Saving ''Quantam Leap'' -- How Scott Bakula's time-traveling TV show returned to the air with great ratings
For the past four seasons, NBC’s time-travel series, Quantum Leap, has trafficked in the amazing. There is, for starters, its premise: Sam, a scientist-turned-reluctant-hero played by Scott Bakula, lives in cosmic limbo because of a botched physics experiment. While waiting to return to himself, he has been assigned by a higher force to take over the bodies of other people and alter the course of their ill-fated lives for the better. He will have inhabited 54 different characters by the end of this season, including a Chippendales dancer, a blind piano player, and a pregnant 16-year-old girl.
But recently, Quantum Leap performed an even more incredible feat — the show came back to vibrant life after being yanked from the schedule. Last fall NBC programmers plucked the show from its secure, successful Wednesday-night time slot and slapped it into Fridays at 8 p.m. — the Bermuda Triangle of prime time — where the show quickly sank to the bottom of the Nielsens, finally disappearing in mid-January. Then, on March 6, Quantum Leap returned to its Wednesdays-at-10 slot — and increased its viewership from 10 million to nearly 18 million, beating its competition (a performance it repeated the following week). It’s a resurrection that would do Lazarus proud.
Much of the credit belongs to executive producer Donald P. Bellisario, who also produced Magnum, P.I. When he heard that his show was being moved to Fridays, Bellisario says, ”I was crazed.” He fired off a protest fax to Brandon Tartikoff, then NBC’s programming chief, while on a cruise vacation in the Mediterranean. ”I said to him adamantly, ‘It will not work.”’ Back on land, Bellisario encouraged Christina Mavroudis, editor of the Quantum Quarterly newsletter, to rally a letter-writing campaign by the show’s die- hard fans (who call themselves ”Leapers” and communicate via a computer network).
Then the 2,500-member advocacy group Viewers for Quality Television, which was instrumental in keeping Designing Women and Cagney & Lacey on the air, also sent letters to the network. ”It struck me as absurd that this would be viewed as a throwaway show,” says the group’s president, Dorothy Swanson. All told, NBC entertainment president Warren Littlefield says, he received ”about 7 billion” letters urging him to bring the show back to its Wednesday home. (It was reportedly 50,000.) One fan simply wrote, ”Here’s the deal, Mr. Littlefield: Move it back to Wednesday night and your family is safe.”
Bellisario kept up pressure of his own. In revenge for the dread Friday spot, he refused to sell NBC his new cop series, Tequila and Boner (it went to CBS for its fall lineup). ”Don fought for [Quantum] like anyone would fight for their child,” says Littlefield, who had hoped to ”reclaim” Friday night by putting Quantum there. He is, however, ”delighted” about reclaiming the series’ ratings instead.
So is Bellisario. ”I was afraid that after moving to Friday night and then being off the air, the audience wouldn’t follow us back,” he says. But Bakula says he never doubted that the faithful would return. ”Science fiction fans are nuts over the show,” he says. ”They write these in-depth letters dissecting it. They’re constantly asking us to participate in conventions.”
Quantum may seem as bound for cultdom as Star Trek — and it is, in fact, a show worth fighting for. Last season’s episode in which Sam took over the body of a boy with Down syndrome gave compassionate insight into the youth’s frustrations. In this season’s tear-jerking premiere, Sam became himself at age 16 and failed to keep his brother from going off to fight in Vietnam. (The next week, he leapt to Vietnam and saved his brother’s life.) In the much-watched episode on March 6, Bakula’s Sam couldn’t have been more convincing as an unwed expectant mother — the fourth female character he has played. ”The show appeals to the intellect and the emotion,” says Swanson of Viewers for Quality Television. ”It moves people.”
At times, it also confuses them. Although Sam keeps his own personality when he leaps into a character, he has to dress like the man or woman he inhabits. The audience, however, sees Sam as Sam. Dean Stockwell, the series’ only other regular, plays his best friend, Al, who appears — suspend disbelief one more time now — in hologram form. He feeds Sam vital information with the help of a hand-held computer called the Ziggy, a high-tech deus ex machina that gets our hero out of some pretty tight spots. Once Sam has fulfilled his mission, he moves on, Shane-like, to another time — always between the 1950s and the present, because he stays within the years of his own life. Got that?
