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MOVIES : Don’t Let His Looks Fool You : The last few years have been more like the Big Uneasy for Dennis Quaid. But marriage, sobriety and a revived career have restored the killer grin (it’s hidden somewhere behind that Wyatt Earp facade)

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Dennis Quaid looks like microwaved death. The six-foot actor is down to 147 pounds. The tanned, leathery skin around his huge mustache has a gray tinge to it. Strolling around his neighborhood in Brentwood, he looks like a desert rat whose souped-up Monte Carlo has broken down, forcing him to case houses for gas money back to the Mojave.

Some years ago, when Quaid’s pedal-to-the-metal, take-no-prisoners lifestyle was legend even in places like New Orleans where serious partying is undertaken with dedication, this desiccation would have provoked a cry of “Yo, Dennis, you really got to slow it down!”

But that’s all in the past. This is not the Dennis Quaid who four years ago might have been feeling less than pink for a morning interview. Dark rings under his eyes now mean it was his turn the night before to get up with baby son Jack.

This physical transformation is indicative of a dedication to acting and family responsibilities, not to a party. Quaid, now 39, has lost 33 pounds in five months, living on 1,200 calories a day, to play the tubercular Doc Holliday in the upcoming production of Lawrence Kasdan’s “Wyatt Earp.”

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Though Quaid’s wife, actress Meg Ryan, has warned that “you’re going to be shocked when you see him,” that turns out to be an understatement. The Dennis Quaid who couldn’t sit still, who talked in torrents and flashed the famous grin, is not in evidence. Instead, this Quaid measures each step and speaks with a slow drawl. It’s when he describes how in perfecting a Cajun accent for “The Big Easy” he needed to “live with that accent for three weeks before the film started” that the mystery clears. Only part of Dennis Quaid is ambling through Brentwood discussing his role in Steve Kloves’ “Flesh and Bone,” to be released Friday; the other part is Doc Holliday patrolling the streets of Tombstone, Ariz.

“Well, I usually try to leave the work at home,” he says with a laugh, “but sometimes it follows me out the door.”

“Flesh and Bone” tells the story of Arliss Sweeney, a man “so haunted by the past he has to keep moving,” the actor says.

“He fills vending machines for a living because he’s more comfortable with machines than he is with people. This film is about how if you don’t deal with the past, it will haunt you and, eventually, catch up to you.”

Kloves, the writer-director of “The Fabulous Baker Boys” with the Bridges brothers and Michelle Pfeiffer, has fashioned a morality play about the sins of fathers visited on sons and set it amid the vast plains of West Texas.

The story begins when young Arliss is forced to help his father, Roy (James Caan, managing to simultaneously play pure evil and paternal affection), in the brutal robbery of a remote farm. Years later, Arliss’ anonymous movements are shattered when a chance meeting sets in motion a dormant evil and leads to a confrontation among himself, his father and a young woman (Ryan).

Yet, for all the film’s unexpected twists, none is more surprising than Quaid’s contained, brittle performance. Quaid plays Arliss as a man tortured by fear and demons but who hides every evidence behind a stoic Westerner’s mask. This is not a familiar Dennis Quaid. There are no blinding smiles. Quaid’s Arliss is a cipher. He says little and makes no sudden moves, terrified that a single act will mark him indelibly as his father’s son. The actor who just last month was zinged for “Undercover Blues” and “Wilder Napalm” gives one of the most emotional performances of his career.

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It is interesting to consider the parallels between the careers and lives of Quaid and Jeff Bridges: Both followed older brothers into the business, both received raves for early work but followed up with some unremarkable films, neither fit conveniently into the leading-man niche, neither has seemed able to fulfill the prophecies of success and, as middle age approaches, both spend increasing amounts of time on their Montana ranches.

Bridges’ career was revived with his brooding performance in Kloves’ “Fabulous Baker Boys.” Now it may be Quaid’s turn.

“When I worked with them, they were both closing in on 40 and had spent a long time playing boy-men,” Kloves says of Quaid and Bridges. “Dennis is someone who very nearly threw away all he’d achieved. And I think he’s at the point where, as an artist, he’s willing to be naked about it.”

