It’s two o’clock on a magnificent Friday afternoon in Emigrant, Mont., and Dennis Quaid is nowhere to be found.
”I’ll be honest with you—he just went out for a ride,” says Kurt, the 25-year-old caretaker of the actor’s 500-acre ranch. ”He knows you guys have an appointment now, but he just does this sometimes.” A good hour later, Quaid, clad in a cowboy hat and boots, appears on horseback, seemingly oblivious to his tardiness. ”It’s boy heaven out here,” he says, sporting his familiar toothy smile.
It’s easy to forgive his carefree attitude; maybe that’s because, for Quaid, life hasn’t always been so heavenly. Twelve years ago, he was a substance abuser more skilled at scoring hits of cocaine than hits at the box office. Today, in the wake of his very public divorce from Meg Ryan (who made headlines with a short-lived affair with her Proof of Life costar, Russell Crowe), he’s reached the top of a decade-long climb back to leading-man status. Building on the ensemble successes of 2000’s Traffic and last year’s HBO drama Dinner With Friends, 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. And, in case you were wondering, it tops the debuts of Ryan’s last three outings: Hanging Up, Kate & Leopold, and — oh, how sweet it is — Proof of Life. He and Ryan may share responsibility for their 10-year-old son, Jack, but right now it seems like Quaid may have won custody of the career. ”In a way it kind of mirrors the movie,” says Quaid of his reascension to the majors. ”It’s a second chance for me, too. And I feel like I’m ready for it.”
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 his stone porch. ”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.”