Dennis Quaid: Out of the Line of Fire

At different times over the last 20 years, Dennis Quaid has gotten one step away from megastardom. Today he may be sorry about some of his film disappointments and some of his own mistakes, but he's not sorry he's not Tom Cruise. Here he talks about when he 'started to lose it, big time' during his drug-fueled '80s days, about why his marriage to Meg Ryan is so good for him, and about how he came to be directing TNT's film Everything That Rises, and starring in Disney's The Parent Trap.

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Dennis Quaid and I are sitting at one of Santa Monica's few remaining working-class, authentically '50s, linoleum-counter restaurants. The spot, a keeper for its unfussy, small-town feel alone, wasn't our original meeting place, though. At the last minute Quaid changed his mind about the unspeakably trendy seaside bistro his publicists originally suggested. The switch speaks well of him.

"This place doesn't have any right to be here," announces the Texas-born actor, savoring the touch of down-home as he watches a man at another table wolf down a plate of pancakes. He suddenly tenses up, though, when the sanctity of this throwback to simple mom-and-pop virtues is violated by the arrival of an obviously Industry interloper. He tries to avoid eye contact, but the man, who turns out to be a film producer, ambles over to tell him how great he's looking since he's been working out again. That interruption over, Quaid visibly relaxes back into the spirit of the place.

The exchange reminds me that it's been 20 years since Quaid was a young, eager actor who would have welcomed an opportunity to make connections. If we were back in 1978, he would still be some months away from becoming a sudden sensation in Breaking Away. And that reminds me what a strange, up-and-down road Quaid has traveled over the last two decades. He has done good and great work in worthy and unworthy films; and he has seemed, alternately, a character actor stuck in a leading man's body, and an inevitable leading man in futile search of the big box office hit that would anoint him. Take 1983, for example. On the one hand, he was terrific as the ego-maniacally cocky Gordon Cooper in the ensemble of actors who distinguished Philip Kaufman's astronaut saga The Right Stuff; on the other, he starred in the hopelessly ludicrous Jaws 3-D. The sci-fi movies he did in the mid-'80s, Dreamscape and Enemy Mine, proved far from anything that would push him to A-Iist.

He probably came closest to becoming the star many thought he'd be in 1987 when he stepped back and took a low-budget police thriller set in New Orleans, The Big Easy. In that film he re-electrified Hollywood, if not the world at large, with a uniquely charming, sexy and effortlessly confident performance. But his subsequent big chances at major stardom--the sizably budgeted Disney sci-fi flick Innerspace; the mystery thriller with a then-hot Cher, Suspect; the high-style noir remake D.O.A.; and the all-American saga with Jessica Lange Everybody's All-American--all flopped.

Still, the Biz rolled out the star carpet for him in the hugely anticipated Jerry Lee Lewis rock biomovie, Great Balls of Fire!, in which he starred with the new, young, hot-as-hell Winona Ryder. When that movie tanked disastrously, and Quaid's offscreen hell-raising shenanigans soured people even further, Hollywood turned its sights away from him. He went on to do Alan Parker's drama Come See The Paradise, but despite all the hoopla around that picture, one sensed that other, higher-on-the-list actors had passed on the project. It looked like the tide could have turned when Quaid delivered a stellar Doc Holiday in Wyatt Earp, but Val Kilmer stole his thunder by playing the same character in an earlier release, Tombstone; Wyatt Earp proved an overlong snoozer in any case, and bombed. While Quaid has done quirky, promising projects that may in fact be more to his own personal taste-- Flesh and Bone, Wilder Napalm and Something to Talk About, for example--it's now been some time since he landed the kind of high-profile movies he once seemed destined for.

That covers his on-screen life. Offscreen he has lately led, with his wife, Meg Ryan, and their son, Jack, a privileged life that moves between Los Angeles and Montana, and bespeaks not only Hollywood success (Quaid's career is disappointing only in the context of extraordinary expectations), but quieter personal success as well. Now a great-looking 44, Quaid seems well aware of missed opportunities, but of a mind to accentuate the positive, which includes directing and starring in the TNT movie Everything That Rises, and starring in the Disney remake of The Parent Trap. He says that the shoot for The Parent Trap with Natasha Richardson was--against all odds--"a blast," and adds that working with the Father of the Bride writing and directing team, Nancy Meyers and Charles Shyer, was a "delight." And he has reason to hold high hopes for this picture--there's hardly a baby boomer around who's forgotten the '60s original about twins, played by Hayley Mills, who scheme to bring together their divorced parents.

"I sometimes say that my judgment's off when it comes to material," Quaid observes. "But when Meg said, 'You should do The Parent Trap,' I was, like, 'The Parent Trap?' Then my friends, Callie Khouri [screenwriter of Thelma & Louise] and Kathy Kloves, the wife of Steve Kloves [writer/director of Flesh and Bone], ganged up on me for the same reason. So I read the script, and then I thought, 'OK, you guys are right.'"

How does he explain the enthusiasm for this schmaltzy movie? He lets out a laugh and says, "Well, it's one of Meg's favorite movies. Women just love how romantic it is. Even I found it romantic."

All this talk of "delight" and having a "blast" while filming The Parent Trap makes me think Quaid has gotten a good deal more laid-back in his approach to moviemaking. A while ago, he had a well-earned reputation for doing whatever he damned well pleased--and getting by with it. All of which was possible thanks to the intense heat he started out with. "I had that kind of heat right up until I played Jerry Lee Lewis," he acknowledges. "And let me tell you," he continues, "I didn't like it." Quaid's tone leaves no shred of doubt about his sincerity on this point.

"I remember one time when I was on location in my trailer," he goes on to say. "Three hundred kids were outside rocking it. There were police there, but when I had to come out, these kids rushed toward me. I was in a state of anxiety, thinking, 'Does one of them have a gun?'"

What does veteran Quaid think of the world facing the Leonardo DiCaprios, the Matt Damons and the Ben Afflecks out there now getting this kind of attention? "I'd just like to say to these guys, keep your mind on your work," he replies. "People like Matt Damon handle it better than I did, though. I've met Matt, and that kid seems like somebody who's really got a good head on his shoulders. But I think fame is worse now than when I was in my 20s and 30s, because the Americanization of the world has meant that now people all over the globe are caught up with fame." He takes a chomp of his tuna melt and adds, "If I were in my 20s dealing with the star-making machinery now, I don't know where I'd fit in. Who knows if I would even be an actor."

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