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Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Original Choice to Play Johnny Castle Was Billy Zane

Wendy Leigh wrote in her biography, Patrick Swayze: One Last Dance, that "actor Billy Zane was the original choice to play Johnny Castle." The MGM movie company decided in 1984 to make Dirty Dancing but then delayed the project for two years while looking for an actor to play Castle. (Page 91)

Leigh did not explain why the original choice to cast Zane as Castle was canceled.


Jennifer Grey has said in a video interview (at 2:25) that when she was auditioning for the role of Baby Houseman, she thought that the role of Johnny Castle would be given to Billy Zane.


Here is an excerpt from the Wikipedia article about Zane:
Zane was born [in 1966] in Chicago, Illinois, to Thalia and William George Zane, Sr., both of whom were amateur actors and founders of a school for medical technicians. His parents are both of Greek descent (from Chios through his mother and Mani through his father), and his family's original surname, "Zanikopoulos", was anglicized to "Zane" by his parents, who also raised him Greek Orthodox. He has an older sister, Lisa Zane, who is an actress and singer.

After completing a year abroad in Switzerland at The American School in Switzerland, Zane graduated from Francis W. Parker School and attended Harand Camp of the Theater Arts, located in Evanston, Illinois.

Zane's first two screen roles were in the science fiction films Back to the Future in 1985 and Critters in 1986, around the same time he appeared in the music video for Sheena Easton's song "Do It For Love".
In 1984, Zane was only about 18 years old, so it seems that the Castle character originally was supposed to be only slightly older than the Baby Houseman character, who has just graduated from high school when the movie takes place.

Swayze was born in 1952, so he is about 14 years older than Zane. When the movie was filmed in 1986, Swayze was about 34 years old. If Zane had played the role, he would have been about 20 years old. Grey was born in 1960, so she was about 26 years old, but her character was only about 18 years old.

In the movie, Swayze playing Castle looked significantly older than Baby.

In the movie Back to the Future, Zane played a character named Match. Here is a picture of him, holding a match in his teeth, from that movie:
The actor Billy Zane playing
the character Match (second from left)
in the movie Back to the Future, filmed in 1985. 
Here are some more pictures of 19-year-old Zane playing Match.

In 1986, the year that Dirty Dancing was filmed, Zane's movie Critters was released. Here are a pictures pictures of Zane acting in that movie.
The actor Billy Zane playing
the character Steve Elliot
in the movie Critters, released in 1986.

Looking for these pictures, I found a movie review, titled Critters -- "The Ballad of Billy Zane", that praised his acting in the movie:
There were a few things I went into this movie unaware of. One, that it would genuinely scare me. Two, the possibility of gaining a new workout song for the rare gym trip. And best of all, I had no idea Critters would treat me to prime, 80’s Billy Zane. Say one thing about this movie, say it has Billy Zane sporting the “wrap your sweatshirt around the waist” look. ...

As I understand it, this movie was a response to the popularity of Gremlins. The latter is definitely a better movie, but Critters I found to be much creepier. ... The crites are balls of fur with a smile full of razors. ... Seemingly shot out of cannons, these little guys can end your existence in the blink of an eye.

Zane took a flesh eating Furby to the stomach! It’s horrifying. ...

The acting was surprisingly good for what the movie was. When I watch actors in scary films all I’m really looking for is if they look frightened. That’s it. ...
Also in 1986, when Dirty Dancing was filmed, Zane's next movie Brotherhood of Justice, was released. Here are a couple of pictures showing how he looked in that movie.
The actor Billy Zane playing
the character Les in the
movie Brotherhood of Justice,
released in 1986. 

While looking for these pictures, I found a movie review praising Zane's acting in this movie (emphasis added).
I’d definitely recommend this movie for all Keanu Reeves fans. It was interesting to see Reeves basically dipping his toe in the action waters for the first time. Especially considering how the action genre would go on to provide Reeves with some of the biggest movies of his career including Speed, Point Break and The Matrix.  Some solid work from Kiefer Sutherland and Billy Zane (the perfect choice for the brooding bad boy of the group) also make The Brotherhood of Justice worth watching.
Since Zane acted so well in Critters and in Brotherhood of Justice, both released in 1986, he probably would have acted well in 1986 in Dirty Dancing, if he indeed had played Johnny Castle.


Here is a picture of Zane playing a character in the television show Matlock in 1987, the year that Dirty Dancing was released.
The actor Billy Zane on the TV show Matlock
in 1987.

