Saturday Night’s Children: Randy Quaid (1985-1986)

Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 37 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member each week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.

Most of Randy Quaid’s onscreen roles have built upon his knack for playing beefy, bumbling hillbillies and cowboy types, but his over 70 film and TV credits came to a pause in 2010, when one unattended court appearance transformed him from a respected Oscar-nominated actor to a paranoid and homeless border-crossing fugitive. Quaid’s latest legal pickle – being denied permanent residence in Canada where he fled since he’s a wanted man in the states – is one of many news updates over the past several years that paint he and wife Evi as a crazy on-the-run couple who own no cell phones and live primarily out of their car for fear they’ll be tracked by the “Hollywood star whackers,” who they claim are also responsible for the deaths of Heath Ledger and David Carradine. Whether you believe Quaid’s allegations or dismiss him as a whack job actor overly consumed by Hollywood politics, he’s spent the majority of his life working steadily in films, TV movies, and stage productions, including an oft-forgotten year on SNL from 1985-1986.

Quaid came by his talent for playing southerner types naturally, growing up in Houston, Texas in the 1950s. It was at the University of Houston’s drama program where he was first discovered by filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich, who gave 18-year-old Quaid an uncredited role in his 1968 film Targets; Quaid subsequently appeared in more Bogdanovich films, most memorbily as a dopey rich flask-nipper in The Last Picture Show (1971), but also What’s Up, Doc? (1972), and Paper Moon (1973). After gaining momentum with a string of small parts, Quaid scored his first leading role opposite Otis Young and Jack Nicholson in Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail in 1973, which earned Quaid an Oscar nom for Best Supporting Actor.

By the time Quaid was hired for Lorne Michaels’s return SNL season in 1985, he had already racked up 20 more film and TV movie credits including Breakout, The Missouri Breaks, Midnight Express, and National Lampoon’s Vacation and had performed in New York stage productions of Sam Shepard’s True West and H. Leivick’s The Golem. Despite his established fame and distinction as the first SNL cast member to be previously nominated for an Oscar, Quaid was just one of a strangely chosen 11th season cast including a young Robert Downey Jr. and Joan Cusack, Anthony Michael Hall (his nephew from the Lampoon film), Nora Dunn, Jon Lovitz, and Dennis Miller. The cast failed to mesh and connect with audiences, and like most of the season’s cast, Quaid would not be asked the following year.

Still, Quaid’s Texan exuberance shone through in spots during the season, and at 35 he was the go-to choice to play fatherly and managerial characters opposite his much younger cast mates. He only had two recurring characters – the Floating Head from “The Limits of The Imagination” sketches and Rudy Randolph Jr., a flashy cowboy salesman/local commercial star. Quaid also impersonated Ed McMahon, Ronald Reagan, JFK, Gregory Peck, Roy Orbison, Bob “Caligula” Guccione, and MLB pitcher Joaquin Andujar.

Only Lovitz, Dunn, Miller, and featured player A. Whitney Brown would be asked to return to SNL the following season, but Quaid picked up right where he left off with steady onscreen work, starting with the eponymous role in the 1987 LBJ: The Early Years and following with a long list of TV roles (HBO’s Dead Solid Perfect, ABC’s Davis Rules, USA’s Streets of Laredo) and films ranging from comedies (Caddyshack II, three Vacation sequels, Kingpin) to dramas (Days of Thunder, Black Cadillac, Brokeback Mountain) to sci-fi (Martians Go Home, Independence Day).

Quaid’s life began to take a downturn when he felt cheated by the producers of Brokeback Mountain, in which he had a small roy as the boys’ boss. He sued Focus Features in 2005, claiming that the production company misrepresented the project as “a low-budget art house film.” Quaid later claimed the issue was resolved with an out-of-court settlement (a claim Focus Features denied), but troubles continued when he was booted out of the Actor’s Equity Association in 2008 following charges of verbal and physical abuse and “oddball” behavior during a stage production in Seattle that caused the show to end before its run on Broadway.

Since then, the legal news items for Quaid have only multiplied – he and his wife were charged in 2009 for failing to pay a $10,000 hotel bill and later fled to Canada to avoid their arrest. As of last month, Quaid’s request to gain permanent residency status in Canada has been denied; he is in the process of appealing his request to the federal court. “The refugee claims should remain intact as should Evi and Randy Quaid’s heads remain attached to their necks,” the Quaids said in a joint statement in January following the decision, “and it is their firm belief that their lives are at stake and being racketeered on.” Here’s hoping that Randy and Evi Quaid can continue to avert the danger of the Hollywood star whackers into the unforeseeable future.

Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.

Saturday Night’s Children: Randy Quaid (1985-1986)