SOME PEOPLE GET A BICYCLE FOR their birthday, some get a bowling party, a lucky few might get a Porsche. But when actress Jennifer Crystal turned 23 in January, she got a gift money can't buy: a birthday call from Gonzo, her favorite Muppet. She was delighted, she says, but not shocked. Maybe that's because her father, actor-writer-director Billy Crystal, was taping a guest spot on the new ABC series Muppets Tonight! Or maybe Jenny, as family and friends call her, is just used to mingling with celebrities.
Now she's on the verge of becoming one. Last week, on the CBS drama The Good Doctor: The Paul Fleiss Story, she played Shana Fleiss, troubled sister of Hollywood madam Heidi, an impressive followup to an appearance last year on ER as a head-injured figure skater (a part she described to her dad as "five seizures, three lines") and small roles in movies directed by family friends Rob Reiner (The American President) and Mel Brooks (Dracula: Dead and Loving It).
Despite the help she has received, Crystal, who was waiting tables at the popular Beverly Hills restaurant Kate Mantilini until The Good Doctor came along, is determined to make it on her own. "She didn't play on the fact that she's a Crystal," says The Good Doctor's director, Michael Switzer. His decision to cast Jenny, he adds, was "based entirely on her audition."
That wasn't the first time her talent was put to the test. When she was 3, her father invited her onto a Teaneck, N.J., stage where he was opening for Billy Joel and asked her to tell a joke. So she did—the one about a chicken crossing the road. The audience loved her. "She was," says her father, "like a moth drawn to the light."
At 6, she was cast in a peanut-butter commercial. Brooks, whose son attended her Los Angeles school, saw 7-year-old Jenny and her mother, Janice, in a parent-child revue, wearing shades and porkpie hats, as the Blues Sisters. "She blew the place away," says Brooks. "I told Billy, 'You're in trouble. This kid was born to perform.' "
But to Billy, 47, and Janice, 46, the show-business ambitions of their two children (sister Lindsay, 18, is a New York University film student) are no trouble at all. "My parents went to every show I've done," Jennifer says. "My dad always had his camcorder." Adds Reiner: "Jenny has a very down-to-earth father who has things in perspective. The main thing he does for her is set an example."
And they haven't spoiled her. Jennifer, a 1994 Northwestern graduate, shares a funky two-bedroom apartment near West Hollywood with Courtney Kivowitz, an agent's assistant. Between calls, she makes time for beau Mike Foley, 24, a production manager she met two years ago. Billy, who once told PEOPLE he and his daughters "have a deal: they won't have sex until I'm dead," approves.
As for her future career plans, Jenny has high hopes. Plus there's some unfinished business on ER. "They never resolved whether I died," she says. "I hope eventually they'll come back to Reba, the seizure girl."
SHELLEY LEVITT in Los Angeles
- Shelley Levitt.
His daughter's career? It looks mahhvelous!