Meet the Throwbacks

Jerseyans Billy Van Zandt (brother of Steve) and Jane Milmore write and perform classic farce and old-fashioned shtick that have made them a stage and sitcom success story.

Courtesy of Billy Van Zandt.

In the madcap stage comedy You’ve Got Hate Mail, five actors sit in front of laptops, venting about the next outrageous e-mails they will write. Each actor’s riff seems more salacious and filled with double-entendre than the previous. Two of those actors—naughty, naughty—seem to be barely holding in laughter as they deliver their lines.

Perhaps you can’t blame them; they wrote the play.

“There is nothing like writing for the stage and then being able to be on stage, too,” says Billy Van Zandt, who, with Jane Milmore, his longtime writing and acting partner, are the authors and part of the cast of You’ve Got Hate Mail, which has a long-standing run at the Triad, a theater club on West 72nd Street in Manhattan. The two have written 23 plays, executive produced and written more than 400 hours of TV, and acted in most of their shows over the last several decades. They seem poised to laugh, or make others do so, at any moment.

“Maybe it is coming from New Jersey,” says Milmore with a throaty giggle and a triumphant smile. “Something in the water, maybe? I hope we can do it forever.”

Van Zandt, who grew up in Middletown, and Milmore, who moved to Keansburg as a young child, seem to be products of an earlier era. Neither graduated college and both appear ready to take to the road at the drop of a hat, like Rose and Herbie, the itinerant theater folks of the musical Gypsy. Last year, they revived You’ve Got Hate Mail, a take-off on A.R. Gurney’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated Love Letters. That means frequent trips to the East Coast—and away from developing sitcoms in Hollywood. Most often, they act as two of the five characters who have online relationships with each other.

Their sitcom-producing résumé is vast and varied—from Newhart to Anything But Love (with Jamie Lee Curtis and Richard Lewis) to Martin (with Martin Lawrence) to Bless This House (with Andrew Dice Clay). Most every time they produce a sitcom, they find a small role for themselves.  

Then there are those 23 plays, most often produced as a three-week summer run benefiting the theater-arts scholarship fund they created at Brookdale Community College in Monmouth County. You’ve Got Hate Mail was originally one of those shows, but so were such titles as Wrong Window; High School Reunion: The Musical; A Night at the Nutcracker; and Silent Laughter.

“When they step off that jet from L.A., a bunch of us get ready,” says Glenn Jones, senior vice president with Nassau Broadcasting, a network of 50 radio stations based in Princeton. More or less once a year, Jones is a member of what he calls the unofficial Van Zandt/Milmore repertory company,  the troupe of actors who perform in the plays Van Zandt and Milmore come up with for the Brookdale benefit.

Jones was part of a nucleus of actors who met in 1979 at the Dam Site Dinner Theater in Tinton Falls, where Van Zandt and Milmore first produced their comedies. Van Zandt was a fan of comics like Lucille Ball and the Marx Brothers, watching their quick-witted, almost absurdist mental and physical comedy on TV as a kid. (His older half-brother is Steven Van Zandt, the Springsteen guitarist and Sopranos strip-club owner/consigliere.) 

“I was never of my own time period,” says Van Zandt, 53. “I would stay up late on Friday night and watch the silent movies on Channel 13.  I started watching Chaplin and all those guys. I would make up stories about the kids in my class. I would change their names just enough so that when I read the stories in class, [the kids] thought it was cool.”

Milmore, now in her mid-50s, says she was the cute little princess actress.

“I did neighborhood plays,” she says with a cute-little-princess grin. “Girls did things a little differently. You couldn’t really be the class cut-up. You had to believe in yourself and be strong. I wanted to write Gone With the Wind.”

The two met when their schools had a theater competition. Van Zandt did a piece from Lovely Ladies, Kind Gentlemen, and Milmore performed the final scene from Plaza Suite. She won best comedy in the competition, while Van Zandt scored best musical and best supporting actor. When they met again soon after, says Milmore, “we realized even there that we had the same sense of humor, the same style.”

Van Zandt’s father, an engineer and former Marine, wasn’t keen on his son’s theatrical ambitions. His father wanted him to go to a “real” college and get a degree. Milmore’s father, a computer programmer, and mother, a secretary, were encouraged that she was getting commercial work soon after high school.
It helped Van Zandt that his brother was struggling in music at the time.

