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Genuine Crystal
Actress Crystal Bernard stays genuine in
the high-ambition world of Hollywood

By Gregory Von Dare

Crystal Bernard was born in a small town outside Dallas and she carries small-town values with her today, the way you might keep an old but valuable handbag long after it was fashionable. She believes in love, in friendship, in having a good time, and in letting the inherent strength of a woman’s healing and sustaining nature come forward. It’s not that she doesn’t believe in doing well in life, but she has seen the damage wrought on others by their ambition and she doesn’t want to go there. 

If you think this sounds a little like country music, score one for yourself. Actress, movie star, songwriter, performer: Crystal Bernard is on the charts and moving up. Her latest CD is called “Don’t Touch Me There,” and it’s about, as she says in a hushed voice, “things that make me cry.” 

Crystal gets very quiet over the phone when she talks about her emotions, just as she gets loud and laughy when she talks about cars, boyfriends, and auto racing, all big deals to her. But a question about her childhood or how she copes as a woman in the exploitive world of big-time show business makes her thoughtful. 

She goes on to talk about her family in quiet tones: “I was born in Garland, Texas, but I lived in Houston all my life. My father was a minister, and so we all would sing in church. I would sing every weekend with him. I guess I was about eight or a little younger when he became an evangelist.” (She mentions that there’s no connection between what her father did and the overblown evangelists we see on TV today). 

“We would all go to where there would be 30 or 45 people in the church,” she said. “And he would preach and sing. Every night we would visit the old folks’ homes; visit the shut-ins, and feed people. He would try to remind these wonderful people what we’re here for and put their eyes back on God. What a wonderful man he was. 

“I had one sister at that time, when I was really young, who was older — two and a half years older, Robin. And about six years later came two other sisters. We are still a very close family. As they grew up and got old enough to sing, they would sing with us. I wouldn’t give it up for anything. It was the most incredible upbringing.” 

When I mention that it seems like a long way from Garland to the bright lights of Hollywood, she connects the dots in what is a remarkable success story. Crystal knew that she loved singing, and she was certainly attractive. She thought modeling might be a part of her future. 

“We were in a church in Santa Ana [in Orange County, south of Los Angeles] when I was 17, singing there,” she recalls. “And I was thinking, I’m just 45 minutes from Hollywood and I may never be this close again. So I asked my father if I could stay and he gave me $100 in — remember those zip bags you used to make deposits in? And a guy in the church who managed the Ramada Inn let me stay in the storage room. I rode a bus into town and the first call I made was to Nina Blanchard.” 

Crystal backtracks for a moment to explain that she had seen Nina Blanchard on “The Merv Griffin Show” talking about modeling. She phoned and found out that there was an open call “on Wednesday at three o’clock. I’ll never forget.” 

She stood in line and finally presented herself to a commanding woman who picked potential new models out of the crowd. But at 5-foot-3, she was told she was too short and was turned away, couldn’t even see Nina Blanchard. 

“I thought, God, that was the only name I even knew,” she said. “What was I going to do? I went in the bathroom and I remember crying in the stall. And I just sat there thinking about what I was gonna do. And I waited till everybody was gone, and I went right back, just straight through to Nina because that other lady was gone. 

“She was sitting there smoking her Benson & Hedges and leaning back on her desk just exactly like it would be in the movies. And she said [Crystal puts on a deep, scratchy voice], ‘Well, honey, you’re a Goddamned midget, but I think you’re gonna be a star!’ ” 

Blanchard knew her business. She sent Crystal on two interviews that day. One for a Perrier commercial, which Crystal got, paying her $1,400 a day for four days. The other interview was with the casting director for “Happy Days.” He sent her over to Gary Marshall’s office and she was cast in the feature film Young Doctors in Love that same day, an almost impossible double-whammy. 

As she worked on that film (with the notorious Sean Young), the casting people told her about a part on “Happy Days” for which they wanted her to audition. She read for it and got that too. 

“My upbringing had everything to do with it,” she says with enthusiasm. “I think I was too uneducated to be inhibited at all. I thought I was good. But then on the set of ‘Happy Days’ I realized that everyone was so far ahead of me, technique-wise, that my nerves kinda took over. And I got my ass into acting class so fast.” 

Slowly, after doing a variety of scenes, including what she calls “morbid stuff, Czechoslovakian stuff,” Crystal began to hit her stride. She developed style, “got some tools,” as she puts it. She stayed in acting class for years, all through working on “Happy Days” and into another show called “It’s a Living,” which ran for four years. Directly after that, she was cast in “Wings,” which was on the air for eight highly successful years. 

“I didn’t know I wanted to be an actor,” she says candidly. “I wanted to be an entertainer. That’s all I knew. I knew music and skits.” 

When asked to recall something from her career that is important to her, she doesn’t hesitate: “I knew Ginger Rogers the last five years of her life; she was my friend. I met her at a Bob Hope dinner. Her assistant came over to me and said, ‘Miss Rogers would like to meet you. You’re her favorite actress.’ 

“And I was her friend from that moment on. I was a huge admirer of hers. There were things I learned from her and other experienced, seasoned actors with careers going through phases. Boy, it told me that ambition means nothing. Passion means everything.” 

Rogers explained to Crystal how liberating it was to lose the driving ambition that makes so many people in show business unhappy. Instead she had learned to appreciate her talent, her family, and her health. She also learned to enjoy her co-workers and all the richness of experience they brought to her life. 

