Times Staff Writer

Dennis Quaid listens intently as a visitor reads him an excerpt from Vanity Fair magazine about his latest film, “The Big Easy.”

” . . . female moviegoers will be watching Dennis Quaid make love to Ellen Barkin and they will turn to the man sitting at their side and they will sigh. Deeply. That sigh means ‘Why can’t you be Dennis Quaid--just for a day, a night, an hour?’ ”

The walls of his Hollywood Hills home reverberate with the actor’s booming laughter. He turns loose his impossibly wide Dennis Quaid grin and says, “Well, it beats being compared to Sonny Tufts.”


Most actors love to invoke names of greatness--Gable, Grant or Olivier--when discussing their careers. Instead, Dennis Quaid, 33, prefers to count his blessings at the expense of the hopelessly obscure 1940s actor who inspired the question, “Who is Sonny Tufts?”

Most likely it stems from making 16 films in 12 years and still having fans tell him “you were great in ‘Top Gun,’ ” which starred Tom Cruise.

Or having critics incessantly mention Jack Nicholson when reviewing his movies, as New York Times film critic Vincent Canby did last week on “Big Easy,” writing, “Quaid, who’s acquiring a Jack Nicholson kind of comic self-assurance. . . . “

Quaid: “If I’m gonna get compared to Nicholson, it’s better than being compared to Sonny Tufts, so it’s fine with me.”

Happily, people never confuse Dennis Quaid with his older, physically bigger brother Randy; but together, they’ve been confused with the Carradine brothers, who starred with the Quaids (and the brothers Keach) in “The Long Riders.”

“And there were three of them,” Quaid adds, chuckling. (for the record, there is a third Quaid brother, Buddy, 12.) By the end of 1987, however, moviegoing audiences should have no trouble recognizing Dennis Quaid. “Big Easy” is only one of four starring roles this year for the actor, following on the heels of “Innerspace” and appearing slightly ahead of Peter Yates’ “Suspect” and a remake of the 1949 film noir classic “D.O.A.”

“Big Easy” racked up a healthy per-screen average of $11,039 at 32 theaters over the weekend--a figure suggesting that attendance could be strong when the movie opens nationwide this weekend. “The Big Easy” may indeed be the Big One destined to turn Dennis Quaid from actor to Star.

Walter Hill, who directed him in “Long Riders” isn’t surprised: “I remember the first day I worked with Dennis. I knew he had the intensity, the talent and the physicality to go all the way as a leading man. Now it’s finally happening.”

“Oh, they always say that,” Quaid cheerfully explains. This time, the actor’s not listening.

He learned the hard way that critical acclaim is not enough; movies need audiences as well. “They told me ‘The Right Stuff’ was going to be the hit of the century (he played astronaut Gordon Cooper) and look what happened.”

Using his hand as an airplane, he affects a nosedive and pounds his hand on the kitchen table: “Crash and burn!”

Quaid retrieves the five-fingered wreckage and grins. He’s not bitter in the least: “After being hurt a couple times, after building my hopes up about something, I got to the place where I don’t get worked up about (a movie’s impact on his career). I just try to have fun while I’m doing a movie. It’s about the only control you have over your work.”

Getting to that place seems far more important to Dennis Quaid these days than worrying about becoming a Star.

Quaid’s easygoing candor and roguish charm on screen stay pretty much the same when he’s not acting.

“Let’s talk in the kitchen--I think it’s friendlier, don’t you?” Quaid asked, as he strolled through the airy, rambling, Spanish-style home he’d recently purchased. Wet-haired and barefoot, with shirt tails flapping over jeans, the actor seemed the embodiment of his amiably rumpled, though handsome, surroundings.

His non-acting interests could be easily determined as they lay about the house in comfortable disarray. No less than seven guitars lay around the living room, in addition to a grand piano, amps and a sound board.

A set of golf clubs (he shoots in the mid-80s) and several suitcases rested near the door, evidence of Quaid’s somewhat hectic schedule of late. With one movie after another filming--and now opening--he struggles for “personal time.” Still, he seems to be handling it calmly; steady smoking appears to help.

“Big Easy” director Jim McBride describes Quaid as “one of the most astonishingly cheerful actors I’ve ever worked with.”

Quaid, he said, came up with the film’s title and “with some of the best lines in the movie. (“I have my moments.”) He’s fantastic about research.”

Quaid has researched most of his films thoroughly. He became an expert horseman for “The Long Riders” and got his pilot’s license before “The Right Stuff.” “It’s really the most fun way to work,” he explained. “I get to find out how other people live, I get inside their heads. How many other jobs can offer that?”

For “The Big Easy,” Quaid spent a month in New Orleans, riding night shifts with police detectives.

“All those endless hours of boredom, interrupted by these moments of extreme adrenal rush really give you a newfound respect for what these guys do,” he said.

He’d spend the weekends down in Cajun country, learning the complicated “Yat” (as in “where y’at?”) dialect--a combination of Brooklynese, French and Southern that, when spoken properly, cannot be spelled.

These recent roles required Quaid to stretch, playing opposite such talented co-stars as Ellen Barkin (in “Big Easy”), Cher (“Suspect”) and current companion Meg Ryan (“D.O.A.” and “Innerspace”) and working for respected directors such as Joe Dante, Jim McBride and Peter Yates.