During his Quantum Leap years, Bakula’s time trips have often been bumpy — he has suffered bruises from boxing, horseback riding, and trapeze swinging. He does his own stunts and singing and even plays his own instruments when the script calls for it. His dedication and versatility got him an Emmy nomination in 1990 as Outstanding Leading Actor in a Dramatic Series, although he lost to Columbo‘s Peter Falk. Says Bellisario: ”Scott no longer surprises me. I always just assume he can do anything.”
”Sam is a lot like me,” says Bakula, 36, lunching on a turkey sandwich in his on-set trailer one afternoon. ”I did a lot of different things when I was a kid.” Growing up in St. Louis, Bakula leapt back and forth between baseball, ! tennis, basketball, football, hockey, soccer, and swimming ”until my dad told me I had to concentrate on one or two sports.” He also took piano lessons and joined a high school rock band. With plans to become a lawyer like his father, he entered the University of Kansas, but dropped out — business classes bored him — and gave in to his theatrical tendencies. In 1976 he took off for New York, where he landed roles as a comic in the hit Off Broadway musical Three Guys Naked From the Waist Down and as Joe DiMaggio in the musical oddity Marilyn (as in Monroe). During a brief return to Broadway in 1988, he picked up a Tony nomination for playing both a Victorian dandy and an ’80s yuppie in the musical Romance/Romance.
Bakula’s TV career began in 1986, when he moved to Hollywood with his wife, Krista, then an actress and now mother to two children, Cody and Chelsy. He landed jobs on My Sister Sam, Designing Women, and the short-lived 1986 series Gung Ho (based on the movie of the same name) and established himself as a TV leading man by playing an ambulance-chasing Palm Springs lawyer in CBS’ inspired (and quickly canceled) 1988 comedy series Eisenhower & Lutz. But big-screen success has eluded him. Bakula made his movie debut, as Kirstie Alley’s husband, in last year’s flop Sibling Rivalry. More recently, his role as Steve Martin’s boxer neighbor in L.A. Story was cut. (Well, most of it anyway. ”You could see my butt in one scene,” he says.)
But Bakula says he’s not yet itching to move from Quantum into movies. ”What’s fun about this show is that we can take on an obvious issue in a totally different way,” he says. ”I want to do an AIDS story this year. It would be set pre-AIDS, and I might leap into the situation of a highly promiscuous person, and keep him from spreading AIDS around. They (the producers) were talking about me not coming in gay, but I told them we’d be copping out on the story. I say if we’re going to do it, then just do it.” (”I’m not sure I want to take the chances on dealing with the gay issue,” Bellisario admits.) Other Bakula leaps set for this year include a 1970s Kiss- like rock star, a death row inmate, and a mental patient with multiple personalities.
Bakula’s not the only person on Quantum doing some major hopping. Each week, the production crew creates new sets that evoke different eras. Finding a swampy area near drought-ridden L.A. for this season’s Vietnam episode took awhile, but production designer Cameron Birnie finally made do with a flood-control basin outside town. Birnie has four to eight days to scout locations, dig through research, and build sets. A subcontractor rounds up old cars, and chambers of commerce supply Birnie with vintage photos when scripts mention actual towns and cities. During the first season the producers decided to shoot on a ranch outside L.A., but there wasn’t one structure on the site. ”We had to build a barn, a house, a corral, and a pigpen over the weekend,” Birnie recalls.
Costume designer Jean-Pierre Dorleac has his own challenges. Costumes for Bakula, guest stars, and extras can add up to more than 100 outfits per show. For last fall’s episode in which Sam became a beauty pageant entrant, Dorleac made six costumes, including cotillion dresses and coronation gowns, for all 20 contestants, as well as a Sam-size Carmen Miranda outfit. ”Finding a bathing suit that Scott could wear was pretty hysterical,” says the designer. All of Bakula’s costumes are custom-made, but Dorleac scours thrift shops for accessories. ”You always have to make sure the width of the bell-bottoms is correct for the time period,” he says. For the Vietnam episode, ”I spent about 10 hours on the phone trying to find a certain kind of flotation vest. This is like putting on a Cecil B. DeMille production every seven days.”
Bakula wouldn’t have it any other way, even though most days stretch up to 14 hours. ”I never get bored,” he says. ”If I do, just wait a week, and I’ll be out riding a horse” — or swinging from a trapeze or, in one instance, taking a flying leap off a blazing skyscraper. Littlefield says Quantum‘s recent ratings triumphs give it a ”good start” toward being renewed for next fall, which would mean that Bakula can continue to prove himself an actor of many hats, pants, tights — and maybe even a sassy little miniskirt or two.