Why Dennis Quaid Refuses to Slow Down

Dennis Quaid
Photograph by Kevin Scanlon

Dennis Quaid grew up in Houston and still speaks with a cowboy’s meandering tongue; the words tumble out of his mouth like water circling a drain, confident they’ll eventually find their way.

He’s still built like a quarterback, with the frat boy’s mischievous grin that has served him so well. Since the late ’70s, he’s been one of Hollywood’s most reliable go-to alpha, as convincing roping cattle in Wyatt Earp as he is coaching Syracuse football in The Express. Yet here he is at home on a recent weekday morning, cuddling up to his miniature English bulldog, Peaches, and giving me the tour of his new digs. The dog’s not yet housebroken, so the house is littered with the disposable, absorbent pads dog owners use to train their puppies. “Try to imagine the house without the pee pads,” Quaid says.

Clearly, Quaid’s life these days is less The Big Easy than A Dog’s Purpose, or maybe The Parent Trap. He recently swapped 400 acres in Montana for this 4,000-square-foot white box with a glass atrium in Los Angeles’ Brentwood neighborhood. Most of the furniture hasn’t arrived yet. The living room is empty save for a Christmas tree; the eat-in kitchen has been temporarily outfitted with a picnic table, where a bespectacled 30-ish guy sits, digging into an omelet. I ask if the guy is his assistant, but Quaid corrects me.

“This is Andrew from California Closets,” he says. “If you ever do closets, he’s your dude.”

Quaid smiles and then introduces me to the woman at the stove—his girlfriend, a leggy, 31-year-old model from Latvia who is dressed in a long red shirt and no pants. Her name is Santa and, judging by the expression on Quaid’s face, Christmas has come early.

“What’s this, baby?” he says, taking a bite. “Potato pancakes?”

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Quaid turns 64 this year, which is hard to believe for a bunch of reasons, but mostly because he’s the rare actor who has had at least one hit movie in each of the last five decades. He started his career playing jocks (Breaking Away, Everybody’s All-American) then graduated to coaches (The Rookie, The Express). He was the lothario (The Big Easy, Something to Talk About) who aged into playing put-upon fathers (The Parent Trap, In Good Company). He’s often better than the scripts he’s given, but if the roles have something in common it’s their need for Quaid’s brand of virility—that masculine, good ol’ boy charm which is always in short supply in Hollywood. And he’s still at it. In this month’s movie your mom will definitely love, I Can Only Imagine, he tackles a cliché he’s somehow previously avoided—the emotionally distant dad whose love for his son is only revealed on his deathbed. The film was inspired by (wait for it) a top-selling Christian pop song. Quaid says he read the script and thought, “Yeah, I can make something out of this. That’s why they hire me.”

But a closer look at his post-60 résumé reveals a more interesting through-line. While his contemporaries are getting complacent or playing aging fathers in comic book movies or (gulp) dying off, Quaid has continued to roll the dice, making TV appearances in boundary-pushing comedies like Inside Amy Schumer (as a sexist police chief) and Drunk History (as mobster Lucky Luciano in a particularly absurdist reenactment of Las Vegas crime). He’s bringing his brand of yoked He-Dad to the British series Fortitude (streaming on Amazon), about an Arctic town where an exhumed wooly mammoth releases a deadly parasite into the air. Blame a glut of peak TV for the show’s low profile, but it plays like a Nordic take on Twin Peaks and is about to start shooting its third season near the North Pole.

Fortitude - Dennis Quaid
Quaid stars as an Arctic fisherman in the Amazon series Fortitude. Robert Viglasky/Amazon Prime Video

Why in his fifth decade in show biz would Quaid want to leave Los Angeles, where he plays golf two or three times a week, for a five-month stint in freezing temperatures? You also might wonder why he’s doing carpool runs for his girlfriend’s 5-year-old twin boys—who, judging by the plastic toys everywhere, are also living with him? After all, the guy has a grown son and his own 10-year-old twins from a previous marriage.

