Mr. Showbiz interview

After eight seasons behind the counter on Wings, the multitalented preacher's daughter catches her breath--but not for long

Crystal Bernard photo

From: Mr. Showbiz 8/1997
By: John Martin

With her day job finally out of the way, Crystal Bernard has shifted into low gear. The actress-singer-songwriter has sixty concert dates booked, a new album to record, songs to write, cars and speedboats to race, and movies she wants to make. But because she is no longer playing Helen Chappel Hackett on Wings, which concludes an eight-year flight on NBC Wednesday night, Bernard now feels as if she's on vacation. Who can blame her? She's been working steadily on television for the past fifteen years.

The tireless performer couldn't be more different from Helen, a laconic figure who has been stuck at Wings' airport lunch counter for almost a decade. A thirty-two-year-old preacher's daughter from Texas, Bernard has been onstage from the time she began singing as a child at gospel jubilees across the country. At fourteen, she was discovered by country star Bobbie Gentry ("Ode to Billy Joe"), who asked her to join her Las Vegas revue. Driven by her faith in God and an innate ambition, Bernard enrolled as a theater and international-relations major at Baylor University when she was sixteen, and began her professional career in a national Pepsi commercial soon after. A year later, she left Texas and joined the cast of Happy Days as Richie and Joanie Cunningham's cousin, K.C. That stint was followed by a role as a roller-skating hooker in Garry Marshall's 1982 film, Young Doctors in Love, and a five-year run as a naive waitress on the series It's a Living. Just a few months after that show shut down, Bernard was on the set of Wings.

In her down time, Bernard has been hard at work on her music career, writing songs recorded by the likes of Paula Abdul and Lisa Stansfield, and singing with Peter Cetera on "Forever Tonight," the first single from his One Clear Voice album. Last fall, she released a country-music album of her own, titled The Girl Next Door. Her TV fans will be happy to know that after speaking with Bernard, Mr. Showbiz writer John Martin quickly became convinced that this thing she calls "a vacation" won't last long.

"There were a lot of things we could have done with Helen that might have been more interesting. But I like the fact that she was a loser."

You started performing at age three, and it seems as though you've never stopped. Can you imagine doing anything else with your life?

Probably the deepest psychological question that I ask myself is whether I even know anything else. We traveled all my young years, and all I knew was traveling and performing. And I couldn't wait to get out of high school because there was nothing there for me. I was a cheerleader and I was popular--I didn't date--but I was gone on the weekends with my father, so I just couldn't wait to get out of there. When I got on Happy Days I was seventeen, but I was a young seventeen. Working on a soundstage every year of my life until now, I think I missed a lot of stuff other kids do.

Were there times in Hollywood when that lack of worldly experience caught you unaware?

I think early on, from the ages of seventeen to twenty-five, there were a lot of things that everyone else had experienced that I hadn't experienced. Jokes I didn't get because of my seclusion or my protection. Now, after so many years of working--the bigger you get, the more responsibilities you have--I've learned so much about the world.

Can you tell me what you felt when that final episode of Wings was completed and the series was behind you?

I was crying. Tim [Daly] had come up to me right before the second-to-the-last scene and put his arms around me and said, "Sweetheart, this is the last time we're going to act together." And I cried. Luckily, I was supposed to cry in the scene. You know, I had regrets that I didn't enjoy it more every single day. We had a party the next night and I can't tell you how much I wanted to talk to every person in the room and tell them what they meant to me, knowing I probably wouldn't see them again.

In the Wings series finale, Helen has a chance to escape from behind the lunch counter. Was there ever a time when you hoped the producers and writers might give Helen a different way to go?

There were a lot of things we could have done with Helen that I thought might have been more interesting. But succeeding was never one of my suggestions. I like the fact that she was a loser. And I say that in the kindest way. She tried so hard in everything she did, and it failed on her, and it was funny. I liked her not being the homecoming queen, because I think everyone could identify with that.

The fundamental premise of Wings seems to be that in each of us there is some of the uptight, overpolite Joe Hackett (Daly) and some of the wild, irresponsible Brian Hackett (Steven Weber). Tell me about the Joe part of you and the Brian part of you.

The organization of Joe and wanting to be a good student and do everything right is extremely prevalent in my life. I can't say no. I think that's why I work so much. And I'm like Brian in that I race cars and I love games. I could go play video games forever. And I'm such a kid when I don't have to be responsible.

