A quarter century later, it still seems unfathomable that Dennis Quaid didn’t become a superstar. The Houston-born actor, who studied dance at Bellaire High School and drama at the University of Houston before heading to Hollywood in the mid-seventies, experienced the novice’s usual share of ups (1979’s Breaking Away, 1983’s The Right Stuff) and downs (1981’s Caveman, 1983’s Jaws 3-D). By July 1987, though, his moment had arrived. He was exuberantly cocky and endearingly earnest in Joe Dante’s Innerspace, a sci-fi action-comedy that everybody expected would be a blockbuster. The very next month he turned up in Jim McBride’s thriller The Big Easy; opposite the husky-voiced, wholly untamable Ellen Barkin, he gleefully set the screen ablaze. Here was an appealingly human-scale alternative to the bicep-pumped Stallones and Schwarzeneggers of the day, an actor who tempered his old-school swagger with a flirty sensuality. And here was the sort of one-two punch upon which iconic careers are built, a summer popcorn flick followed by a critics’ darling (just ask Tom Cruise, who the year before starred in both Top Gun and The Color of Money).
Fate, of course, had other plans entirely. With its body-swapping and time-travel plotlines, Innerspace proved too insistently eccentric for mainstream embrace. The Big Easy, despite having its champions, including Roger Ebert, who picked it as the second-best film of the year, grossed only $17 million. A number of other commercial duds followed (the remake of D.O.A., opposite then–main squeeze Meg Ryan; the football drama Everybody’s All-American, both 1988). The media soon switched their attention to Quaid’s higher-grossing contemporaries, Tom Hanks and Kevin Costner. By the time Great Balls of Fire!—a watchable but uneven biopic about Jerry Lee Lewis—bombed in the summer of 1989, Quaid’s number appeared to be up. The surefire legend was going to have to settle for a career as a journeyman.
This month, Quaid is back with yet another one-two punch, as part of the ensemble of the absorbing big-screen drama The Words (opening September 7) and as the star of the cheesy but entertaining CBS crime show Vegas (premiering on September 25). Neither role is likely to reassert a place for him at the top of Hollywood’s A-list; indeed, his decision to step into a network series, after three-plus decades of film work, feels like a white flag of surrender. (Cable shows like Boardwalk Empire and The Big C are where movie stars go to earn prestige and awards; CBS is where they go to earn a hefty and steady paycheck.) But both of these roles speak volumes about the evolution of an actor whose career seems defined as much by what didn’t work out as by what did. In both The Words and Vegas, Quaid’s face looks fleshier than before, and there’s a heaviness to his step—the rakish young devil of The Big Easy is now 58 and finally showing his age. Yet the gaze still burns intensely, and that enduringly self-assured grin still has the power to throw us off guard. Having processed a couple of decades’ worth of almost-but-not-quites, he’s come out the other side—bruised, perhaps, but still up for a tussle.
It might easily have turned out otherwise, with the actor drifting off into obscurity à la his tabloid-magnet older brother, Randy. For most of the decade following Great Balls of Fire! Quaid came across as rudderless. He was oddly brittle opposite Kevin Costner in Wyatt Earp (1994) and Julia Roberts in Something to Talk About (1995), as if playing second fiddle to a bigger name was beneath him. Later he just looked embarrassed to be arguing with a digitally generated dragon in DragonHeart (1996) and with the preteen Lindsay Lohan in the remake of The Parent Trap (1998). Yet Quaid eventually landed a series of roles that forced him to dispense with any traces of ego and gave expression to the sense of letdown he must have been feeling. He was alternately defiant and defeated as the quarterback past his prime in Any Given Sunday (1999). He was the fiercely beating heart of Todd Haynes’s sterile melodrama Far