Maturity isn't a four-letter word

Dennis Quaid: leading man or leading chameleon? As the swashbuckling Sam Houston in The Alamo, a plane crash survivor in Flight of the Phoenix, a deflated ad salesman in Good Company, and Jack "I Told You the World Is Ending" Hall in Day After Tomorrow.

Texas' Dennis Quaid has grown out of his wiseass hunk phase to become an appealing leading man

Houston-born Dennis Quaid may be a confirmed part of the Hollywood firmament, but Texas has clearly kept some hold over him. He returned early on in his stardom to shoot D.O.A. on location in San Marcos; later, he lent his star power to a small movie by Texan John Lee Hancock, The Rookie, that wound up being the director's breakthrough project.

He dipped his toe in Lone Star mythology playing a NASA boy in The Right Stuff, plunged headfirst decades later as Sam Houston in The Alamo (also directed by Hancock, though the leap from little league to Texas-size legends proved to be a poor choice). He even married a Texas girl a few years after his more famous marriage ended.

This month he hits the screen in two films: Paul Weitz' In Good Company and the remake Flight of the Phoenix, about a bunch of guys who have to rebuild a crashed plane in the desert. This summer Quaid starred in two of the year's highest-profile features, the aforementioned Alamo and the disaster pic The Day After Tomorrow - this after a stretch in the '90s when it seemed the actor might sink under the weight of so-so roles in bad (and, worse, underattended) movies.

Quaid had certainly seen plenty of mediocre roles on his way up. It's easy to forget that, at first, Dennis was just the little brother of Randy Quaid - who in the early '70s featured heavily in Peter Bogdanovich's boy-wonder years and had a plum role in The Last Detail. The younger Quaid would do time in the Roger Corman factory (with a bit part in Jonathan Demme's Crazy Mama), the ridiculous Caveman, and the abysmal Jaws 3-D before landing The Right Stuff, the 1983 film that was tailor-made for a cocky young actor like Quaid.

The all-pervasive ingredient of The Right Stuff was devil-may-care testosterone, and Quaid was a perfect balance to more mature manly-men such as Sam Shepard and Ed Harris. They were the steely, force-of-nature types that could poke holes in the sky; Quaid and buddies were the gum-chewing wise asses dumb enough to ride a rocket through them. The movie may have been too epic to become a big hit, but it pegged its cast as the real men of Hollywood; 20-plus years later, Harris, Shepard, and Scott Glenn can still be counted on to bring legitimate gravitas to a cast.

Quaid, though, had to put in some time as an overgrown boy first. He was too quick to whip out that smirk of his to be thought of as a real grown-up - not that that's any failing in Hollywood - so he spent a little time playing junior-league Indiana Jones types in stuff like Dreamscape and Innerspace. A friend who went to acting school with him thinks his early career languished in the shadow of Marlon Brando and James Dean, but there's a flippancy to Quaid's early performances that keeps him out of that league. He was pretty successful when he went sultry in The Big Easy or sober in Suspect, but a lightweight neo-noir like D.O.A. was about his speed; when he really decided to put on a legend's shoes, portraying Jerry Lee Lewis in Great Balls of Fire!, neither audiences nor critics quite bought it.

Through most of the '90s, Quaid was a movie star in theory rather than fact. He had highlights, sure - as Doc Holliday, he was one of very few reasons to see Lawrence Kasdan's Wyatt Earp; Flesh and Bone was refreshingly dark and uncommercial. But it wasn't until a trio of jobs at the decade's end that he really experienced a comeback: The Parent Trap may have been bland, reheated Disney, but it made money after a string of Quaid bombs; the indie romance Playing by Heart showed he was willing to do something other than star in wannabe blockbusters; and his washed up quarterback in Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday was, finally, a big serious role in a big serious movie.

Which brings us to the present decade, in which Quaid has worked with highbrow filmmakers Steven Soderbergh and Todd Haynes, starred in summer blockbusters such as Day After Tomorrow, and lent his name to small-but-worthy titles such as The Rookie. There have been flops - and chances are, with Phoenix, there will be more - but Quaid's energies seem to be channeled mostly in a good direction. If things work out, the next year or two will find him directing his first theatrical film: a biopic about Spade Cooley, who despite an unfortunate name and a very troubled personal life made some of the most entertaining Western Swing records ever.

Regardless whether that film, tentatively titled Shame on You, is ever made (or if it falls into the vanity-project ghetto that houses so many actor-turned-director projects), Hollywood should be happy to have the man Quaid has become. He was always a good-looking guy, but age has been kind to the actor's face, making it more appealing than that of the smartass flyboy he once was. And Quaid now carries a seriousness about him - armchair analysts might chalk it up to career setbacks or high-profile marital failure - that makes him more interesting as an actor. The closeted gay husband in Far From Heaven may turn out to be a once-in-a-lifetime role for Quaid, but one hopes there are more like this in his future. It proves that the former pretty boy is also an actor with more range than he's usually asked to use - and it makes us hope more filmmakers give him a chance to venture outside the worlds of the action hero and the swell-looking Romeo.

By John DeFore

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