Zane Wikipedia article (quoted above) mentions that "in 1986, around the same time he appeared in the music video for Sheena Easton's song "Do It For Love". I could not find that video on YouTube. If someone can send me a link, I will post the video here.


If Zane had played Johnny Castle, he might have become as famous as Patrick Swayze became. Zane's acting career was respectable, but it was such that cultural critic Lebeau has published an article titled
What the Hell Happened to Billy Zane? You should read the entire, well illustrated article. It begins like this:
Billy Zane got his start in one of the most beloved science fiction movies of the 80’s.  He gained popularity on one of the quirkiest TV shows of the 90s.  And he played the least-loved character in what was at the time the highest-grossing movie ever.  His list of credits include several popular films.  But when the handsome actor tried to transition into leading man roles, something didn’t click.  Zane has worked steadily since 1985, but somehow he never became a household name.

What the hell happened?

Zane made his debut with a bit part in Robert Zemeckis’ sci-fi comedy, Back to the Future. He played Match, one of bully Biff Tannen’s goons.  According to Zane, he auditioned for the role of Biff which ultimately went to Thomas F. Wilson.  Biff’s goon squad was cast from actors who auditioned for Biff but didn’t get the role.

According to Zane, hanging out on the Universal set was a lot of fun:
“What was amazing about that was I had a crash course in Hollywood, being on the back lot of Universal for about six months. It was the best playground on the planet. Michael J. Fox was very funny. He would play dead on a New York street, lie dead in the middle of the road, where the trams would come by, and they would have to stop and we’d come running out of the buildings and try to pilfer everyone for their Polaroid cameras and watches, like a highway robbery. Or we’d go up to the Psycho house at dusk with Maglites and shine them into the windows. We were kids and having a hoot!”
Back to the Future was a critical and commercial hit and one heck of a lucky break for a film debut.  It was successful enough to spawn two sequels.

In 1986, Zane appeared in a less-beloved science fiction movie, Critters.

Critters was basically a Gremlins rip-off.  Alien creatures who are furrier and have more teeth than the gremlin invade a rural Kansas town.  A young boy and his family have to deal with the alien invasion.  Dee Wallace Stone, best known for playing the mom in E.T. and Cujo, played – what else – the mom.  Zane played the older daughter’s boy friend who sneaks off for some barnyard hanky panky.  Probably not a good idea.

Reviews were mixed with many critics giving the movie points for having a sense of humor.  It was a modest hit at the box office and three sequels followed.

Zane also appeared opposite Keanu Reeves, Kiefer Sutherland and Lori Loughlin in the TV movie, The Brotherhood of Justice.

The movie was based on a true story about a group of teens who decided to form a vigilante group to prevent violence.  Reeves played the leader of the pack.  Zane played a bad boy who smoked and brought guns to a knife fight.

Meanwhile, Zane was making guest appearances on TV shows like Heart of the City in 1986 and Matlock in 1987.  On Matlock, Zane played a shifty garage mechanic testifying against his soon to be ex-wife.  Only a country lawyer like the one played by Andy Griffith can get to the bottom of this in 46 minutes! ....
Lebeau's article ends thus:
So, what the hell happened?

Well, for starters Zane was never really a star.  In the early 90’s everyone expected him to hit it big.  But it just never happened.  Zane’s career consisted largely of independent movies the average movie goer had never heard of.  And when a movie he made did cross over to main stream audiences, he was usually playing a scumbag.  Having a major role in the biggest movie of all time can take your career to the next level or it can make an entire generation of teenage girls hate you.

As Zane pointed out, his financial situation with his large alimony payments forced him to work steadily.  He wasn’t in a position to be picky about what direction his career took.  Sure, committing to a crappy horror movie pays the bills.  But it also means you aren’t available if a better offer comes along.  Zane was jumping from one project to the next which rarely leads to good career choices.

When Titanic was rereleased in 3-D, Zane was asked if he was frustrated with the state of his career.  He admitted that his career wasn’t where he wanted it to be, but claimed to be happy all the same:
It’s an interesting thing. "Always the bridesmaid," as they say for the ladies? It’s always nice to be on the verge. If Titanic 3-D is a unique or curious reminder of that body of work, then wonderful. I’m someone who believes in pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps. It’s been interesting for me, and at times difficult. But I’ve never been in a better space.”
You should listen to Billy Zane.  He’s a cool dude.

A link on Lebeau's article led me to another website's article, titled Underrated Actors Special: Billy Zane, which explained to my why Zane did not get the Castle role (emphasis added):
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. ....

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. .... 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.
So, Zane did not get the Castle role because he did not dance well.

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