Welcome to Misleading Men, a regular feature where we look back at the actors who ruled Hollywood for one brief shining moment.
In early April 2015, Dennis Quaid did the unthinkable: He acted like a jerk.
A video surfaced online, taken incognito on the set of his latest movie, in which we saw the actor throwing a fit because of how unprofessional everyone around him was. Most people, I would imagine, have a favorable view of Quaid. He is good-looking. He is famous. He is amiable. He is not the sort of people known for diva-like behavior. But the video, apparently shot on a smartphone by a crewmember who didn’t want to get caught, suggested that Quaid might not be that affable after all — maybe he was just as temperamental and egocentric as the rest of Hollywood. It was so out of character, though, that observers wondered if it was a hoax. Dennis Quaid wouldn’t act this way. He wouldn’t let us down.
And it turns out, the skepticism was warranted: It was actually just part of a Funny or Die video.
Whether or not you thought this prank was actually funny, the joke was fairly obvious: Can you imagine Dennis Quaid acting like that? There are plenty of Hollywood stars who are beloved — Tom Hanks, Will Smith, Oscar Isaac — but none of them would have worked as well as Quaid in that bit. Those other men are famous, but they also have big-enough personas that you have a sense of who they are as people, even though you’ve probably never met any of them. Dennis Quaid is different. We’re awfully fond of the guy, but he doesn’t necessarily project a specific essence that no other star inhabits. There is an appealing ordinariness to his fame. He never had a peak, which means he never really had a valley — at least professionally. We like Dennis Quaid just fine.
Quaid turned 66 this April, celebrating a career that’s now spanned more than 40 years. His breakthrough came in 1979’s Breaking Away, where he played Mike, part of a group of teenage buddies growing up in Indiana. He wasn’t even the star of the film — that was Dennis Christopher — but he had an easygoing charm and that handsome smile. You could see him in pictures.
A few years later, he was Gordon “Gordo” Cooper in the Oscar-winning The Right Stuff. In 2019, Quaid was asked to name his favorite movies, and after he cited Lawrence of Arabia, he said, “The favorite of mine that I did was The Right Stuff. I base my favorite movies of my own on the time I had when I was making them. That was just a great time in my life.” And how can you blame him: He wasn’t one of the main leads, but as a member of the famed Mercury Seven, he projected all the youthful, manly swagger that the role required. America’s original astronauts were hunky, smart, square-jawed military men — brash but no-nonsense — and Quaid could play that just right.
“I was lucky because I know a lot of people who were very talented who did not have luck,” he has said about his early career, and that modesty always filtered down into his unassuming performances. After The Right Stuff, he started landing starring roles. First, there was Enemy Mine, which was like a sci-fi version of The Defiant Ones, and then he earned acclaim as a corrupt (but still goodhearted) cop in The Big Easy, the sort of sexy thriller you don’t see much of anymore. That same year, he also had a big hit with Innerspace, playing the lovably loudmouth pilot Tuck Pendleton, who volunteers for an experiment in which he’ll be shrunk — only to be accidentally injected into the bloodstream of Martin Short’s nerdy character. Quaid didn’t come across as an actor of astounding depth, but he seemed like a lot of fun to be around — a feeling that was probably never stronger than when he signed up to be the rock ‘n’ rollin’ Jerry Lee Lewis in Great Balls of Fire!
It was also a period where Quaid had a serious cocaine problem. “[C]ocaine was really in the movie budget back then,” he said earlier this year. “It was recreational. We all paid the price eventually for all that. But it was a lot more freewheeling.” In the same interview, Quaid talked about how he finally sought help after experiencing an especially dark moment around 1990: “I used to do cocaine and promise myself I wouldn’t stay up late because I had work the next day, and invariably, it would be 4 in the morning and I’d be awake in bed and I had to be up at 6 to go to work. I’d wind up screaming at God every night to please take this away from me. Then I’d get up the next day, the afternoon would come around, and the whole cycle would start again.”
