By Thomas Fields-Mayer
Updated November 01, 1999 12:00 PM

When the bell rings, sisters Cicily Wilson and Chaney Sims open the door of their family’s New York City apartment to find a smiling, 70ish woman from down the hall. “I want to see the stars!” she gushes. Listening from the kitchen, Cicily and Chaney’s parents, Karen Wilson and Bill Sims, look at each other in disbelief. In their 15 years in the building, this neighbor has never before paid a visit. “This,” says Bill, of the sudden attention, “is bizarre.”

But no longer unusual—not since the family became overnight celebrities of sorts, thanks to their national TV appearance in September in An American Love Story, a critically acclaimed 10-hour PBS documentary that provided an intimate look at the life of their racially mixed family.

Shunned from the beginning of their relationship in ways both subtle and direct, Sims, 50, who is black, and Wilson, 49, who is white, are finding that their appearance in the documentary is spurring conversation as well as attracting attention. Says Sims: “It’s a good vehicle to start a dialogue about race and tolerance.” And perhaps about love and marriage as well. After watching the five-part program—which was culled from some 1,000 hours of raw footage shot from 1992 to ’94—one woman told Wilson, “I’m going to go home and hug my husband and tell him I love him.” And another woman of about 25 approached Karen and said, “I wish you were my mom.”

“Their family’s story was so rich,” says filmmaker Jennifer Fox. “It had so many story lines which could speak to issues in America.” Indeed, much of what the film shows Sims and Wilson experiencing could happen to any married couple. Karen, a payroll manager for a food-production company, has a hysterectomy. Tipsy one day in his bedroom, Bill, a musician, admits he’s an alcoholic. And then there are problems unique to interracial families: During a college trip to Nigeria, Cicily, now 27, is disparaged by black friends pushing her to identify exclusively with their race.

Fox met the family in 1991, while researching what was to have been a one-hour film about three interracial couples. A white, Jewish, independent filmmaker from Philadelphia, she had been shocked at the racism she encountered when she began dating an African-American man in Manhattan. After interviewing 20 families, she settled on the Wilson-Sims family, eventually choosing to focus exclusively on them. “There was so much happening in the family that I wanted to be there,” she says.

The feeling was mutual. Wilson thought the film would be a nice memento for her grandchildren. And Sims thought it could foster understanding of families like theirs. “The film was a way to show people we may look different,” says Sims, “but we have family values too.”

The third of seven children of a Marion, Ohio, steelworker and Baptist minister and his wife, who worked as a cleaning woman, Sims was a high school dropout playing piano in a rhythm-and-blues band when he met Wilson 32 years ago at an Ohio resort, where she was vacationing. Her parents—a machinist and a grocery clerk who had two other daughters—never opposed the relationship, but in Wilson’s all-white hometown of Prospect, Ohio, the couple found trouble. Says Sims: “When I showed up, people pulled off their masks, and we discovered who they really were.” The local sheriff hauled Sims off to jail several times for no apparent reason, Karen recalls, and when Sims’s band rented a storefront to practice, locals threw rocks through the windows and threatened to burn it down.

Far from breaking the couple up, “the pressure made us get closer,” says Bill. “We were determined we were going to stick it out to prove everybody wrong.” Still unmarried, they had a daughter, Cicily, in 1972 and moved to Columbus, where Bill studied music at Ohio State. “Our car was set on fire, and our dog was shot and killed,” he says. “But we could get lost in the crowd a little bit more.”

At the suggestion of one of Karen’s sisters, they moved in 1976 to the ethnically diverse neighborhood of Flushing, Queens, in New York City. Karen found work at the company where she is still employed, while Bill paid extended visits to San Francisco, where he played in a band and where the couple got married in 1979, to the delight of their parents. That same year, fed up with tension in his group, Bill quit the music business and, back in New York—where daughter Chaney was born in 1980—worked a series of jobs, from carpentry to delivering mail, and took care of the girls. Not until a decade later did he get back into music, putting together two bands.

After Fox was introduced to the family by a mutual friend, she began nearly two years of filming in 1992, often camping out in the Queens apartment round-the-clock with a sound technician. “It was like a sleepover,” says Chaney. “They slept on our floors and ate our food. We had a personal relationship.”

Having that footage broadcast to a national audience (it took five years to shoot additional interviews, edit the film and raise money to produce the PBS program) has not been an unmixed blessing. When classmates at Chaney’s small northeastern college spotted a newspaper article about the series, she became a campus celebrity. “People who aren’t even my friends know the most intimate details of my family life,” she says. “People say, I didn’t know your father was an alcoholic’ ” In fact, Bill has been sober since 1994, and seeing a half-decade-old version of himself on TV has made him doubly determined to stay that way. “I looked too angry,” he says. “I try to smile more now and show what I’m feeling inside.” Thanks to the documentary (he sang and played guitar on the soundtrack), he landed a recording contract and has released a CD.

The real benefit, though, has been the family members’ increased appreciation for one another. Says Chaney of Karen and Bill: “I saw them not only as my parents, but as strong individuals.” That appreciation ought to help Cicily, now working for a music school in Queens, where she lives with her fiancé, Greg Speller, 33, a union organizer. Greg is white, and they plan to marry in May, starting yet another American love story. “No matter what relationship we get into, it’s going to be interracial,” says Cicily of her sister and herself. “It shouldn’t matter. People love each other.”

Thomas fields-Mayer

Debbie Seaman in New York City