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The acting “whimsy” of the Zane family

By on October 19, 2014

Shortly after Titanic premiered all four members of the theatrical Zane clan did their favorite thing: they gathered in London as they always have to watch a three-day whirl of matinee and evening performances at some of their favorite theaters in the world.

“Remember we saw the Scarlet Pimpernel there with the kids?” Thalia reminds her husband listening on the extension during a telephone interview.

“Great theater,” says Bill Sr. “To see Phantom of the Opera when it first opened was an amazing event.”

The Zanes, whose son Billy starred in Titanic and daughter Lisa is an actress-songwriter, went to London every September when the kids were young and for ten days saw nothing but theater, perhaps a dozen plays, “because we wanted to show the kids, if you want to go into the business, come and see the best in the world,” says Bill.

He grumbles that he doesn’t do any acting anymore, after a lifetime of regional theater in and around Chicago, but he did come out of retirement to play the starchy church board director who gave the activist priest and hero a hard time in the film Do you Wanna Dance, shot on location in Chicago. And four years before that he played Lisa’s equally-starchy father in the film, Unveiled.

“As per usual, the Zane men always play heavies,” laughs Thalia, who acted along with her husband for years in local theater and was one of the founders of the Chicago Player’s Guild. She now insists her acting days are over (“There comes a time when one does hang it up, you know?”), but she doesn’t rule out one more fling on the boards if the right part came along. “It would depend on the part, it would depend on where, how?” she says, then adds, “Let’s face it, I’m a mom, and a mature mom. I don’t think there are that many roles.”

So for now the Zanes are happy seeing their children on screen and visiting them on movie sets around the world. Lisa is also now singing in New York and Paris (“She sings in French, she’s like a chanteuse,” says her proud mother.) and her parents sometimes fly in to catch the show.

“We make a point,” says Bill.

“It’s not that we’re hanging on,” explains Thalia. “It’s just that we like to share the experience. We love to be together, we miss our children.”

Except they didn’t go see Billy when he was filming that all-time blockbuster Titanic in Mexico. “That’s the one set we didn’t visit, isn’t that funny?” she laughs. “Billy kept saying, ‘Come on down and see the set.’ But I’ll be very honest with you, being on the set is boring. It’s a lot of waiting.”

But her son did call, and told her he loved working with taskmaster-director James Cameron, and the feeling is mutual.

“Billy is a complex guy and I felt that right away,” Cameron said. “He’s brilliant and in ways that have nothing to do with acting…And there was something about him that I knew he would bring a lot of complexity to a character that could be very simple.”

Thalia returns the compliment. “I think the man’s a genius,” she says of Cameron. Though, like her husband, she’s reluctant to be too frank (“Mom, don’t say anything, don’t say anything!” Billy warned her once.) and by being frank, inadvertently add fuel to rumors.

“They’ll call about some stupid thing that they read or heard about,” she says of the press, “some rumor about Billy dating somebody, and I have to be so careful.”

But soon she and her husband are sharing an extension and swapping theater stories and memories.

They were high school sweethearts in Chicago and got married right after college. She was the former Thalia Colovos, he was the former Vasilios Zanetakos, and both their parents were from Sparta. They got married after college and he served an Army stint in Europe, which became a playground to the young couple. “We traveled a lot,” she says. “We were stationed in the most beautiful station in Bavaria, in Germany, and we bought a little Volkswagen and traveled all through Europe. We weren’t ready for children.”

But after ten years of marriage they had Lisa, and a year later Billy, and they returned to Chicago, where she worked in promotion and sales, and in the late ‘70s they opened a vocational technology school on South Michigan called Medical Careers Institute.

They had also done theater in Germany and they now plunged into regional theater in Chicago and started their own company, the Player’s Guild. “It was crazy,” she says of those days of juggling work, and rehearsal, and kids. “But it wasn’t really for the money, it was for the fun of it…And Bill and I just knew each other’s routine. We didn’t rehearse, we just did it.”

As a kid, Billy remembers his parents making out on stage in a fake living room and calls his own plunge into acting a “genetic draw.” Soon he was going to theater camp in summer to Wisconsin and fantasizing he was Gene Hackman sacrificing himself in the Poseidon Adventure or the family icon, Gene Kelly dancing up a storm in Singing in the Rain.