That revelation probably explains why he seemed so absent in the early 1990s, only to return in misfires like Wilder Napalm and Undercover Blues. He received some of the strongest reviews of his career as Doc Holliday alongside Kevin Costner in 1994’s Wyatt Earp. But his choices tended to be a bit undemanding: Dragonheart, the remake of The Parent Trap, The Rookie. When he worked with a great director, he could bring a little more. Any Given Sunday is a ridiculously over-the-top football movie from Oliver Stone, but Quaid is believably rugged as an aging quarterback trying to prove he’s still got it. In Traffic, Steven Soderbergh made him an intriguing character actor by casting him as Arnie Metzger, a scheming associate of Catherine Zeta-Jones’ drug-dealer husband. And his performance as Julianne Moore’s closeted husband in Todd Haynes’ period drama Far From Heaven worked so well because, in a way, he didn’t fit perfectly in the part. His carefree masculinity and unfussy style were at odds with a man so repressed and alienated from his true self.
Along the way, he’s been part of big hits — The Day After Tomorrow and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra — but in those movies, the premise or the intellectual property were the draw, not necessarily him. His stardom is unusual. He’s not part of any major franchises. He’s not integral to one of those iconic Gen-X or millennial classics that has made him a generational fixture. (Put it this way: He was in the remake of Footloose, not the Kevin Bacon Footloose. Likewise, he did the second Parent Trap, not the original.) He’s never been nominated for an Oscar, although he does have two Golden Globe nominations and one Emmy nod. All of this is to say: There’s not a particular blockbuster, revered cult film or unalloyed masterpiece that defines him. In this way, he’s pretty unique among enduring Hollywood stars. You just like him because he’s Dennis Quaid.
That’s what Esurance seemed to be thinking, too, when they hired the actor to be their spokesperson in 2018 for a series of meta commercials in which Dennis Quaid tells you that he, Dennis Quaid, is in the ad to sell you insurance “because, apparently, I’m highly likable.”
What was funny about the ads was that Dennis Quaid is famous enough to get your attention, but not so famous that he’d say no to the whole deal. Like the Funny or Die clip, he was mocking the fact that he’s a regular ol’ celebrity — the celebrity next door, if you will. He’s just happy to be here.
His career could have been different. Forget the drugs for a second: He passed on Big back in the late 1980s, which gave Hanks his first Oscar nomination and catapulted his stardom to the next level. “I turned down Tom Hanks’ career!” Quaid noted wryly last year. “I turned down A League of Their Own. Sleepless in Seattle was mine. And yet, all of a sudden, it wasn’t.” Ironically, his wife at the time, Meg Ryan, ended up being in Sleepless in Seattle, and for the decade they were married, it’s fair to say that she was actually the more famous of the two — a refreshing reversal from how it usually works in Hollywood, with the man growing more successful and the woman becoming “too old” to still be a star.
Quaid hasn’t been as prominent in recent years, although he was part of the hit 2018 Christian drama I Can Only Imagine. But he has held onto that cultural goodwill — it’s hard to think of anyone having a bad word to say about the guy. Okay, maybe he’s been married a few times — that happens. Yes, his new wife, Laura Savoie, is 39 years younger than him — it’s alarming, but not that strange in Hollywood. (And, of course, his older brother Randy has displayed some bizarre public behavior of late, torpedoing his career and making observers worry about his well-being. “I miss my brother,” Dennis told The Daily Beast. “I have to love him from afar, but that’s the relationship that I have with him. I find a lot of the social-media stuff very puzzling myself.”) Even when that Funny or Die viral video popped up in 2015, people almost automatically assumed that it had to be a put-on. What would Dennis Quaid be doing having a meltdown? He’s too ordinary to do something so obnoxiously star-like.