Do you think this dual personality stems from being raised as a preacher's daughter?

Oh, no doubt. I've never sought immoral, wild things. But games have always been so fun. And going out and racing go-carts. That was the one time my mind would stop thinking about responsibilities. All those years in church we were taught to be responsible for other people. We'd go to old folks homes. I've seen a lot of people die--I've sat on their beds when no one was there, no family members. So, playing games makes me not think about the things I'm supposed to do.

I read in Music City News that you've only had three boyfriends in your life. Did they get that right?

Yeah, I think so. It's not a sad thing. I think my expectations are high. I'm real happy. I've got a great life, I'm extremely fulfilled. I have a family that loves me so much they'd die for me. And I for them. I have guy friends who would do anything for me. I'm a happy girl. So, to get in a relationship where someone wants to change you so that it would be better for them--become less independent or take the very thing that makes me happy--to me that's not love. To get in a relationship just because I wanted a man? I'd just rather wait.

Tell me something about your father.

This is the absolute truth: he is the gentlest man I've ever known and it's going to be real hard for me to find a man who lives up to my father. He loves the truth. He is so wise. And if I get an eighth of his qualities in my lifetime, you should marry me.

Your references to what you're looking for in a man, and the comparison to your father is the stuff people spend time on the couch trying to work out.

I'm not waiting for man like my father. It just happens that all the things he values, I value. So, when I say something about finding someone like my father I'm talking about the heart. I had a family that loved me. That's why I haven't fallen in love. I've been so loved, that I know what unconditional love is.

You played someone with an eating disorder in the TV movie Dying To Be Perfect, and weight was an issue in Helen's past. How have you dealt with Hollywood equating being thin with being sexy?

I've never had a weight problem. I go up five pounds and down five pounds without really any different behavior. I've never had a psychological problem about needing to be skinny or having that "look." I've always liked a healthy look. I've always been attracted to matters of the heart rather than matters of looks. I've never been attracted to guys who are beautiful. Never have.

I understand the weight issue so well, because I understand personal addiction and abuse. My mother was obese all our lives. I can say that now. I never used to say it, because she was obese. But four or five years ago, she dropped about 100 pounds. And she is beautiful. And happy. But I understand what it does to people when they think of what other people think of them. You can get lost in your own nightmare. I have a tenderness in my heart about any kind of addiction. Growing up, we lived in a drug rehab center for a year almost. I saw people who were drug addicts who gave it everything they had to stop, but couldn't.

You had a childhood where the expression 'We've been blessed' wasn't just a clich--you saw the other side regularly.

I felt I was blessed. I had a family that loved me. A lot of people with problems don't have that kind of love. That's why I haven't fallen in love. I've been so loved, that I know what unconditional love is. So the little petty kind of love, the in-love we write books about, is not the root of the love I've seen in my life.

Do you want to do another series soon, or are you reluctant to make that commitment again?

I'm reluctant. I've had a few meetings. I've seen things that call for "a Crystal Bernard-type" and that's when you know you've made it. [Laughs.] I've been doing this for thirteen years now, and I think it's so important to have enthusiasm so that you can put your heart and soul into a project. Maybe next year. Right now I'd like to do film and do my tours and write music and do more records. I really would like to do a film.

What comedies do you watch on TV?

I'm not a big fan. I still think Mad About You is good and I certainly think Seinfeld is innovatively funny. You know, when you're in comedy very few things make you laugh. I think Sinbad is hilarious and he's clean for families and I have a lot of respect for him. It's hard to be funny and not be dirty.

I have a feeling you never gave much thought to losing your Texas accent to further your career.

I did early on. Everyone was saying, "God, you've got to lose that accent." So I took classes. I feel I can read without it or act without it. But everyone always wants it for the parts I do. They think it adds to the character.

Do you ever feel any desire to be on one of what the critics call a smart, hip show like Seinfeld or Friends?

Never at all. Going out on these concert tours and seeing ten thousand people and signing autographs and getting feedback, I've come to the conclusion that all of us Hollywood snobs out here look for the coolest, most innovative, the newest, and we forget what America wants. America wants to be entertained. I think comedy is at its best when it comes from an intelligent point of view, and it comes out of reality. I'm talking about a show with integrity and characters that people love. People loved Joe and Helen and Brian and Lowell.