Billy's big splash Lessons: Without such excellent swimming instruction, who knows what kind of career this actor would have had.

December 22, 1997|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

I am sitting by my phone, waiting for a man to call. I thought getting married would end that phase in my life, but that's another story.

The man in question is Billy Zane, much in demand since "Titanic's" titanic opening over the weekend. Over the last decade, Billy has gone from his memorable debut in "Dead Calm" to the title role in "The Phantom," but "Titanic" is the first film that allows him to show the full range of everything I once taught him.

Swim, Billy, swim! Rotate that knee, Billy. The elementary backstroke uses a whip kick, Billy, not a flutter kick.

A million years ago or so, I was a swimming counselor at Harand Camp of the Theatre Arts in Elkhart Lake, Wis. Billy Zane was an intermediate swimmer under my tutelage and a Man of La Mancha, because that's what we called the cabin that housed the 10-year-old boys. (Older boys lived in South Pacific, while the girls' quarters included Brigadoon, Camelot and Showboat. I'm not making this up.)

We were Haranders, we were the best, working and playing above all the rest. Our initials stood for joy, we were Haran-an-an-ders. At least, that was the contention of the camp song, sung to the tune of the Notre Dame fight song.

Sisters Pearl and Sulie Harand ran the camp with an eye to the bottom line. Who's going to keep sending their kid back to theater camp if they never have a lead? So emerged the Harand Camp casting ethic:

Roles were awarded on the basis of seniority. In "West Side Story," for example, the tone-deaf kid with eight summers under her belt could sing "I Feel Pretty," while a triple-threat newcomer was stuck in the role of Anybodys.

Leads were divided, so that each camper was assured a song and a scene, or a big dance number. "Oklahoma," for example, might have up to 8 or 10 Lauries.("People Will Say We're in Love" Laurie, "Many a New Day" Laurie, dream sequence Laurie, butter-churning Laurie, etc.)

Every dance number must include this one choreographic direction: "Front line go back, back line go front!"

Still, true talent got its due at Harand, and Billy Zane had it. Or "It," as Sulie once told me, watching this 10-year-old kid strut his stuff on the stage of Carnegie Hall. (That was the name of our main theater. The other one was named for our patron, actor Forrest Tucker. On a visit to the camp, the great man was serenaded, to the tune of "Swanee" -- "Forrest, how we love you, how we love you, our Uncle Forrest." I'm still not making any of this up.)

Over the years, I remember Billy as an adorable Curly No. 1, a charming Prince Charming, and a Sky Masterson No. 2 or No. 3, although I think he left camp before he had time to assay the most popular male role in the Harand canon -- "Puzzlement" in "The King and I." (For girls, the coveted part was "death scene Maria" in "West Side Story." "How many bullets are left in the gun, Chino? Enough for you? And you? And all of you? And still have one left for me.")

Years passed, more than I wish to count. If I'd had to pick a Harander whose name would end up in lights, I suppose Billy would have been on the short list. Truthfully, I didn't expect any Haranders to make it. Serious theater types went to serious theater camps, where one girl got the whole part of Laurie to herself and the back line never came front.

(This just in: Billy Zane's dance instructor, Nancy Goldman Greenberg, tells me that Jeremy Piven, who has made a name for himself as the doctor cousin on "Ellen," also attended Harand. "I hate to say this," I told Nancy, "but I have no memory of him. Perhaps it's because almost every guy at Harand Camp looked like Jeremy Piven." "Tell me about it," she said.)

Imagine my delight when Billy Zane bobbed to the surface, almost literally, in "Dead Calm," a small film best-known for introducing Nicole Kidman to American audiences. It takes place at sea and, while there isn't much swimming involved, let me assure you that Billy would have been up to the task if the script had required a good survival float.

Over the years, Billy -- never Bill or William; I like that about him -- has enjoyed an unusually watery career. In "The Phantom" -- wasn't there a waterfall? "Memphis Belle" -- his plane could have gone down over water. He even starred in a film called "Head Above Water." How could I not be named in some future Oscar speech?

And now comes "Titanic." He plays the villain, not much of a stretch given that he once played Satan (in "Demon Night: Tales From the Crypt"; why does he include that credit in his bio, but not Harand Camp?)

Now, assuming you haven't seen the movie yet, it would be cheating to say if Billy's "Titanic" character metaphorically sinks or swims. Suffice to say, the water keeps rising, and he's wading through it, and the ship is going down, virtually in real time, and while the rest of the audience was caught in the drama of the moment, worrying over the fate of young lovers Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, I had to restrain myself from screaming out:

Swim, Billy, swim!

You know, he never did get that whip kick down.

Pub Date: 12/22/97

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