Losing 40 pounds for Wyatt Earp affected Dennis Quaid long after filming ended

Dennis Quaid spent the entirety of the 1980s on the cusp of movie stardom. He appeared as a cocky lout from Indiana in Peter Yates’ 1979 drama “Breaking Away,” starting a flirtation that transitioned from Mercury Seven astronaut Gordon Cooper in “The Right Stuff” to dirty New Orleans cop Remy McSwain in “The Big Easy” to The Murderer Himself, Jerry Lee Lewis, in “Great Balls of Fire.” Hollywood thought it knew what to do with Dennis Quaid, but the troubled Texan armed with a million-dollar smile had other ideas.

Quaid was cut from the same restless pattern as Jeff Bridges. He is a movie star with an acting temperament. He could show up on set, hit the mark, flash that come-and-take smile and cash an eight-figure check, but in the prime of his career he sought out areas of audience-hostile discomfort through characters decidedly little heroic He’s appropriately pathetic as a college football god reduced to painfully human mediocrity in “Everybody’s All-American” and despicable as a drug-distributing producer in “Postcards from the Edge.” While a bona fide morning star like Harrison Ford aggressively played against type as the terrifying Allie Fox in “Mosquito Coast,” Quaid used his charm as a weapon. He challenged us not to like it.

It was a neat trick, but we eventually figured it out. So he threw another curveball at us and became a full method actor, dropping 40 pounds and completely disappearing as Doc Holliday in Lawrence Kasdan’s “Wyatt Earp.”

A figurative and dangerously literal disappearing act

When Lawrence Kasdan found himself in a footrace on release date with “Tombstone,” Touchstone’s star-studded Wyatt Earp crowd-pleaser, he fell behind, finishing his three-hour epic on his own time. Warner Bros. relied on the four-time Academy Award-nominated filmmaker of “The Big Chill” and “The Accidental Tourist” to deliver superior insight into the life of the Wild West lawmaker. Kasdan’s film’s secret weapon was Dennis Quaid, whose physical commitment to the role of Holliday smacked of Robert De Niro playing Jake LaMotta. He came at a horrible price.

As Quaid told The Scotsman in 2017:

“It affects your self-image. I lost (42lbs) to ‘Wyatt Earp’ and always thought I hadn’t done enough. But I look at the pictures and you could see my skull. I did it because Doc Holliday I was a skinny little kid, had tuberculosis and wanted to get as close to him as possible. But you get into a way of eating and you’re counting your calories and that puts you in a mindset. About two years to really clear my head and get the weight back.”

A masterful performance embedded in a confusing epic

Though the studio landed the sweeping, Oscar-friendly version of Earp’s story they paid for (to the tune of $63 million), the refreshingly unpretentious “Tombstone” proved to be a hit with audiences, largely partly due to Val Kilmer’s enormously sympathetic interpretation of Holiday. It had been nearly 50 years since Victor Mature gave us the defining version of the dentist-turned-gunslinger in John Ford’s “My Darling Clementine,” and Kilmer, who had struck out on his own as a movie star after “The Doors,” , reminded us why we loved him. The dialogue wasn’t elegant, but the delivery of it (particularly on “I’m your Huckleberry”) nailed Holliday for a new generation.

Although Lawrence Kasdan stymied his cast by deciding to make an epic Western without having anything of interest to say, Dennis Quad wrote his own history with his performance, and his Holliday is much more than a compendium of coughs and jokes. It’s the soulful counterpart to Kilmer’s entertaining twist. Quaid’s Doc is a self-destructive enigma strangely determined to do something significant in this world before tuberculosis does what no outlaw ever could. He’s dying on his own terms, and we’re happy to tag along as he completes his puzzling journey. It’s Quaid’s finest hour as an actor, and of course, he shined in a movie almost no one has seen.

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