Clearly, Quaid has a high tolerance for—maybe even an appetite for—a certain degree of chaos. Which leads me to ask: What’s it like when the whole brood gets together?

“It’s like The Parent Trap on steroids,” 
he says.

If Quaid’s not quite young, he’s still fit as hell, dressed in a short-sleeve golf shirt made from some kind of futuristic fabric apparently designed to show off his yoked biceps, which resemble a pair of tan grapefruits. When I mention he could most certainly kick the shit out of me, he shrugs. “I’m vain,” he says. “I’m very vain. Once it goes, it’s gone.”

We’re chatting in his small home office. The room has its own fireplace and sliding glass doors out to the backyard but the floor space is mostly occupied by a mess of music equipment—cables, mic stands, keyboard, plus his beloved, 1960s-era yellow Telecaster. His band, Dennis Quaid and the Sharks, sometimes rehearses here. He knows what you’re thinking: another Hollywood actor with a vanity project. But the Sharks are legit—members include guitarist Jamie James, who has played with Steppenwolf and Harry Dean Stanton, and Tom Walsh, a veteran session drummer who’s backed Tina Turner. Though the Sharks have been jamming together for 17 years, they’re only just now releasing a debut album, recently recorded with an assist from acclaimed producer T Bone Burnett. “T Bone is one of the first people I met here in L.A. 40 years ago,” Quaid says.

Quaid’s life is like a country music song. His father, an electrician in Houston, always dreamed of being an actor. “He’d walk around the house singing like Dean Martin,” Quaid says. “Bing Crosby was his Elvis.” But the man was practical, too. “His attitude was, ‘You kids really ought to get a real job.’ ” But in 1970 Dennis’ older brother, Randy, ran off to Hollywood; three years later, he was nominated for an Oscar for The Last Detail. Dennis soon followed his brother, scoring a job as Harry Dean Stanton’s assistant on The Missouri Breaks in 1975 and landing his own breakthrough role as an embittered former high school jock in 1979’s Breaking Away, which remains one of the great underdog sports movies of all time.

Dennis Quaid
With girlfriend Santa Auzina, backstage at a California music fest, August 2017 Instagram @santaauzina

What happened next for Quaid was, well, a lot: He married (then divorced) the actress P.J. Soles; got a record deal, lost a record deal; went to rehab for cocaine and stepped away from music for a decade (because it was a trigger). He married Meg Ryan (with whom he has a son, the actor Jack Quaid, who appeared in The Hunger Games), built a cabin in Montana on 400 acres abutting Yellowstone, and then weathered a very public divorce from Ryan. He had twins with his third wife, real estate agent Kimberly Buffington, then enjoyed a Hollywood renaissance thanks to a career-redefining role as a closeted gay man in Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven. Soon he was doing everything from mentoring Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a big-screen take on G.I. Joe to playing Bill Clinton in The Special Relationship, an HBO original about Clinton’s friendship with Tony Blair.

You can almost forget how long and varied Quaid’s career has been because his work isn’t flashy—and because he still looks like he could throw a convincing spiral. Says Kate Bosworth, his co-star in The Art of More, a television series about the high-stakes world of art auctions that Quaid produced for the online TV network Crackle: “We went to dinner in Montreal and we stayed out late and Dennis proceeded to indulge us with the most brilliant and hilarious stories about spending time with Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando and the crazy jokes they used to play on one another,” Bosworth says. “To experience Dennis is to experience a total adventure.”

Yet the one thing that appeared to elude Quaid was contentment. “There was always something I was working toward,” he tells me, as his dog tries to steal the last bite of Quaid’s breakfast. “But happiness is not something you’re going to have after you do this and this and this. It’s happening right now. What is this wonderful feeling of being alive?”