There is an undeniable sweetness about Crystal, a likable, genuine personality that comes through when she speaks. She’s that way on camera and also in a long, wide-ranging conversation about her life that generated this article. She knows what she wants to say, even if the words aren’t immediately there. But as she talks, she finds a way of expressing herself that’s just right. 

She’s calm and centered and it shows both in her little-girl seriousness about the larger issues as well as in her hearty laugh and spirited sense of fun when the conversation turns to automobile racing, a major passion in her life. 

She started racing offhandedly; she almost passed it by. A few years ago, she was asked to participate in the Toyota Pro-Celebrity Race as part of the Long Beach Grand Prix. The Long Beach venue is one of the regular stops on the CART circuit, home of the high-speed, open-wheel missiles that used to be called IndyCars. 

Crystal agreed to drive one of the cars — specially prepared Toyota Celicas — because there was a connection to a charity. Then, two weeks before the race, she was told that she must make a pilgrimage to Willow Springs, a small but challenging race track about 60 miles north of Los Angeles for (of all things) driving school. There, a retired racing pro, Danny McKeever, would attempt to keep the celebrities from killing themselves on the race track. As he lectured the group about vehicle dynamics and handling, Crystal found that she understood what he was saying; it really made sense. When she got out on the track, she had a ball. 

Driving fast appealed to some previously unknown part of her personality, and it made a very big impression. Today she regularly competes in the Dodge Neon Challenge, another “spec” series of identical cars in which the talent of the drivers means more than some technical trick to increase horsepower. 

“And, oh, guess what,” she exclaims. “I had never driven a stick! I was cluelessly carless!” But I understood what they were saying. So after that I rented a stickshift for a while and worked on getting smooth so it would be second nature.” 

Crystal has done well in racing, not winning vast amounts of money or becoming a star like Lyn St. James, but having a great time and experiencing bliss she didn’t even know existed until she tried it. She sums it all up with a typical understatement: “Funnest thing I ever did!” 

As with everything else Crystal does, she applies herself. It’s that Texas work ethic. 

“Talk about obsession,” she chuckles. “I will sit at the arcade for hours on end with the Virtual Reality racing machines until I have got them totally dialed and know every pebble on their race track. Then I get my friends to come over and smoke ’em. 

“The first time I went out with Eddie Lawson, who was a five-time champion of 500cc motorcycles, I think he picked me up on the set of ‘Wings.’ And after we had dinner, we were passing by the arcade and I said [she puts on a little-girl voice], ‘There’s an arcade. Do you want to maybe stop by there and see what’s going on?” knowing full well that we’re heading straight for the Sega VR machine. So we got a bunch of tokens and put them in and I kicked his ass!” 

Lawson, who also raced IndyCars, was astonished. 

“All I could hear next to me was, ‘No way!’ ” she says. “I did that for a long time till he caught on. And we stayed there till they kicked us out.” 

Even though Crystal drives a relatively boring Lexus 400LS on the street, automobiles have even crept into her love life. She’s currently dating Billy Dean, who lives in Nashville, and she says that the top three things they have in common are songwriting, music and racing. 

“I see him probably about once a month,” she explains, “which actually makes it quite exciting and fabulous. He gets here and — oh, God, I’m so glad to see him and I hug him and kiss him and we go and have sushi. We love sushi. And then we get in the car and go to the Malibu Grand Prix. We buy about $100 worth of tickets, and I beat him, even though he’s very good.” Definitely not your average relationship. Still, her standards are high. She says with some disdain, “There is nothing more unattractive about a man than when he drives over his ability.” 

She gets quiet again when asked about what women can accomplish in the entertainment industry and in society overall. 

“I do have some controversial feelings on it. When I began to be successful I noticed no resistance. I wasn’t competing against a man. So everything flowed very well for me. I was welcomed. I was not put down; there were no prejudices because I was a woman or because I was Southern. 

“I encourage women to know who they are, how powerful they are as human beings. To evolve is your greatest attribute, so that you can actually offer something to your line of work. Women really have something unique and different to offer because guess what — they do! I feel that is the magic way. Be rational and be reasonable and try to fix it, not fight it. In a fight, everyone puts their guard up. I think a more gracious approach will draw people to you.” 

As Crystal races ahead to the future, things look very good. 

“I did three movies last year and toured, and my album is doing well and I’m happy as well as it’s doing, even if it never does any better than this. And I’m developing another series, with Paramount. At this point it’s called “Truck Stop.” I just think it’s adorable, and it’s so American. 

“One of the things I got to do with the music is tour. I would go to these concerts and, as I started, I was on the bus and I thought, Oh my God, is anybody gonna come?” 

Of course, her fears were not realized. The concerts were well-attended, with people waiting for her in the rain and standing in long lines to buy tickets, a compliment to any performer. 

“As I walked out on stage the first night,” she remembers, “as the lights were going around and around in the auditorium, I could look at them and they were smiling and clapping and I thought, Oh yeah, they’re just people. This is America and I know these people.” 

“So two years ago, these two writers wrote this script with me in mind and I just completely responded. So we’re developing it for the fall, if not for midseason next year. And I own this truck stop and run it and it’s not an illiterate piece at all. It’s smart. And the rigs are very important to us, as well as if someone orders decaf coffee and they don’t get that. We have merchandise in the truck stop, too. You know, belt buckles...” 

Finally, as the pressure of time calls her to other things, she rolls around to women and work again: “There’s a unique and valuable, valuable quality in the nature of a woman. If they can let that flow out of them and see what they have to offer in a situation, the momentum of that will take them to where they want to be. I believe.”