write, we hear her rhythms in our head,” says Wings executive producer Howard Gewirtz. “Crystal’s accent is humorous because she has such a great delivery. She just knows how to put a spin on a line that makes it funny.”
Most interesting, though, is how she achieves girl-next-door likability despite her copious good looks. Wings producers quite shrewdly made Helen a former fat girl who shed 68 pounds just in time for the series premiere. Trim for nearly a decade now, she recalls being reviled as “Helen, Helen, the watermelon” by nasty classmates. Likewise, the girl next door on Crystal’s CD is invariably humiliated; not once does she get to jilt anyone or meet the man of her dreams. The message is clear: Crystal feels your pain. And if she’s sexy, she doesn’t throw it in your face like some hayseed vixen. Shania Twain and Lorrie Morgan may dance seductively amid Egyptian pyramids and preen in black catsuits, but in the video for “Have We Forgotten What Love Is” Crystal dons forties garb and flings a laundry basket onto the floor for excitement. “It’s not that I would never show my midriff,” she says. “If it’s appropriate, then I guess I’d go there. But just for the sake of goin’ there, sellin’ somethin’, I don’t think so.”
Crystal learned tasteful presentation from Gaylon, who at nineteen was voted best-dressed girl at Baylor University in Waco; she got her stage ease from her father, Jerry Wayne Bernard, a handsome crooner who at eighteen turned down a movie contract with RKO, became a Southern Baptist evangelist, and eventually cut seventeen gospel albums. Jerry, Gaylon, and their girls—Robyn, Crystal, Scarlett, and Angelique—were a sort of Christian Partridge Family: Whenever school was out, they packed a motor home with amplifiers and instruments and traveled to far-flung churches and crusades, where the family sang and Jerry preached.
The Bernards briefly went mainstream in the late seventies, when singer Bobbie Gentry discovered them at a gospel jubilee in Mississippi and hired Crystal and Robyn to sing backup for her in Las Vegas. Their parents, of course, kept a watchful eye on their behavior. “It was so funny,” Crystal says. “We could play Vegas, but we couldn’t talk on the phone.” Nor were they allowed to have boyfriends. In fact, though she was a perennial cheerleader, Crystal recalls a hapless social life: “After the games, everybody’d go to the pizza parlor and drink beer. I went to the games, cheered, and went straight home.”
A straight-A student, Crystal studied acting at Houston’s Alley Theatre and took correspondence courses to graduate from Spring High School South at age sixteen. A summer’s jaunt to Paris and London inspired her to major in international relations and drama at Baylor. But during one school break, while she was performing with her dad in Santa Ana, California, she announced that she would not be returning to Texas. “I was just too close to Hollywood,” she says. “I thought, ‘Man, I’ll never get out here again.’” A church member who managed a Ramada Inn in Santa Ana let her stay in the hotel’s storage room.
A few days later, the five-foot-two-inch blonde was eating lunch at a coffee shop when she struck up a conversation with a man who turned out to be Peter Terranova, the vice president of talent development and acquisition at Universal Studios. Immediately charmed, Terranova met with her again the following week and subsequently asked modeling mogul Nina Blanchard to see her. “I told him, ‘She’s too short. I don’t want to see her,’” Blanchard says, “but he sent her anyway.” After Crystal was turned away at the door, she ran into the bathroom crying. Later, when no one was looking, she ambushed Blanchard and delivered an impassioned speech about her father, about being a singer, about just knowing she could do something. “She had great bravado,” Blanchard recalls. “I said, ‘Well, you’re a god-damned midget, but I think you’re going to be a star.’” Crystal brought the same energy to her earliest auditions, and within a week she landed a Perrier commercial that aired in Mexico. “I didn’t know enough to realize how hard it was out here,” she says.
It was only a year later that Crystal got her first big break, when word of her singing abilities got back to casting maven Ronny Marshall Hallin, sister of acclaimed TV and movie director Garry Marshall. Ronny, who had previously discovered Robin Williams, recommended Crystal to her brother. “I think she always wanted to make a living rather than bang a tambourine in a tent,” Garry says. “She wanted to become an entertainer.” He helped by hiring her to play K.C., the Cunninghams’ cousin from Texas, during the last two seasons of Happy Days. “She was very, very cute,” he says. “She was not much of an actress yet, but like many of the kids on the show, we gave them a start and let them grow until they learned to act.”
From there, Crystal copped a four-year stint as a straight-laced Southern waitress on the sitcom It’s a Living. “They’d write all those corn pone lines for me, like ‘She’s as silly as a snake on her belly,’” she says. “But I’m like, ‘We don’t talk like that in Texas. We don’t kick poo on the ground.’” Still, it impressed then—NBC entertainment president Brandon Tartikoff enough that in 1989 he urged the producers of the fledgling Wings to give Crystal an audition. Eight seasons later, she and her castmates are about to film their 150th episode, a landmark only six other comedies presently on the air can claim. NBC even wants to renew the show for one more season, though its future is uncertain. “The last thing you want to do is write it till no one wants to watch it anymore,” Crystal says.
Fair enough—but then what will she do? She could take her lead from former Wings castmate and fellow Texan Thomas Haden Church, who gave up his supporting role as Lowell the mechanic for his own show, Ned and Stacey, on the Fox network. Ned and Stacey hasn’t won many viewers, though; and anyway, another sitcom, even a winning one, would be a letdown for Crystal. It is more likely she’ll end up in the movies, just like Wings castmates Weber and Daly and Tony Shalhoub, who’ve all made big splashes lately (in Jeffrey, The Associate, and Big Night respectively). She wants tough roles, she says, and she even anticipates taming her accent: “Not all films can accommodate me.”
But as important as a career in the movies is, it may not be enough. “I think she wants to make it in big-time singing for her dad’s sake,” says Garry Marshall. “I don’t think she’ll ever really be satisfied until she becomes a successful singer.” While precious few TV stars ever do cross over, Crystal is not some screen queen flitting into Nashville on a whim; she has been singing before crowds since she was three. Mindful of the credibility issue, however, she says she wants to work with “all the great greats.” She did that on her CD by getting respected country artist Billy Dean to co-write and sing on “Have We Forgotten What Love Is.” The song’s other backup singer, it should be noted, is Jerry Wayne Bernard.