Building on the ensemble successes of 2000’s ”Traffic” and last year’s HBO drama ”Dinner With Friends,” Dennis Quaid, 48, has earned some of his most glowing reviews with a beautifully underplayed title performance in ”The Rookie,” the true story of Texas science teacher Jim Morris, a former big-league hopeful who, at age 35, finally achieved his dream of pitching for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. The $21 million film, Quaid’s 40th, cracked a $16 million opening weekend, making it a personal best for the actor.
Quaid remembers catching a 1999 TV news story about Morris, who was then hurling in the minors. ”I thought it’d make a good movie, but I didn’t even put a thought to me being in it,” he says, snacking on sesame wafers and Gatorade on the stone porch of his Emigrant, Mont., ranch. ”When the offer came I said, ‘Are you sure I’m not too old for this?”’ ”Rookie” director John Lee Hancock had no such concerns: ”Dennis looks better than any 35-year-old in Big Lake, Tex., I can promise you that.”
No argument there, but give the guy credit for learning a lot along the way. After two decades of showy roles, Quaid knew that this time, it was important to keep the character’s emotional trials internal. ”You start out as an actor and you want to do a lot,” he says. ”And you just learn how to lop it all off. You can say a lot more by doing less.”
Perhaps that realization stems from his first trip above the title. ”Around the time of [1987’s] ”The Big Easy” and [1989’s] ”Great Balls of Fire!” there was all this heat and attention around me,” he says, puffing on a Marlboro Light. ”I expected it to get more and more, but I went into rehab and took two years off, and the scripts didn’t come. I got taught humility. And that’s a hard lesson to learn in life. And I will say that being with Meg and things happening so well for her at the time, it made the lesson for me even harder, the struggle even tougher.” Says Philip Kaufman, who directed Quaid in 1983’s ”The Right Stuff”: ”He’s come through in a way where you feel that all the experiences he’s [had], both on screen and off, have made him a strong man. He’s been able to retain a lot of that same stuff that I saw 20 years ago.”
Rooting for him hasn’t always been so easy. Several of Quaid’s tough-sell projects, notably the medieval thriller ”Dragonheart” and the pyromaniacal romance ”Wilder Napalm,” were inaccessible to even hardcore supporters (and disappointments at the box office). ”I try to do as many different characters as I can, and I think that’s one of my strengths as an actor,” he says. ”But maybe it’s a weakness, because people don’t know what to expect. Actors are like candy wrappers — you buy a candy bar, you want to know what you’re going to get. I’ve been there before when the movie comes out and there’s that Saturday phone call with the funereal voice on the other end [saying] that it’s already over.”
He certainly wasn’t encouraged when he learned ”The Rookie” had earned a potentially audience-limiting G rating. ”I said, ‘Can’t we get a PG?”’ he remembers. ”I go to a lot of G-rated movies because I’ve got a 10-year-old. And I usually have a nice nap. They don’t speak to me, you know? I mean, ‘Jimmy Neutron’?”
While he may not care for family films, family ties are a theme that will run through Quaid’s upcoming work as well. This fall he stars opposite Julianne Moore in the drama ”Far From Heaven,” playing a husband hiding his homosexuality. And since he owns the movie rights to the life story of stock-car-racing legend Richard Petty, he plans on portraying Petty’s dad, Lee. ”They used to race in the same races together and his father one time [protested Richard’s victory] so that he could win the race,” Quaid marvels. ”He was that competitive.”
With ”The Rookie,” Quaid’s back on the fast track. Says Hancock: ”I told Dennis, ‘Anytime in the next few weeks, if you’re having a bad day, just slip into a theater for the last 20 minutes of this movie and listen to the sustained applause.”’ Too bad the movie isn’t playing anywhere within 40 miles of Emigrant. But even in the middle of nowhere, Quaid is still enjoying the high. ”I feel a lot of goodwill going on,” he says, looking toward the limitless sky. ”Jimmy Morris did me a big favor.”