Interview

 

The Texas Sure-shot

Crystal Bernard hits Knoxville first, but the target is Broadway

Crystal Bernard photo

From: Knoxville News-Sentinel 4/22/2001
By: Doug Mason

"Oh, good! You have an accent ... thank Jesus!"

Speaking, with a bit of her own Texas twang, is actress Crystal Bernard. She's tickled to be on the phone with a fellow Southerner, chatting about her career and her new role as sharpshooter Annie Oakley in the Irving Berlin musical "Annie Get Your Gun."

Bernard, best known to folks for her starring role on the long-running sitcom "Wings," is sitting in a rocking chair on her front porch. At her feet is a mixed-breed pup.

The porch, pup and proud Southern gal are in Los Angeles. The image doesn't fit La-La land but, says Bernard, "remember, I'm a Texan."

Home and family are important to the actress and musician (Bernard is a published songwriter, has performed more than 100 concerts and released two CDs).

Bernard's mom, dad and sisters moved West with her when her acting career began to take off at age 17. She says she's at their house "constantly," and talks to her mom every day. One of Bernard's sisters designed and runs her Web site (www.crystalbernard.com).

Her dad, Jerry Wayne Bernard, is an evangelical preacher and gospel singer. Crystal was 3 when she began singing with the family at churches and gospel jubilees nationwide. The Bernard Family has recorded 17 albums.

Bernard went from the gospel circuit to Sin City at age 14, when country singer Bobby Gentry ("Ode to Billy Joe") asked the teen to join her Las Vegas show. Though she wasn't even allowed to date yet, Bernard says her parents let her play Vegas because they "understood that performing country music was in my blood."

But it was acting that made Crystal Bernard a TV staple from the early-1980s on. She was K.C. Cunningham on the 1982-83 season of "Happy Days," then joined the syndicated sitcom "It's a Living" for five seasons (1985-1989).

When that series ended, she went directly into "Wings." Bashed by critics and mistreated by NBC, which bounced the sitcom all over its schedule, the ensemble comedy became a solid hit with fans. It ran for eight seasons, 1990-98. Since its cancellation, "Wings" reruns have aired exclusively on cable's USA Network.

Bernard played Helen Chappel, who ran the lunch counter at a small Nantucket airfield that was the primary setting for the sitcom.

"We were innovative, cutting edge, not joke-oriented," Bernard says of "Wings."

"At that time, 'Seinfeld' was out (and sitcoms were about) topical things. But we stayed very character driven. I didn't cut my hair the hippest and put on the cool clothes."

The cast included Timothy Daly and Steven Weber, who both returned to series TV this season with, respectively, "The Fugitive" and "The Weber Show."

Since "Wings" ended, Bernard has stayed busy with TV movies and she has a sitcom in development (the details are hush-hush). And she went on tour in support of her CD "Don't Touch Me There."

Bernard has written songs recorded by Paula Abdul, Lisa Stansfield and others. Her own debut CD, "The Girl Next Door," was released in 1996, and she had a hit duet with Peter Cetera, "(I Wanna Take) Forever Tonight" on the charts in '95.

Bernard and her Charlotte, N.C.-based band performed more than 100 concerts in support of "The Girl Next Door." On the road to that first concert, in Joplin, Mo., panic set in.

"It dawned on me on the way there: Who's going to come?" Bernard says. "Who knows I sing? Oh, my God, who's going to come?'

Not to worry, 6,000 people showed up. And it wasn't a fluke. Bernard says the attendance for the whole tour ranged from 6,000 to 10,000 per concert.

Musical theater is a new venture for the actress and singer-songwriter. And "Annie Get Your Gun" is only Bernard's second stage play. Her stage debut was only a few months ago, in a production of Beth Henley's "Crimes of the Heart" directed by her former "Happy Days" boss, Garry Marshall. Her co-stars were fellow TV vets Faith Ford ("Murphy Brown," "Norm") and Morgan Fairchild ("Flamingo Road").

"I've not had time for plays my entire career," Bernard says. "I've been on a series every years since I was 17. For the three months (each year when her sitcoms weren't in production), there was always movies-of-the-week, publicity tours, what have you."

After only a few weeks on the road in "Annie Get Your Gun," Bernard will be replacing Reba McEntire as Annie Oakley on Broadway (the date of Bernard's debut has yet to be determined).

"They've asked me to be on Broadway (in the Irving Berlin musical) for about three years, but I always had 'Wings,' a movie, something," Bernard says.'

Besides, the actress says "I've never really been a fan of musical theater because it's (style of acting is) broad, not organic."

Also, she says the shows with Southern characters "always miss the boat ... they have terrible accents. I don't get it."

Bernard says the producers of the "Annie Get Your Gun" revival, which earned the 1999 Tony Award for Best Musical Revival, are doing it right. She says they've spared no expenses on the production and they're letting her play Annie her way.

"I'm excited about doing (the role) organically, not like Hollywood would do it," she says. "I'm part backwoods country girl."

Annie Oakley (real name: Phoebe Ann Mozee) was born Aug. 13, 1860, in Darke County, Ohio -- a state more Southern than not in the 19th century.

If your history book gives her birth date as 1866 ... well, Oakley wasn't the first person in showbiz to shave a few years from her age.

The story of Annie Oakley's career as a sharpshooter in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show and her romance with fellow sure-shot (and future husband) Frank Butler is the basis of the hit 1946 musical "Annie Get Your Gun" that starred Ethel Merman. The MGM movie version, which starred Betty Hutton, debuted on home video and DVD this year after being unseen since 1973 because of copyright complications.

The current production of "Annie Get Your Gun" is what has been termed a "revisical" -- or rather a classical musical that has been rewritten to be more politically correct. Gone from "Annie" are the songs "I'm an Indian Too" (deemed racist) and "I'm a Bad, Bad Man" (too sexist), and even the relatively mild "Colonel Buffalo Bill" (presumably axed because of Indian references).

The musical also offers a more feminist Annie Oakley and a romance between a white man and an Indian woman.

Bernard says she wasn't aware of the changes in the musical, which have been both praised and criticized. (The original book by Herbert & Dorothy Fields was revised by Peter Stone, Tony Award-winning author of "1776," "Titanic," "The Will Rogers Follies" and "Woman of the Year.")

The "sexist" lyrics read to her from "I'm a Bad, Bad Man" didn't offend her in the least, even though ladies' man Frank Butler brags "There's a girl in Tennessee/Who's sorry she met up with me/I can't go back to Tennessee."

However, she says the musical "is so good, so entertaining ... I'm not missing anything."

The Berlin songs that passed muster include "There's No Business Like Show Business," "You Can't Get a Man With a Gun" (which the anti-gun Rosie O'Donnell banned from her talk show), "Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better)," "The Girl That I Marry," "Doin' What Comes Natur'lly," They Say It's Wonderful" and "My Defense Are Down."

Bernard makes her "Annie Get Your Gun" debut in Atlanta, with Rex Smith joining her as Frank Butler. Knoxville is the second date on their tour.

Bernard's Annie Oakley follows the Broadway performances of Bernadette Peters (who won the Tony), Susan Lucci and McEntire, among others.

She says she'll do a bit more dancing in her portrayal..

"I'm not Baryshnikov, but I can dance," she says. "I can do all the 'N Sync videos."

 
 
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