Dennis Quaid‘s career started over 40 years ago and was perhaps spurred by the success of his older brother Randy Quaid, who had left their Texas home and became an Oscar-nominated actor (“The Last Detail” in 1973).
He dropped out of the University of Houston and moved to Los Angeles to also pursue a professional acting career. After a brief period of struggle, he started gaining small roles in films like “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden” about a young girl’s battle with mental illness and “September 30, 1955” about the effects on a small-town boy when he finds out about the death of James Dean.
Quaid also found work in a number of television movies and then gained huge attention as one of the four leads of the film “Breaking Away,” which would become a sleeper hit and surprise heavy contender at that year’s Oscars. He has worked steadily ever since including appearances with his brother in the film “The Long Riders” and onstage off-Broadway in the play “True West.” Quaid’s first marriage was to one of his “Breaking Away” co-stars P.J. Soles (probably based known to film fans as the girl in Brian De Palma’s “Carrie” who always wears the baseball hat.) His second marriage was to Meg Ryan, with whom he would star in the films “Innerspace,” “D.O.A.” and “Flesh and Bone.”
Despite his steady film work Quaid has only had limited success on the awards front. He seemed destined for an Oscar nomination for 2002’s “Far from Heaven” but that didn’t materialize. He did earn a Golden Globe nom for the film and also earned Emmy and Golden Globe nominations for the TV movie “That Special Relationship” in which he played Bill Clinton.
Take a photo gallery tour of his 15 greatest film performances, ranked from worst to best. In addition to the movies mentioned above, we also include “The Big Easy,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “The Right Stuff,” “Enemy Mine” and more.
15. TRAFFIC (2000)
Director: Stephen Soderbergh. Writer: Stephen Gaghan. Starring Benicio Del Toro, Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones.
“Traffic” was nominated for five Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Editing and Supporting Actor for Benicio Del Torro. It won all those awards except Best Picture. The film tells a few different stories all focusing on how the drug wars affect different segments of society. Quaid plays an associate of Catherine Zeta-Jones’ husband who informs her of what her drug smuggling husband really does for a living.
14. THE ROOKIE (2002)
Director: John Lee Hancock. Writer: Mike Rich. Starring Rachel Griffiths, Brian Cox, Jay Hernandez.
“The Rookie” was a sleeper hit for Quaid in 2002. He plays a high school physics teacher and baseball coach who promises his team if they win their district championship Quaid will try out for the major leagues. Quaid has a 98 miles per hour fastball which actually gets interest from the major leagues despite Quaid being 48 years old. The theme of a person getting a second chance to achieve the dream they didn’t pursue when younger apparently registered with a lot of audience members.
13. FREQUENCY (2000)
Director: Gregory Hoblit. Writer: Toby Emmerich. Starring Jim Caviezel, Andre Braugher, Noah Emmerich.
“Frequency” is an inventive science fiction drama in which an adult son manages to contact his late father via radio in the past through a time warp. The fire fighter father had died on the job when the boy was six years old. Now the adult son must deal with warning his father of his impending death and also how that warning will alter all of the people involved futures.
12. ENEMY MINE (1985)
Director: Wolfgang Petersen. Writer: Edward Khmara. Starring Louis Gossett Jr., Carolyn McCormick, Lance Kerwin.
“Enemy Mine” was a box office flop in the winter of 1985 but the film deserves a second look. Directed by Wolfgang Petersen of “Das Boot” fame the film is set at the end of the 21st century where earth is at war with a planet inhabited by Dracs which are reptile like creatures. Quaid plays a gung-ho pilot who hates the Dracs but finds himself alone with one of them when they both crash land on a deserted planet. The two grow to respect each other and form a friendship.
11. GREAT BALLS OF FIRE (1989)
Director: Jim McBride. Writers: Jack Baran, Jim McBride. Starring Winona Ryder, Alec Baldwin, Lisa Blount.
Quaid got accused of overacting a bit in this biopic of the antic singer Jerry Lee Lewis. Lewis was known for his hit songs including the title track from this film as well as “Breathless.” He caused great controversy when he fell in love and married his 13-year-old cousin played here by a young Winona Ryder.
10. THE PARENT TRAP (1998)
Director: Nancy Meyers. Writer: David Swift, Nancy Meyers, Charles Shyer. Starring Lindsay Lohan, Natasha Richardson, Lisa Ann Walter.
The original 1961 version of “The Parent Trap” was one of Disney’s most acclaimed and popular films. It starred Hayley Miles in a dual role as twins separated at birth who meet at summer camp. The two realize that their parents had divorced and each took custody of one of the twins. Lindsay Lohan has the dual role in this updated version that casts Quaid as the father of the girls.
9. THE LONG RIDERS (1980)
Director: Walter Hill. Writers: Bill Bryden, Steven Smith, Stacy Keach, James Keach. Starring David Carradine, Keith Carradine, Randy Quaid.