“There was a lot of, ‘Leave the house; Dad has to have another talk with Steven,’” says Van Zandt. “My parents were telling him, ‘You’re going to New York. You are going to be murdered.’ That was in the 1970s, so maybe it was true.

“My father wanted me to go to college so I would have something to fall back on. I was cocky enough to say, ‘I don’t plan on falling back.’”

By 1979, Van Zandt and Milmore had migrated together to Los Angeles, and soon Van Zandt had a small role in the first Star Trek movie. The producers didn’t let the cast leave the set during the week since everything about the flick was hush-hush. So Milmore started coming over to the set with her old Smith-Corona typewriter, and they started to write plays together.

That collaboration spawned the New Jersey productions, but it also got them a low-level writing spot on Newhart, the slightly off-kilter Bob Newhart sitcom set in a Vermont inn. Newhart, the two say, was a gem to work for—allowing writers free rein and never lording his celebrity over them. Still, they thought of themselves as actors who just happened to be writing for awhile.

“I remember calling up my agent, saying, ‘I have this one-year thing with Newhart; do I leave performing for a year?’” says Van Zandt. “They never called me back. I thought, Well, I don’t really have much of an acting career to work with then, do I?”

But he did have a writing career, eventually getting to work on a project about one of his heroes, Lucille Ball, a year after she died. He and Milmore were nominated for an Emmy for their 1990 TV special about the original pilot of I Love Lucy. The director of that special was David Steinberg, a comedian in the 1960s and ’70s who is now a go-to sitcom director.

“Billy and Jane are steeped in comedy history,” says Steinberg. “The greatest comedy writers I know are that way. You have to be obsessed with the kind of thing that went before you. It helps you so much when you are writing, and that is why they are so good at what they do and are always in demand.”

In 1991, one of the duo’s Jersey plays, Drop Dead, was finally going to have a Los Angeles debut. The main character was a washed-up sitcom actress reduced to acting with a troupe that had never been on stage. Van Zandt envisioned Tina Louise, who had played Ginger on Gilligan’s Island, as the character. On a whim, he sent the script to Louise’s agent, who passed on the role. Fortunately, he also sent it to the agent for Adrienne Barbeau, who had played Bea Arthur’s daughter in the long-running sitcom Maude. Barbeau got the part and, what’s more, the guy, marrying Van Zandt the next year.

It took Barbeau awhile to get Van Zandt and Milmore’s directing style. “I don’t normally respond to physical comedy,” she says. “I didn’t grow up watching Lucy. I pretty much respond to verbal humor. But I could see this is where their heart is in writing, and it is never exhausting when they do it. You can really respond to someone as an actor when you see they love what they write.”

Milmore, who is divorced and has no children, owns a home in Rumson; Van Zandt has a place along the Navesink River near Red Bank. It is set on 5 acres of woods near a 200-acre nature preserve.

The Van Zandts have twin 14-year-olds, Walker and William, born when Barbeau was 51. She jokes that she was the only one in the maternity ward with an AARP card.

“But,” says Van Zandt, “we love being back in Jersey whenever we can. The boys can see their family and Jane’s family and, of course, they get good Springsteen tickets.”

Hate Mail continues its current run at the Triad every Friday night. (On August 19 and 26, actress Julia Duffy—who played the preppy maid in Newhart—guest stars in Milmore’s role.) Van Zandt says the play will tour begining next spring.

For now, the Brookdale benefit series is on hiatus because of the Manhattan run and other projects. They sold Disney on a pilot for their first kids’ show, Janet Saves the Planet, which was in their typical farcical mode.

“Janet’s mother marries a millionaire, and Janet thinks it is a good idea to use the money for the environment,” says Milmore. “We did a lot of Harold Lloyd-type things with these kids and it was quite ambitious,” she says, referring to the silent-era comedian. Unfortunately, after the pilot, Disney did not commit to the project. “That is the way things go in Hollywood,” she says. “So we will have more time back East with family and be just a little Off-Broadway for a little while.”

Robert Strauss is a frequent contributor.

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