“Bill and I saw it 39 times when we were in school,” Thalia says of the classic musical. In fact, they have an 8-foot by 4-foot painting of a dancing Gene Kelly hanging in their den that Billy brought them from Hollywood one Christmas.

And Bill remembers The Odd Couple he was doing twenty years ago at Theater on the Lake in Chicago (he played Oscar) because it was around the time that John Wayne died. “And I said, ‘Oh, my God, the Duke is gone,’” he still recalls the shock.

“Acting was more an avocation than a vocation,” Thalia explains. “And because we loved it so much, we involved our children in films and in theater.”

That included the two and half years they lived in Greece when the kids were little and the times when the couple visited the Epidavros. “The elements are with you, that beautiful area, a full moon that night,” she still rhapsodizes. “I remember a man just twirling his cloak and a gust of wind came at the same time–it was beautiful.”

Billy did hope to do a production of Aristophanes’ The Frogs, set in Hollywood, and Lisa played Phaedre to a packed crowd at the Hellenic Museum in Chicago. On a family visit in 1983, Billy remembers getting off the plane and catching “the smell of olives in the breeze and I felt my history.”

Through the Classics Trust Fund of the Goodman Theater the family also visited London every September. They saw Roger Rees in Hamlet at Stratford on Avon one year and when they got back to the States, Lisa said she wanted to see it again. “Mom, I have to go back to Stratford,” she told her mother and she flew back to England on her own.

Lisa spent a year in Florence as a Vassar student and biked through France, and Billy attended the American School in Switzerland for his junior year of high school. After he returned and finished school in Chicago, he announced he was going to Hollywood.

“He always wanted to be an actor, from the time he was a little kid,” his mother recalls. He already had an agent and done commercials while in high school (he was a production assistant on an Amore Cat Food spot when he discovered he was allergic to cats) and his agent recommended Billy try Hollywood, to his parents’ dismay.

“And I said, ‘Oh, Billy, I don’t know, I don’t know,’” she recalls. “I’m thinking, (it’s) my 18-year-old son, my God…But he was always a mature young man and very level-headed and very good and he wanted it so badly that we thought, ‘Okay, we’ll give it a shot.’”

Billy flew to Hollywood, and shipped his prized ‘64’ Mustang by train, and in three weeks he landed the role of the bully Match in Back to the Future.

“I want you to know I have a job,” he called and told his parents.

“Really?”

“Yeah, it’s called Back to the Future. It’s for that guy called Spielberg.”

Since 1985, Billy has made more than forty films and both he and Lisa have played numerous roles on TV, so their parents have almost gotten used to seeing them on screen. “It’s kind of exciting, yeah,” says Thalia. “And then, all of a sudden, you get used to it. But it’s still a thrill.”

The couple professes to be retired from acting, and Bill professes more adamantly, but he was the one who got a showing in Cannes when Do You Wanna Dance was screened.

“Hey, Pop, we saw this in Cannes!” Billy called his parents from France to tell them.

“How do you like that?” Bill admits, appreciating the irony of topping his two movie star kids. “I’m the only one in the family to have a film shown in Cannes.”

Bill was also president of the Sarah Siddons society, named after the famous English actress, which every year honors a distinguished man or woman in theater and the movie business and raises money for scholarships to theater students at DePaul and Northwestern universities. Honorees have included Lauren Bacall, Bette Davis, Julie Harris and Angela Lansbury.

“We’re always involved in theater,” Thalia admits, despite their avowed retirement from acting.

“Theater people, yeah,” he agrees. “(We’re) people who love to go to the theater.”

Which is why Billy said he got his flair for acting from his parents’ “whimsy” and they admit as much. “Whimsy? Well, there’s a slight madness in our family,” laughs Thalia. “We would always throw great Halloween parties…And my mother and your mom, Bill,” she tells him, “were dignified ladies, so I would say the madness, the whimsy, came from us.”

He says the kids are also whimsical, and he mentions the Gene Kelly poster hanging on the wall that Billy dragged in one Christmas and he’s staring at it now while he’s talking on the phone.

“We have a lot of fun together,” Thalia admits with the familiar Zane whimsy.

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