CRYSTAL BERNARD IS SUITED TO THE fast lane—even when she’s out of control. “You don’t know what it feels like,” says Bernard, who plays feisty airport waitress Helen Chappel on NBC’s sitcom Wings, “to be going 115 miles an hour, heading straight for a wall. You’re screaming, then you hit [the brakes] and you back up and keep going.”
Curled up on a leather sofa in the living room of her four-bedroom stucco house in Studio City, Calif., where she lives alone, Bernard, 29, is reminiscing about her not-quite-smashing debut last April as a race-car driver in the annual pro-celebrity Long Beach Toyota Grand Prix—in which she finished just ahead of last-place Mary Lou Retton. But she became fast friends with fellow driver and motorcycle champ Eddie Lawson. Although Bernard herself is a novice (and still uneasy) Harley rider, she and Lawson often spend time go-cart racing, jet-skiing and speedboating.
Even at home, Bernard is a blur of activity. “Do you want anything to eat? Anything to drink? Do you need another pillow?” she inquires before conducting a tour. A main attraction is the mini eight-track recording studio in her den, where Bernard retreats, after spending 10 to 12 hours a day on the set of Wings, to work on her budding career as a songwriter. Two of her rhythm-and-blues songs have been performed by Tracy Spencer and Angie and Debbie Winans; Paula Abdul is recording two more. Lately, Bernard has been thinking of warbling her own tunes.
“She’s got the chops, they just need to be refined,” says her pal Donny Osmond. “And she’s certainly got the chutzpah.”
The drive, too. “I’ve worked like a dog since I was 3,” says Bernard. That’s when Crystal, born in Garland, Tex., and her older sister, Robyn, first performed during revival meetings presided over by their father, Southern Baptist evangelist Jerry Wayne Bernard, 53 and retired. Later, Crystal and Robyn, now 31 and a country singer, and their kid sisters Scarlett, 22, and Angelique, 21, would join their father and mother, Gaylon, 52, on tour. For two summers, the singing Bernards even appeared onstage with Bobbie Gentry in Las Vegas.
“It’s so funny,” says Crystal. “We could go to Vegas but [back in Texas] we couldn’t talk on the phone.” Nor were the Bernard sisters allowed to have boyfriends. One night, though, after telling her parents she was going over to a girlfriend’s house, Crystal turned up at a local block party. “I wasn’t there 10 minutes,” she says, “before someone was yelling, ‘Hey, your mom and dad are at the end of the block!’ I freaked out, [because] in those 10 minutes, I had already kissed Dennis Huffman behind a tree.”
Academically, her parents’ stern ways paid off. An A student and a cheerleader at Houston’s Spring High School, Crystal got her diploma at 16, then went on to Baylor. But her heart was in show business and, with her parents’ blessing, she dropped out after her sophomore year and headed for Hollywood. Her first audition there was at the Nina Blanchard modeling agency. “Too short, thank you,” she was told at the door. Undaunted, the 5’2″ Bernard hid out in the ladies’ room until closing time, then marched into Blanchard’s office.
“She was marvelous, even though she was a midget,” recalls Blanchard. “I said, ‘Sign here.’ ” The next day, Bernard auditioned for—and won—her first TV commercial, for Perrier. She then landed the part of Richie Cunningham’s teenage cousin K.C. on ABC’s Happy Days in 1982, and enjoyed a four-year stint (1985-89) as sweet Southern waitress Amy Tompkins on the syndicated sitcom It’s a Living. Among those smitten by her performance was then NBC Entertainment president Brandon Tartikoff, who urged the producers of the fledgling Wings to audition her.
Blessed with her dad’s evangelical zeal, she has urged others to spread their wings. “There’s a part of her that builds a fire underneath you,” says her friend Osmond, who’s starring in the Chicago show Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. “She basically coerced me to try acting.” And he, in turn, nurtured Bernard’s songwriting ambitions.
Her parents are also around for support. Jerry and Gaylon live just 45 minutes away in a four-bedroom house that Crystal bought for them in Palmdale, Calif. She visits her parents several limes a week. “I still feel like a child,” she says. “It would be strange for me to say I’m gonna get married and have a baby.”
Those events are not imminent. Although Bernard dates, “I’m not seeing anybody [special],” she says. She laughs off tabloid reports that have linked her romantically with male buddies such as Osmond and Cher’s ex-beau Rob Camilletti.
“I love living alone,” Bernard declares. “And I love having so many guy friends. But I’d be lying,” she adds, “if I said I’m not attracted to all of them—’cause I am.”
MICHAEL A. LIPTON
LYNDA WRIGHT in Los Angeles