Until three years ago, Quaid’s film projects were chosen for reasons that had little to do with art, he said.

Arriving in Hollywood at 21, he had, within three years, broken into the business, achieved wide acclaim for his work in “Breaking Away,” married actress P.J. Soles and set about building a dream ranch in Montana.

But the log mansion ate money faster than Quaid could make it and he soon found himself working anything that came along out of financial necessity. The memory still hasn’t faded completely and he winces slightly, adding, “It was nuts.”

Quaid said that he “walked” through roles in one film after another--among them, “Our Winning Season,” “All Night Long” and “Tough Enough”.

“I found myself lying awake at night worrying and looking at this house thing as an albatross around my neck,” he recalled.

“Jaws 3-D” proved to be the final straw: “It remains the worst experience of my life. I said to myself, ‘Why am I an actor? What am I doing?’ All the fun and inspiration I’d had when I first started was gone.”

Quaid sold the house, got a divorce (“it was a parallel issue”) and “lost all my money” in the process, he said.

Moving to New York, he returned to acting classes and the stage. During that time, he worked with his older brother Randy in “True West,” Sam Shepard’s dark comedy about a psychotic relationship between two brothers.

The play proved a turning point, both in Quaid’s career and in his relationship with his brother.

“It was great working with someone with whom you’ve had 25 years’ experience, especially in a play like that--about two brothers killing each other,” Dennis explained dryly.

In an interview from Toronto, where he’s filming a movie, Randy, 34, likened the experience to “going to a therapist. The relationship between the two was very close to Dennis’ and mine.”

For Randy, Dennis’ arrival in Hollywood in 1975 was an intrusion. In fact, to his older brother, Dennis had been an intrusion from the moment he was born.

“I’d had it real good as the firstborn,” Randy Quaid recalled,. “When he came along, the little baby role was taken.”

When his brother arrived in Hollywood and started to make it, Randy admitted to a certain anger.

“It was kind of rough. I figured that I’d sorta made a name for myself and Dennis had stepped in and capitalized on that name. He made more money and did more movies. It bothered me.”

It came to a head in New York when, one night, the lines between the play and real life blurred. Recalled Dennis, “There was something in the second show that didn’t work quite right. We came offstage, and got into a kicking, screaming, shouting, hitting brawl that we’d never been in before. I was in a total rage.

“I never wanted to be in a play with him again. I never wanted to see him again in my life. I couldn’t stand him,” Pausing briefly, Dennis grinned, adding “But I needed the hair dryer and it was in his dressing room.”

So the two talked. And talked.

“We talked about why we hated each other and why we loved each other and what we envied and admired about each other. We went out and had the greatest time we’d ever had together.

“That’s how it is with sibling relationships. Your family can get you like nobody else does.”

Dennis’ new house is just 200 yards from his brother’s. It isn’t the first time the two have lived in such close proximity. Randy’s theory: “We shared the same bedroom for 15 years; I understand why he wants to live near me.”

Dennis Quaid says he admires his brother’s power, as well as his humor: “He’s one of the greatest actors around and has been an inspiration. And, as much as he tortured me when we were kids, he’s also one of the funniest people I ever met.”

The elder Quaid is just as complimentary, although he hasn’t always been pleased with Dennis’ choice in parts, especially in “Enemy Mine” (Quaid played a space fighter stranded with the enemy--a lizard creature played by Lou Gossett, Jr.--on a deserted planet).

“I told him it was basically a Robinson Crusoe story that had already been done--plus he’d already been an astronaut. And something like ‘Innerspace’--well, he was still in a cockpit.

“But I would love nothing more than having Dennis have that hit movie that really catapults him over the top.”

Quaid has, by now, moved from the “friendly” kitchen to the comfortable living room and--sprawled on his couch--is considering his options.

“I’d like to do movies in all the genres--I’d like to race cars in a movie, do a a war movie.”

“I don’t want to do any more space hardware movies,” he says adamantly. “Even though ‘Innerspace’ was one of the best atmospheres I’ve had on a set, those movies aren’t about actors, they’re about special effects.”

If the truth be known, Quaid doesn’t want to do any movies for a while. He wants to pursue his second love--music. A rhythm and blues guitarist for 18 years, Quaid has occasionally performed in his films (“The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” and “The Big Easy”).

Grabbing a guitar, he belted out a new song he’s written, “Caught in Your Backfire,” which he plans to record with the Fabulous Thunderbirds next month in Austin.

The hard R&B; song spoke of good lovin’ gone bad, and Quaid’s throaty growl brought to mind the actor’s sometime golf partner Bob Seger.

“I really am serious about this. I want to get a record deal, but I don’t want to do it a la. . . .” he paused. “I’ll say it, like Don Johnson or Bruce Willis. For me it’s not about the celebrity, it’s about the music.”

He’s already in the process of forming a band (“I’ve got a sax player and we’re looking at a lead guitarist this week”) and says it will take a film project that “makes me jump up and hit the ceiling” to get him back on screen before he’s taken care of his musical needs.

Well, before he vanishes altogether, there’s one more question that Vanity Fair’s sighing female moviegoers might want to know. About that love scene--was it just acting or . . . ?

The laughter boomed out once again as he slyly declined to answer the question: “There’s gotta be some mystery in the world--doesn’t there?”