Quaid’s struggles reached a crescendo just when he seemed to be reaching the pinnacle. His performance as a charming but corrupt New Orleans detective in “The Big Easy” (1987) had critics like Newsweek’s David Ansen predicting that stardom “may finally . . . have arrived.”

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His on-screen romance of Ellen Barkin’s schoolmarmish D.A. had one of the decade’s sexiest bits of dialogue when she asked the Cajun cop to stop his seduction. “What would you like me to stop,” he asks, continuing. “That? Or that?”

With its release, Quaid became an actor in demand, a sex symbol, living a life that would have left Errol Flynn breathless. That period also saw the release of “Innerspace,” “Suspect” and “D.O.A.” (with Ryan, his then-girlfriend). He had a band, the Eclectics, and seemed on the brink of landing a record deal. There were a flood of scripts, never-ending requests for interviews--and the parties.

Quaid’s parties in Los Angeles were famous, but as longtime friend John Goodman told Premiere magazine a couple of years ago, the parties in New Orleans during the filming of “The Big Easy” were infamous. “We hit it pretty hard. . . . People would show up at 4 a.m., girls always banging on the windows.”

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After this chaos Quaid threw himself heart and soul into the film biography of Jerry Lee Lewis, “Great Balls of Fire” (1989). He practiced Lewis’ style of piano obsessively. And there were rumors he had buried himself too deeply in Lewis’ dark and self-destructive psyche.

Unlike their collaboration on “The Big Easy,” which bordered on a united front against all comers, Quaid and director Jim McBride did not enjoy a similar experience on “Great Balls of Fire.”

“Dennis has this wonderful quality to immerse himself completely in a role,” McBride says, “but in this case, he threw himself into the soul of a bad guy. He became so caught up in the role that he was unapproachable. I think these problems were also enhanced by the chemicals he was doing.”

Quaid admits that drug and alcohol abuse didn’t help the situation (“First it was fun, then it was with problems and, then, in the end, it was just problems”) but says the pressure of stardom was his worst enemy:

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“I was pretty uncomfortable with the notoriety, the circus. I remember during ‘Great Balls’ one night, there were 300 people outside my trailer rocking it back and forth. . . . I didn’t know how to say no. You have to figure out what’s essential for you and say no to the rest.”

Of course, many sins are forgiven in the face of box-office success, but “Great Balls of Fire” burnt out instantly. Quaid now says he thinks it was the wrong way to handle Lewis’ life.

“Let’s face it, Jerry Lee is a dark man. But the studio wanted summer product, and that’s the way it was written and filmed,” Quaid says. “I don’t blame the studio for wanting summer product, but if you’re a parent, are you going to send your kids off to see ‘Batman’ or a story about a rock ‘n’ roll musician who marries his 13-year-old cousin?”

After “Great Balls,” Quaid turned in a strong performance as an angry labor organizer married to an Nisei World War II internee in Alan Parker’s little-seen “Come See the Paradise,” and a supporting role in “Postcards From the Edge,” both in 1990, but he didn’t act again for another year and a half. During that time, after 21 films, Quaid finally decided it was time to “learn how to live my life again.”

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For starters, he decided the party was over: “I can’t say those times weren’t fun, but it was different in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The drug culture then was about discovering the world and expanding your mind. But then it got old. . . . I just got tired of it all.”

Determined to change, Quaid cleaned up his act and has been sober for three years. During his break, he and Ryan were married; Jack was born last year. Quaid spent a lot of time with his family in Montana becoming a better fly-fisherman and pilot.

“I realize now that it’s a chain in my family,” he says. “My father was alcoholic, and I come from a long line of them. I’m glad now I’ve broken the chain so Jack doesn’t have to grow up with any of that. I learned to be grateful for the things I have. . . . I also learned a little bit about humility.”

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Quaid’s own childhood was spent in the suburbs of Houston, where the worst things that happened to him were poundings from his older brother, Randy. Their parents were divorced when Dennis was a teen-ager. Their mother, Nita, still lives in Houston; their father, Buddy, died several years ago. Dennis and Randy, 42, remain close to their teen-age stepsister and stepbrother by their father’s second marriage.