I think that’s why the internet responded the way it did last week when Politico reported that Quaid was part of a Trump administration campaign to, as the article put it, “[push] an optimistic line about coronavirus” to the American public. Quaid’s part in all of this, according to Politico, was an interview he conducted with Anthony Fauci on the actor’s new podcast, The Dennissance. Online, the article got spun into suggesting that Quaid was starring in a Trump campaign ad, which angered him:
Quaid’s case is helped by listening to the actual episode, which hardly comes across as a glowing, pro-Trump endorsement. Still, going after “the cancel culture media” in his Instagram post felt incredibly cringe-y. Plus, on his podcast, Quaid has had people like Dr. Drew, who initially downplayed the COVID crisis, and Mike Lindell, the “My Pillow Guy,” who’s buddy-buddy with the administration. As much as Quaid wanted to dismiss Politico’s accusations, it mostly helped remind people that the actor has been supportive of the president’s handling of the pandemic. Back in April, Quaid said,
“I think Trump, no matter what anybody thinks of him, is doing a good job at trying to get these states — and all of the American people — what they need, and also trying to hold our economy together and be prepared for when this is all over. … I do appreciate that Trump is giving the briefings and on television every day giving out the information, and I think they have great people handling it. Just one more thing outside of that: Despite presidents, Congress and political parties, this is the United States of America, and we’re a very adaptable people in situations like this, and I think we’re all going to get through it.”
It was the sort of anodyne, naive comment you’ll see on Facebook — we all need to come together — but there definitely seems to be a reactionary side to Quaid, whose band the Sharks was featured in the recent conservative documentary No Safe Spaces, a diatribe about so-called free-speech suppression in contemporary America. (“It’s not just Hollywood. Our whole culture has become intolerant,” Quaid said at the time.)
Because of the recent Fauci controversy, I’ve noticed that 2015 viral video has resurfaced on Twitter, with people not realizing (or caring) that it’s an old prank. No doubt Quaid’s image as someone everybody enjoys has been dinged a little. It’s one of the oddest things about our relationship with actors — we like them so much that we assume that they share our sensibility and political ideology. It must have been jarring for some to learn that Quaid considers Reagan “my favorite president in my lifetime.” (In fact, he’s working on a biopic of the late president, saying in 2018, “We’re making a movie for Republicans and Democrats alike since Reagan transcends politics.” I’m sorry, but a movie about a president inherently can’t transcend politics, but you know how some people are.)
I don’t bring all this up to bash Quaid or suggest that somehow he’s been pulling a fast one all these years. Instead, I’m interested in our lifelong fondness for Quaid’s likable anonymity — and how it rankles us when our preconceived notions about someone in the limelight contradict our actual beliefs. Actors are mirrors, and we too easily just see what we want when we look at them.
In his Biographical Dictionary of Film, historian David Thomson devoted an entry to Quaid, years ago summing up his eternal appeal. “In an age of heavy-duty stars … there comes into being a second string of known quantities, good-looking guys, reliable and fairly trouble-free performers, as the project slips a notch or two,” he wrote. “These fellows don’t do badly, but they lack the crust of vanity or certainty that can lead bigger stars into unmitigated disasters. … Dennis Quaid is such a figure. He’s been around so long now he isn’t going to surprise many people.”
Thomson meant all that as a compliment, praising the cinematic “bench players” who “have an edge and a need that I find more attractive than the hard gloss of stardom.” I agree with Thomson: Quaid didn’t need a billion-dollar franchise to win us over. He’s more interesting partly because his persona hasn’t been stapled to some big franchise or iconic character, which would inflate or flatten his onscreen essence. He’s had to rely on just being him.
Guys like Quaid, they don’t have the blow-you-away talent of the high-wattage A-list stars. In sports lingo, he’s a grinder, and since most of us schlubs are grinders, too, we can relate. But that doesn’t mean we should think we know him, because we really don’t. His only job is to be likable — that’s always been his only job. The problem occurs when he dares do something we don’t like.