Blog Active Page Indicator 05.20.2017

A Restaurant King’s Latest Role lead image

A Restaurant King’s Latest Role

05.20.2017

Billy Dec, who has spent much of his life and most of his career at the white hot center of the nightclub-restaurant-celebrity scene in Chicago, is explaining why he wants to be a movie star.

"It really is a logical extension of what I have been doing," he says. "We've raised money to open restaurants, we've got 650 employees and as many as 20,000 customers a week. Our job is to work collaboratively to create an elevated entertainment experience. Like the movies."

He is saying this while sitting at a table in Sunda, an Asian fusion restaurant in the River North neighborhood. It is one of the places — Rockit Bar & GrillUndergroundBottlefork and The Duck Inn among them — operated by Rockit Ranch Productions, the company of which he is CEO and which he started and runs with longtime partners.

"And the movie business is just as precarious as the restaurant business," he says.

This interest in movies is not an out-of-the-blue pipe dream. For many years he has been friends with and says he has learned much from such actor pals as David Schwimmer. He credits the local director, teacher and actress Joyce Piven with "giving me the basics" and he has for some time been taking acting lessons with Doug McDade, a longtime ensemble member of Shattered Globe Theatre. He has become familiar with performing in front of cameras during frequent appearances on the "Today" show and as a weekly contributor to WLS-TV's breezy morning offering, "Windy City Live." Thanks to Schwimmer, he had cameos on "Friends" and later, on his own, got small parts in other shows and films. He had larger roles in the locally filmed Fox series "Empire" and in the CBS drama "Criminal Minds." He is ever auditioning.

His cinematic aspirations became very serious about two years ago when he started Elston Films, a Chicago-based film production company, with his wife, Katherine (Kat) Stephans, and a couple of seasoned industry hands, former studio executives, producer DeAnna "De" Cooper and her husband, director Kevin Cooper.

The company is involved in some intriguing projects, among them a film titled "The Warehouse," about the late influential House music pioneer Frankie Knuckles and the legendary after-hours club he ran here.

But the centerpiece of its plans and of Dec's big screen aspirations is called "Bury the Lead." Written by Justin Kremer, it was discovered at the Black List, a website that is home to selected unproduced screenplays. It is about a newspaperman who, desperate for glory, manufactures a story and then, when that story becomes real, finds himself and his family member in life-threatening jeopardy.

"I fell in love with the script the first time I read it and there are so many great parts in it," he says. "Of course, I want to play the lead role."

He expects filming to begin in Chicago — "That's essential to this, to make movies here," Dec says — in the summer with a modest $1.5 million budget. "I am going to leverage some of my relationships with people here to make that budget go further," he says.

It is a wicked world, the movie business, and Dec has few illusions. He knows a lot of actors and actresses and has heard of their ups and downs. Among them is Northwest Side native Joe Sikora, one of the stars of the popular Starz series "Power."

"Billy is a neighborhood guy and an exceptionally driven human being," says Sikora, who has known Dec for many years. "He's worked his way up from bouncer to manager to owner of clubs and now, with his production company, not only does he want to still entertain the city, he wants to entertain the world, to expand the horizons of Chicago filmmaking. If there is one person who I have watched successfully follow his dreams it is Billy. He is an inspiration."

Not everyone feels this way. Some resent Dec's success and his high-profile presence, in person at his restaurants and serving on various civic and charitable groups and as a member of the White House's Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and its Bullying Prevention Task Force. He also has a very active social media voice, with his own blog, in addition to the usual Facebook, etc. sites.

One of his detractors, a restaurant owner asking for anonymity for obvious reasons, says, "There's no doubt that Billy has been successful and works hard but he's also celebrity obsessed with an ego the size of the Hancock."

Dec says he's used to hearing that sort of thing and reading about it in some savage internet postings. "I guess I have made myself an easy target," he says. "But that's part of this business, to put myself out there. And about this new chapter, making and starring in movies, a lot of people tell me I'm nuts. But I've heard that my whole life."

That life, currently early in its fourth decade, could be the stuff of movies.

He was born and raised in the Lincoln Park neighborhood. His father, Bill Sr., was for a time a successful real estate developer; his mother, Celia, originally from the Philippines, stayed at home caring for Billy and his younger brother, Anthony, and younger sister, Leilani.

Billy went to the private Latin School of Chicago for high school but then things began to collapse. His father, suffering bipolar disorder, lost his business. The family lost its home and Anthony, exhibiting symptoms of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, was in and out of hospitals.

Dec worked his way through the rest of high school and while attending the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign got a job as a nightclub bouncer here. He worked summers and, commuting by car, weekends. He graduated and entered Chicago-Kent College of Law and was there when he opened his first club, Solo. He graduated from law school and passed the bar exam but by then was hooked on the club-restaurant scene and with friends began his ascent. By 2006 he was of sufficient stature to receive a lengthy profile in the Tribune magazine under the headline, "The King of Clubs."

And so now, here he sits, talking about his life's latest chapter.

"I do think I am a good actor and will be better in time," he says. "But I can't see myself ever leaving for keeps the restaurant business. I am used to juggling many things."

He and his wife have a son soon to turn 5 and they would like to have more kids, maybe a couple of them.

"Family is important to me. I see my mother and my sister's family a lot," he says. "And I think about my brother. I can remember the second time I was ever on a stage and it was with him at a high school thing. I was so shy and scared.

"My brother was a gifted creative artist, the best painter I have ever known. I think I have an artistic side too but I've let business overtake that part of me. Over the last decade, since my brother's death in a terrible 'L' accident in 2005 and then my dad's death in 2009, I've come to realize that life's too short — gone in a minute."

He stops talking. He starts to cry. He is not acting.

Rick Kogan

rkogan@chicagotribune.com