Dennis did little during those years to suggest he was destined for success. Though he devoured the works of Bertrand Russell, his grades were unremarkable.

“I went out for the football team ‘cause, you know, in Texas that’s a pretty big deal,” Quaid says. “I weighed what I do now. The coaches took one look and said, ‘Sorry, son.’ ”

Lured by a drama department with an air conditioner (“also a pretty big deal in Texas”), Quaid decided to try a few classes.

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“My brother and I get this from our father, who was a frustrated actor,” he says.

“He used to tap-dance all over the house and do his Bing Crosby impersonation. My great-grandfather was a traveling medicine man, and my third cousin is Gene Autry--though I’ve never gotten any Angel tickets out of it,” he says, referring to the cowboy star turned baseball franchise owner.

At the University of Houston, Quaid caught up on his beauty rest in most of his classes but came to life in drama.

“It was a great time because it was fine to fall on your face,” he recalls. “I remember practicing for weeks on a scene from ‘The Dumbwaiter.’ I thought we were great. When we finished, our teacher said, ‘Of course, you know you’ve failed miserably.’ And he was right--but that’s how you learn.”

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Skipping out in his junior year, Quaid landed on Randy’s doorstep in Hollywood and proceeded to be turned down by every agent and casting director in town. Says Randy: “I even took him to my ex-agent, and they passed.”

Only marginally discouraged, Dennis joined his brother on the set of “The Missouri Breaks” in Montana.

“It was an experience watching these actors like Jack Nicholson and Brando,” Quaid says. “I stayed up there the entire summer being Harry Dean Stanton’s assistant--sort of.”

Back in Hollywood, it took only nine months for Quaid to land his first role, in the late James Bridges’ autobiographical “9/30/55,” which came out in 1977.

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“Jim made you feel that what you were doing as an actor on that set was truly worthwhile. . . . I was under the mistaken impression all movies were going to be like that,” Quaid says. “It wasn’t until ‘Breaking Away’ that I felt it again.”

When casting that 1979 film, director Peter Yates found in Quaid “an irresistible personality and energy.”

“I was struck immediately that this was a young man who was going to be a big star,” Yates says.

There were other, dues-paying roles for Quaid during his first decade in Hollywood, like “The Long Riders” (with his brother), “Tough Enough,” “Caveman” and “All Night Long” (with Barbra Streisand). In 1983, however, Quaid reached his first crisis stage. His marriage to actress P. J. Soles had broken up, and he “just lost sight of why I wanted to act--I was taking roles for the wrong reasons.”

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The last straw came when he was offered a leading role in the revamped TV series “The Dukes of Hazzard.”

“I was completely broke and facing this huge debt from this house I was trying to build in Montana,” Quaid says. “They were going to pay me $10,000 an episode. Luckily, Peter (Yates) helped me come to my senses.” And he recalls one other reason: “It was a few years after Freddie Prinze died, and I had a bad feeling that if I did it, something in me would die.”

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He took Yates’ advice and moved to New York in 1984 to perform Off Broadway in Sam Shepard’s “True West,” once again teaming with his older brother.

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“Sam Shepard writes really well about the relationship of these two brothers,” Randy says. “So during the play, I enhanced the dynamic by whispering stage directions or how bad (Dennis) was doing during a big speech--things I knew would drive him crazy. Finally, one night he came into my dressing room and punched a hole in the wall. Then the screaming and shouting started. The producer later told us that the audience, who were filing out, thought the play was still going. It was like therapy; we worked through a lot and came out closer.”

It was also during this sojourn in New York that Dennis first glimpsed his future wife.

“We lived about a block from each other on the Upper West Side, but we didn’t know each other,” he says. “One Sunday morning I was walking downtown to do a matinee when I see Meg in a blue sweater walking up the street swinging her arms. There was something about her that I couldn’t forget.”

Around the same time, Ryan recalls, a friend dragged her to see “The Right Stuff.” “I remember thinking this actor was a real guy guy,” she says.

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When they worked together on 1987’s “Innerspace,” Quaid kept his interest quiet: “We were both involved with people at the time, so nothing was going to happen.”

Says Ryan wryly: “He was miniaturized in a pod most of the movie, so there was not much interaction.”

