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 From Heaven (2002), playing a closeted married man who can no longer contain his sexual urges. For my money, his finest hour came in The Rookie (2002), a drama about a 35-year-old Texas baseball coach who makes an unlikely run for the majors. When Quaid’s character finally realizes his dream, the actor’s expression registers quiet triumph and then crushing regret—he can’t not think of all the time that’s been lost. The occasional dud notwithstanding (2004’s The Alamo, 2009’s G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra), Quaid has since settled into a very impressive groove. Whether playing a struggling ad executive (2004’s In Good Company), a cranky college professor (2008’s Smart People), or a wily Bill Clinton trying not to get outmaneuvered by Tony Blair (2010’s made-for-cable The Special Relationship), he has captured the bittersweet frustrations of golden boys who have lost their luster and of good-hearted men who can’t quite get things to go their way.

That’s what makes Quaid’s work in both The Words and Vegas so compelling: it’s like he’s delivering the next movement in a symphony on the theme of resignation. In The Words, he plays a best-selling novelist named Clay Hammond whose latest book is about a writer who stumbles upon an unsigned manuscript and passes it off as his own. This mysterious, multilayered movie jumps back and forth between Clay’s fictional world and his real one, where he puts the moves on an ardent young fan (Olivia Wilde). Confident as the character is trying to be, Quaid steadily hints otherwise—from certain angles, that famously easy smile looks downright pained. The performance deftly encapsulates the central theme of the drama­: that even the most successful artist fears he might be a fraud.

Vegas isn’t nearly as thoughtful or complex, but here Quaid shows us yet another facet of disappointment, when all that frustration calcifies and turns tough as nails. He plays a rancher and former World War II military police officer, circa 1960, fed up with the title city’s exponential growth. (The story is loosely based on the experiences of the real-life sheriff Ralph Lamb.) Deputized by the mayor of Las Vegas to solve a murder, he clenches his jaw and steamrolls over corrupt cops, assorted mafiosi, and a ruthless casino owner (played with enjoyable brio by The Shield’s Michael Chiklis). Quaid is entirely convincing as a man who has taken plenty of crap in his life and now knows he has nothing to lose. As in The Words, you feel as if you’re in the presence of an actor who has experienced these emotions in his own life and who is fearless enough to let that show on-screen.

If the casino would allow for such bets, I’d wager that Vegas is going to be a hit. It’s very much in the vein of those irresistibly dopey, let’s-catch-a-killer shows that populate the CBS lineup, like The Mentalist and Criminal Minds; the Vegas-before-it-was-“Vegas” milieu also lends it a patina of historical sophistication. Even if it doesn’t last, though, you get the sense that Quaid has plenty more tricks in his repertoire. In fact, watching him chew the scenery in last year’s otherwise worthless remake of Footloose, as the preacher who bans dancing in his small town, I kept thinking about how Quaid has never really played a great villain; he could easily channel the sense of rejection that has animated his recent work and create a dangerously seductive movie monster (think Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter or Orson Welles in The Third Man). All in due time, no doubt. One thing that’s apparent thus far is that Dennis Quaid has figured out how to play the long game.