The Mother Brain Files Underrated Actors Special: Billy Zane
By Mother Brain
Whether it’s Robert DeNiro, Johnny Depp, or Sean Penn, many hardcore method actors can never escape the comparison to the legendary Marlon Brando. For Billy Zane, his uncanny resemblance to Brando proved to be a double edged sword throughout his career. Casting directors often tried to cast him in star-making roles because of his looks and it won him a number of leading men and villainous parts. Other times, his looks cost him roles because of what he may have lacked in talent.
Born William George Zane Jr. in Chicago, IL 1966, Zane was the son of Greek-born parents who ran a medical technical school as well as working as amateur actors. His older sister, Lisa Zane, would make a name for herself in the acting world later in life. Zane as a young teen attended the Harand Camp of the Theater Arts in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. In 1982, he spent a year at the American School in Switzerland before graduating from Francis Parker High School in Chicago, Illinois. His love for acting would make him decide to jump over to the West Coast to start working.
Zane did not have to search long for a job. Three weeks into his move to Los Angeles, Zane won the role of Biff Tannen’s accomplice “Match” in the 1985 blockbuster, Back to the Future. It wasn’t so much of a standout role since he was paired in a trio alongside J.J. Cohen and Casey Siemaszko. The roles, however, were still memorable for fans of the series and Zane would reprise his role in Back to the Future Part II in 1989. Afterwords, Zane was cast as an ill-faded horny boyfriend in the Gremlins knockoff, Critters.
Zane was working primarily on television shows when he was initially cast as Johnny Castle in 1987’s Dirty Dancing. The film’s producers thought his Brandoesque looks were perfect for the womanizing dance instructor in the Catskills. Unfortunately, his lack of dancing skills forced him off the project and he was immediately replaced with Patrick Swayze which would end up becoming his star-making role. Two years later, Zane won international acclaim as a crazed killer hitchhiker terrorizing a vacationing couple at sea in Philip Noyce’s breakthrough film, Dead Calm. The film introduced American audiences to Sam Neill and Nicole Kidman while Zane found himself not only in the first of many films he would do in Australia but also placed him in a signature role that would lead to typecasting for years to come.
The early 90s were the most prolific of Zane’s career. His first leading role was the Canadian produced sci-fi film, Megaville, followed by his role as an inexperienced medic and bomber pilot in the World War II movie Memphis Belle. Zane was part of a youthful ensemble which included Matthew Modine, Eric Stoltz, D.B. Sweeney, Sean Astin, and Harry Connick, Jr. He also made a small screen impact as John Justice Wheeler in David Lynch’s cult TV classic, Twin Peaks. Other high profile roles at the time included an ill-faded actor in the 1993 hit, Tombstone, and the evil demon Collector hellbent on destroying the universe in Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight.
As the young actor pushed 30, Zane’s visibility and hard work in Hollywood had to eventually pay off with a star-making vehicle to put him in the same league as other contemporaries such as Tom Cruise and Nicholas Cage. He pinned his hopes on that answer being the 1996 adaptation of the superhero classic, The Phantom. As a fan of the comic strips, Zane campaigned hard for the part and beat out Evil Dead’s Bruce Campbell for. For a year and a half before production began, Zane pumped weights and used Chinese Baoding Balls to fit into the purple spandex costume as well as reading all the comics to capture the Phantom’s body language and speech patterns. On the surface, the film seemed to have everything to guarantee an Indiana Jones-like franchise: A script by hot Hollywood screenwriter Jeffrey Boam, an all-star cast featuring Treat Williams and Kristy Swanson as well as an unknown Catherine Zeta-Jones, and the producing efforts of the legendary Robert Evans. Expectations were so high that Zane signed for two sequels. Unfortunately, the film suffered the same fate as other period superhero flicks of the 90s (i.e. The Shadow and The Rocketeer) and tanked in a highly competitive summer. But only one man who loved his performance was willing to give Zane an opportunity that proved to be huge.
James Cameron felt that Zane would be right as Caledon Nathan “Cal” Hockley in his overproduced epic, Titanic. Hockley was the bourgeois fiancee to Kate Winslet’s Rose DeWitt Bukater and rival to Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jack Dawson. The love triangle added the necessary drama needed to make this $200 million budgeted epic into the biggest film of all time before 2009’s Avatar. Accolades were won all over the place including an MTV Movie Award nomination for “Best Villain” for Zane. While DiCaprio and Winslet became major stars, however, Zane was left lost in the shuffle as Titanic‘s massive success did not guarantee a spot on the A-List.
Even through all the poorly made straight to video flicks he made, there were still a few stand out roles in Zane’s career into the 2000s. After Titanic, Zane starred in and produced I Woke Up Early the Day I Died, a silent film based on Ed Wood’s final script which won him awards at the B-Movie Film Festival. He won rave reviews as a neo-Nazi alongside newcomer Ryan Gosling in The Believer which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. Younger audiences also know him best as the poetry loving ex-demon Drake on the WB’s Charmed and has also provided voiceover parts in The New Batman Adventures and the video game Kingdom Hearts. While continuing to act regularly, Zane acts as a partner at the production company, RadioactiveGiant.
There’s no telling if a comeback is in the cards for Billy Zane. Although he is 46 years old, a comeback in Zane’s future is not an impossibility when you look at nearly forgotten actors like Mickey Rourke and Jackie Earle Haley who needed that one standout part to bring them back to the big screen. Until then, Zane will continue to work and prove that he’s more than just a pretty face.