Yahoo! TV Q&A: Dennis Quaid takes a gamble on TV in ‘Vegas’: ‘I had been looking for something to do in television’

Suzy Byrne
Fall TV

Dennis Quaid has had a long and successful career in film, tickling the ivories as Jerry Lee Lewis in "Great Balls of Fire!," taking flight as astronaut Gordon Cooper in "The Right Stuff," landing a spot on the major league roster as pro baller Jimmy Morris, and, yes, even playing Lindsay Lohan's dad in "The Parent Trap." Now 58, the Houston native is trying something new: television.

The project Quaid selected -- "Vegas" -- debuts tonight on CBS and tells the story of Sin City in the 1960s -- when cowboy country was taken over by neon, feathers, and mobsters. The actor plays Ralph Lamb, who was the real-life sheriff of Las Vegas, and he takes on the gangsters overrunning his Nevada city. Rounding out the cast on the hour-long drama are some other heavies, including Michael Chiklis, Carrie-Anne Moss, Jason O'Mara, and James Russo. Nicholas Pileggi, who wrote "Casino" (both the book and the screenplay for the Martin Scorsese film), is an executive producer.

Yahoo! TV caught up with Quaid -- who has 4-year-old twins with wife Kimberly Buffington, and a 20-year-old son, Jack, with ex-wife Meg Ryan -- on the eve of his premiere. Describing himself as "a little nervous, but very excited," Quaid talked about his new show.

You've had a long, successful career as a movie star. Why do TV now?

The last couple of years, I had been looking for something to do in television because I really love the direction television has taken over the last few years. The content on TV is really good -- there is great writing, and writers have migrated to television -- and there are a lot of interesting shows that I would rather watch than go to the movies, for the most part. So when "Vegas" came up, it had the pedigree of Nick Pileggi, who created and wrote "Casino" and "Goodfellas"; it had a great group of people surrounding it, so I wanted to be part of it.

Some film actors worry about taking a TV role because you are playing the same character for possibly years. Was that a concern?

Not really. I think it would be great to unfold a character over years -- hopefully several years. I enjoy watching characters evolve in shows like "Breaking Bad" and "Boardwalk Empire" -- not just the characters, but the story unfolding.

Your character, Ralph Lamb, is based on a real-life sheriff. What's it like playing a real person?

Well, I've played a lot of real-life people before -- from Bill Clinton ("The Special Relationship") to Doc Holliday ("Wyatt Earp"), Gordon Cooper ("The Right Stuff"), and Jimmy Morris in "The Rookie." I like playing real-life people, especially the living (laughs). It's actually less work because they can give you their story. It makes it a little bit more interesting for me -- and for the audience, as well. I didn't know about Ralph Lamb when I took this role. Getting to know him was a major impetus in taking it. He is certainly a colorful figure, and he was sheriff of Las Vegas at a time which I think was the most interesting period in Las Vegas.

What kind of feedback has the real Ralph Lamb given you so far?

He's pretty thrilled about it so far. We've met several times. He's been to the set. He's opened up his life to me. We're becoming good friends.

Will the show be a crime-of-the-week type of procedural, or will it place more emphasis on season-long story arcs?

That was one of the things we discussed when I was taking this show -- because I'm not interested in a crime-a-week procedural show. The story we have to tell is about the building of Las Vegas during that time, 1960 through 1978, when it went from basically a cow town to what is just about what we know as Las Vegas today. It's that corporate world, where the mob was drawn out. So during that time, it comes down to basically this: cowboys versus gangsters, the locals versus this invasion of money, and notorious characters who thought they ran Las Vegas.

We bet there are great costumes.

Yeah -- it's all that '60s stuff. The girls actually get the great costumes (laughs). I'm not a gangster, so I'm basically a ranch-wear guy. That's what Ralph was -- he was a fourth-generation rancher. He was a local, going way back. There was this invasion that happened -- along with that came crime -- and the locals didn't like it. Ralph became sheriff to combat all that. And it's not just the traditional hero-type story -- along with power, power corrupts. Being sheriff of Las Vegas at that time was actually the most powerful position in Nevada. Being governor was a step down from that. Being the sheriff of Las Vegas, you controlled liquor licenses -- you know how huge that is for a hotel -- and anything down to a dog license.

You're shooting in Los Angeles…

We're shooting this in L.A. because Las Vegas doesn't look like Las Vegas in 1960 (laughs). What we've done is we've built Freemont St. the way it looks back then -- it's pretty amazing, actually.

What about the real Vegas -- do you ever go?

Oh, yeah. At one point I was going about every three months. I like to go there. There is great entertainment, and I admit that I like to play blackjack. I see shows, hang by the pool, go to the restaurants, which are really nice, and just relax.

From the looks of the pilot, this is a very physical role, with Lamb fighting off guys with just his fists. Did you do your own stunts?

Yeah -- sure I did. I've done so much of that in the movies that I'm pretty well-versed in it. And the horseback riding I've done all my life. It's a natural fit -- even though I'm not a fighter in real life.

How is your family? You have twins, Thomas and Zoe, and your older son, Jack. Everybody excited about the new project? Have they been visiting you on the set?

Yeah! The twins have seen the billboards, which are everywhere [in Los Angeles]. They say, "There's Daddy! There's Daddy!" (laughs) My son Jack is at NYU. He did "Hunger Games," and he has another film that he's getting ready to start -- he's got the lead-- in a couple of months. I'm really proud of him.

Is he calling you for advice?

Advice, yes. Help, no. I offered to help get him an agent to get him started, and he didn't want that. He did it on his own. He was here for the entire summer, but now he's back at college.

The twins must be getting big.

Yeah -- they're going to be 5. They're in preschool. They're working on their small motor skills -- operating a pencil, a crayon. They're just healthy and happy.

"Vegas" premieres tonight at 10 PM on CBS.