The life and crimes of Jesse James and his gang have been a frequent topic for movies. The unique aspect of this film was it cast three sets of real brothers in the roles of the film’s brothers. Quaid appeared with his brother Randy with the Carradine (David, Keith, and Robert) and Keach brothers (Stacey and James) also along for the ride.
8. D.O.A. (1988)
Director: Annabel Jankel, Rocky Morton. Writer: Charles Edward Pogue. Starring Meg Ryan, Charlotte Rampling, Daniel Stern.
Is an effective thriller about a college professor trying to solve his own murder. He awakes from a disorienting night feeling awful. He goes to a hospital where he is told he has been poisoned and only has 36 hours to live. Quaid then goes about trying to figure out who could have poisoned him this way.
7. SUSPECT (1987)
Director: Peter Yates. Writer: Eric Roth. Starring Cher, Liam Neeson, John Mahoney.
Cher has stated that it was this courtroom drama that she thought might land her in Oscar circles as opposed to the comedy “Moonstruck” which was released the same year and ended up a major player at that year’s Oscar ceremony winning her the Best Actress trophy. This film centers on a lawyer (Cher) defending a mute homeless man of murder. Quaid plays a member of the jury who helps the lawyer expose the corrupt judge presiding over the case.
6. FLESH AND BONE (1993)
Director and writer: Steve Kloves. Starring Meg Ryan, James Caan, Gwyneth Paltrow.
This intricate thriller casts then husband and wife Quaid and Meg Ryan as two people haunted by a murder that happened when they were both children. The film received a fair amount of acclaim but did not equal director Steve Kloves previous level of acclaim for “The Fabulous Baker Boys.” The film is notable for being one of Gwyneth Paltrow’s first acclaimed film roles and one that earned her a National Society of Film Critics Nomination as Best Supporting Actress.
5. POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE (1990)
Director: Mike Nichols. Writer: Carrie Fisher. Starring Meryl Streep, Shirley MacLaine, Richard Dreyfuss.
This adaptation of Carrie Fisher’s autobiographical novel about her relationship with her mother, Debbie Reynolds and her near death from a drug overdose earned Streep her first Oscar nomination in a comic role. Quaid plays a somewhat sleazy film producer who drops in and out of Fisher’s life starting with being the person who drove her to the emergency room after her overdose but refuses to leave his name or stay with her. Quaid is quite affective is the amoral cad who makes the Fisher based character’s life a bit miserable.
4. BREAKING AWAY (1979)
Director: Peter Yates. Writer: Steve Tesich. Starring Dennis Christopher, Barbara Barrie, Paul Dooley.
This beloved film opened quietly in the summer of 1979 but managed to build in word of mouth and ultimately receive five Oscar nominations including Best Picture. It won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. The film tells the story of a group of local friends who live in a university town and are looked down upon by the affluent university students. The film culminates in a bicycle race with the Quaid and his friends challenging the much more accomplished college students.
3. THE RIGHT STUFF (1983)
Director and writer: Phillip Kaufman. Starring Sam Shepard, Ed Harris, Fred Ward.
This highly acclaimed film was at the top of many critic’s top 10 best picture lists in 1983 but its disappointing performance at the box office hampered its Oscar chances where it lost Best Picture to the popular “Terms of Endearment.” The film still managed eight Oscar nominations and won four awards in the technical categories. The film tells the story of the origins of the US Space Program and the original Mercury 7 astronauts. Quaid is quite good and funny as Gordon Cooper one of the louder and more boisterous group of astronauts.
2. FAR FROM HEAVEN (2002)
Director and writer: Todd Haynes. Starring Julianne Moore, Dennis Haysbert, Patricia Clarkson.
Quaid won the Independent Spirit Award, New York Film Critics Circle and received SAG and Golden Globe nominations all as Best Supporting Actor for this film but was bizarrely left out of the Oscar nominations. Quaid plays the husband of Julianne Moore whom she discovers is gay. The film is stylishly made by Todd Haynes in an homage to the lavish “women’s pictures” made by Douglas Sirk. Moore received a Best Actress nomination for this film the same year as she received a Supporting Actress nomination for “The Hours.”
1. THE BIG EASY (1986)
Director: Jim McBride. Writer: Daniel Petrie Jr. Starring Ellen Barkin, Ned Beatty, John Goodman.
Quaid is wonderful in this film set in New Orleans. He plays a cocky police detective who meets his match both professionally and romantically in a by the books district attorney played by Ellen Barkin. Variety praised the performance saying: “Quaid’s character is always ‘on’, always performing for effect, during most of the action, and the actor’s natural charm easily counterbalances the character’s overbearing tendencies.” It is a highly effective brash and funny performance that is the center of this noir thriller.