That changed on “D.O.A.,” where student Ryan found herself Krazy-Glued to dying professor Quaid. They were both now single. Quaid was interested; Ryan felt like she was about to drive the wrong way up a one-way street.

“He wasn’t what I was expecting in life--you know, this wild guy from Texas,” she says. “I kept thinking to myself, ‘No, not him, please, not him.’ ”

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After “D.O.A.” wrapped, the couple went off to Bora Bora. “And that,” the actress states emphatically, “was that.

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Quaid once again found himself under pressure to produce a hit. It seemed that for every good role he landed, there were at least a couple of duds--the space thriller “Enemy Mine,” “Innerspace” and “Jaws 3-D"--haunting him.

Yates then hired him to play opposite Cher in 1987’s “Suspect” and was impressed by the growth he saw.

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“I think I can safely say I put Dennis in his first dinner jacket,” Yates jokes. “The actor who came to me for ‘Suspect’ had matured. The same aura and personality were there, but now they were balanced by a stillness and depth.”

“Suspect” hinted at a more controlled side of Quaid, but it didn’t burn up the box office either. Nor did later efforts like 1988’s “Everybody’s All-American.”

There may even be those now, with the memories of “Wilder Napalm” and “Undercover Blues” still fresh, who take Quaid’s resurrection in “Flesh and Bone” with a grain of salt.

The actor, however, sees nothing wrong with his choices: “Some movies like ‘Innerspace’ you do as a lark. But mostly I choose movies because they interest and challenge me. ‘Wilder Napalm’ was a great script; it just didn’t work. ‘Undercover Blues’ was my first try at broad comedy.”

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Says Steve Kloves: “The Cheshire cat grin was disguising a really talented actor. When we were thinking about actors for Arliss, I remember this moment in ‘Breaking Away’ in which his character (a local tough and ex-high school quarterback) is watching the college team practice. He says, ‘Every year it’s gonna be a new one of them, and every year it’s not going to be me.’ You got the feeling he really knew about that kind of sadness and loss.”

“In good film acting, less is more,” Ryan says, “and Dennis has that kind of weight and spareness.”

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Next to his personal life and Montana (“If you mention Montana, could you say it’s nine months of winter and three months of guests? It’s crowded up there”), the acting process is one of Quaid’s least favorite topics. Nonetheless, his investigation of his characters’ lives goes beyond the usual back story. For 1983’s “Tough Enough,” he learned to box, for “The Right Stuff” he spent time with the real Gordon Cooper and learned to fly, and for “Everybody’s All-American” he gained 40 pounds for his role as football hero.

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“Something physical often leads me to the inside of a character,” Quaid says. “In ‘Flesh and Bone,’ I watched the dailies of the little boy (Jerry Swindall) who plays the young Arliss. That kid was so good. He had this dead look in his eyes after the murders, like something in him had died as well. So I worked to have the same dead eyes as that kid.”

Which brings us back to the subject of Quaid’s frightening current emaciation.

“Doc Holliday was an intelligent, educated Southerner from Georgia who was told when he was about to graduate from dental school in Baltimore that he had tuberculosis and only six months to live,” Quaid says. “So he went out west and lived another 14 years. But he never knew if he was going to live from day to day. As a result, he was extremely dangerous in a shootout--he had little fear of death.”

“Wyatt Earp” was written and is being directed by Lawrence Kasdan and stars as Earp its producer, Kevin Costner.

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“In the ’50, there were Westerns with family values,” Quaid says. “The ‘60s had the antihero, and in the ‘70s, Westerns were set in space. ‘Wyatt Earp’ is pretty much from the Earp point of view, and a lot of effort has been made to tell the story truthfully. Still, that shootout is so cloaked in myth and legend, who knows the real truth?”

Once Holliday is laid to rest, will the public ever again see a Quaid they can recognize?

“I don’t know about that, but ‘Wyatt’ wraps the day before Thanksgiving,” Quaid says, laughing and patting the cavity where his belly used to be, his eyes watering at the thought of turkey and stuffing.

The grin, the infamous grin, pushes up the lip broom. “And after that, watch out.”

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