Dennis Quaid
Photograph by Kevin Scanlon

When his son Jack went off to New York University, Quaid and then wife Buffington and their twins moved from Los Angeles to Austin, Texas. Quaid had always wanted to live there, but the move didn’t work out. He missed his friends, his routine, his restaurants. “It felt like retirement,” he says. “You don’t feel relevant. It’s not a good feeling. To tell you the truth, my 50s had been really great—the last stand before you’re the old guy! But three months leading up to 60, I was kind of a wreck.”

That feeling passed, but not without serious upheaval. He split from Buffington and very quickly began squiring Santa Auzina around Montreal, where he was filming The Art of More. The relationship was not without controversy: At the time, Auzina was married to someone else. As RadarOnline breathlessly wondered at the time: “Is Dennis Quaid a homewrecker?” Quaid doesn’t address the timing of their courtship—and I don’t bring it up. But he’s clearly thinking long-term. “Two years ago, it was like, ‘This is it for me with kids,’ but then, I don’t know, along came Santa,” he says, smiling. There’s no question that he is living life with gusto—at home and professionally—almost like he’s trying to right this life’s wrongs in real time, a rare chance at a second act.

“As they go through life, some people get stuck in the era when they were the most successful. l feel like I have more fire in my belly now than I had in my 20s.”

And so, when the U.K.’s Sky TV came calling, offering him a role in Season 2 of a show he never heard of (Fortitude) shooting in frosty temperatures a million miles from home, he watched a bunch of episodes and liked it enough to leap. The part was juicy—he’s a fisherman who refuses to accept his wife’s terminal illness—but it also came at the time he was looking to shake things up. “Iceland is like Hawaii in the Arctic,” he says. “It’s exotic. It’s teeming with life.” He tells me about experiencing the aurora borealis, which can render the sky bloodred. “It’s like the gods are talking to you,” he says, “sending you a message.”

Peaches is asleep at my feet, the 18-pound minibulldog puppy snoring like an adult male. Quaid and I have been talking for almost two hours, but before I leave, he wants to play me some music. His band has been in the studio mastering tracks for its debut, which doesn’t have a title or a record label—not yet anyway. They’d definitely entertain offers. “Come for the movie star and stay for the music,” Quaid says. “We’re going to be the oldest guys to make it in rock & roll.”

Quaid wrote 12 of the songs over the last year and a half. “l feel like I have more fire in my belly now than I had in my 20s,” he says. “As they go through life, some people get stuck in the era when they were the most successful.” You see these guys, he says, who “have the same haircut they’ve had forever and they wear the same clothes and listen to the same music. As time marches on, they start to lose touch. You can become irrelevant.”

To borrow Quaid’s metaphor, the guy’s not afraid to get a new haircut. He recently sold his Montana ranch, and his place in Austin also is on the market. He used to spend four months out of every year in Montana, he tells me, which dwindled to just a couple of weeks a year. “My friends were going, ‘You can’t sell it! It’s such a part of you!’ For what I was paying in upkeep and taxes, I realized I could go to Italy for a month, stay in a villa and be waited on hand and foot. I thought, ‘Why not do that?’ ” He rented a house on Hawaii’s North Shore, near Pipeline, the famous surf break. After that, he took a monthlong cycling tour of Italy.

Quaid cues up a couple of the new songs, one he recorded at Burnett’s house, another at Village Studios, the legendary studio where Fleetwood Mac recorded Tusk. They’re better than I expected. “How does it feel to be on top of the world and have nothing at all?” Quaid croons on “After the Fall,” which has a Tom Petty–meets–The Boss vibe. He’s tapping his foot in time and looking at me, as if he’s seeking approval. Which is insane, I think (he’s movie star!) until I realize it’s not. “The songs are about me,” he says. “But I also try to make them universal.” He’s opened a vein and bled out all over the page. Not to mix metaphors, but suddenly I’m tapping my foot to what’s obviously his heartbeat.

“It’s all jive,” he sings, “I decided, I ain’t gonna buy it. Gonna leave it all behind, gonna take a long drive. And I won’t look back.”

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