Frankly, we might be less surprised if Dennis Quaid were still zinging through life high on cocaine. Now 10 years into recovery, the actor is, in person, so Zen, so centered, so…viceless, it’s hard to believe this is the same guy experiencing a leading-man renaissance as a passionate, chain-smoking fireman in the time-warping sci-fi weepie Frequency.
Back in the ’80s, journalists encoded encounters with the actor with phrases like ”[he] cannot seem to sit still,” and ”the day, as usual, comes hard to him”—insinuating, of course, that he was either soaring or crashing. But on this particular gray spring afternoon, the 46-year-old actor is Mr. Mellow—even after he accidentally sends the contents of his hotel room’s minibar crashing onto the floor while searching for snacks. ”I can’t see without my glasses, and I can’t find them,” he says of the spectacles hanging on the front of his shirt. ”I usually carry four pairs with me.”
However shortsighted Quaid may be, he’s no longer myopic about his life. He’s also thoroughly unfazed by Hollywood’s he’s-hot, he’s-not rollercoaster—even now that he’s back on top thanks to Frequency, in which he plays a long-dead dad communicating by ham radio with his adult son (Jim Caviezel) 30 years in the future. Quaid’s credits, a melange of respectable pop hits (Innerspace, Suspect, The Big Easy), critically lauded underachievers (Wyatt Earp, Great Balls of Fire!), and genuine embarrassments (Gang Related, Wilder Napalm, Jaws 3-D), lead even Philip Kaufman, who directed Quaid in 1983’s The Right Stuff, to admit ”he’s had a strange career.” But that unevenness has given Quaid an easy-come, easy-go attitude. ”You know, the way I look at it, I can’t really get hooked into it,” he says calmly, chasing down cashews with a hit of Gummi Bears. Then he smiles that creaky, lopsided smile and adds, ”One of the big reasons I wanted to be an actor was I didn’t want to work for a living.”
The younger brother of actor Randy Quaid, Dennis made his way from Bellaire, Tex., to Hollywood in 1974, where he found himself working for a living fairly quickly (his first movie appearance was an uncredited bit part in 1975’s Crazy Mama, directed by Jonathan Demme). It was 1979’s Breaking Away that established him as an actor to watch; eight years later The Big Easy cemented his reputation as a sex symbol who was a pleasure to watch. But then, in 1990, after finishing Postcards From the Edge, Quaid checked into rehab. ”I think it was part of the times,” says Kaufman, ”and the pressures of the world, of being an actor—they just got to him.”
For two years, Quaid dropped from Hollywood’s horizon—just as his wife, Meg Ryan (whom he met while shooting Innerspace), was slinging her way to stardom. ”I really just needed to be still,” Quaid says. While he’s grateful for where that time has led him, ”I’m not going to say I wish I hadn’t gone through [the drug abuse]. In some ways, I had a really good time. There are three phases of drugs: the fun, the fun with problems, and then just the problems.”