I started watching Quantum Leap last summer, mostly on a whim. I only knew a little about the premise — Dr. Sam Beckett, played by Scott Bakula, leaps through time and space by briefly inhabiting the body of someone else and fixing something about their lives — and didn’t really know what to expect. I figured there’d be a high cheese factor, and maybe some of that low-budget sci-fi optimism that asks everyone watching to pretend a stack of cardboard boxes is actually an evil robot. It seemed like a recipe for message-of-the-week silliness.
But I was immediately struck by how sincere it felt. Watching Sam leap into new experiences over and over, repeatedly confronting his own preconceptions, battling against the biases of his privilege, trying to measure his inclinations against how he needed to behave to keep his hosts safe? It felt radical. It felt cathartic. I had no idea how much I’d wanted to watch a show like that, where the fundamental premise was simply this: An attractive, thoughtful white guy must repeatedly experience the world in a different way.
Over the course of Quantum Leap’s five seasons, Sam Beckett lives dozens of lives. He leaps into the life of a black chauffeur in the South, a rock star in a glam band, a trapeze artist, a beauty queen, a pregnant woman, a man with Down syndrome, a woman who’s been raped, a blind pianist, a man undergoing electroshock therapy, a man suspected of being gay in the military. And although the show has missteps and moments that do make it a product of its time — especially relating to cultural appropriation and the unrelenting horniness of Sam’s best friend Al — the underlying humanity is still what dominates Quantum Leap.
Earlier this week, I talked with Bakula about the show’s 30th anniversary, his favorite episodes, why he pushed so hard for it to dig into social issues, and what he imagines happened to Sam Beckett all these years later.
Looking back on the show, which episodes are you most fond of? Which kinds of leaps did you enjoy doing the most?
Well, we did a lot of musical stuff. That was a lot of fun. We tackled a lot of social issues, so that was always good. But the show really revolved around the relationship between me and Dean [Stockwell, who played Al], and literally the simple concept of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and living their life for a while, seeing how their life would affect you and vice versa.
I had favorite episodes that I loved. “The Leap Home” was a good one, when I leaped back into my own life at 16 and was dealing with my father being sick — knowing when he was going to die, what he was going to die of, thinking about what you would do in that situation. Singing “Imagine” on the porch to his little sister. That was a really sweet episode, and very poignant.
That was followed by going to Vietnam in an episode trying to save his brother. We did so many interesting episodes and we kept finding ways to branch out. Any time I was in a woman’s body, that was always fun for everybody. Not always fun for me, because of the clothing!
I don’t think anybody really knew what the show was going to be until we got into it. Because they hired me and I’d done a lot of different things in terms of music and sports, I gave them other avenues to chase because I had some kind of skill or proclivity for those areas. So the show kept opening up. It was a wild ride!
It was terribly difficult to make. We didn’t have any standing sets, any place we could go and flip the lights on. Everything had to be created new and unique to each episode, so it was these little mini period movies, around 53 minutes long back in that day. Everybody worked their tails off, but that also gave us a bonded group. And Don [Bellisario, the creator and showrunner] made everybody be on their game. He insisted that the license plates were the right license plates for the right period of time, and the pants were the right length and the shoes were the right kind. He was a stickler for all that stuff. So when you look at it in hindsight, it’s not sloppy. Every episode is true and consistent.
I’d never seen the show before last summer when I happened to start watching it, and I was expecting there to be more of a goofiness. But I was so struck by how empathetic it felt.
That’s kind of how I try to approach my work in general. I just ran with what felt truthful and what felt honest about each situation. We’d get to the end of the episode where I’m in the life of a young gay man in the military, and the last line is me turning to Dean as he says, “But was he gay or not?” and I say, “Does it matter?” and I leap out in that moment. Those kinds of things were wonderful to try and get right. When you leap into a woman’s body after she’s been raped, and you’re dealing with that whole anger and frustration that Sam and Al were feeling, it wasn’t funny, you know?
There was a certain responsibility to the show that Don never really wanted. His big mantra was, “We’re making entertainment. Our job is to entertain. If somebody picked something up that they wanted to pull out of an episode, that’s up to them. But we’re putting on an entertaining hour of television. That’s our goal.” And then, as the years opened up, all of a sudden we’re doing [an episode about] Lee Harvey Oswald because [Don] is pissed off about Oliver Stone’s movie, and saying that there was no conspiracy. So that was his answer to Stone’s movie. He had an ax to grind.
Had we gone a few more years, we might’ve gotten a little bit wackier. We were talking about an animated episode, we were talking about Sam as a baby and trying to figure out how to shoot those kinds of things. But gosh, we had a lot of fun with the 97 that we made.
I’d read that you and Dean Stockwell pushed Don Bellisario to do more social issues, and it was something he resisted because he was so focused on the show as entertainment. Why was it important to you to push for that?
Initially that came from Dean. He was much more of an activist at the time than I was, and he introduced me to a lot of the things he and his wife had been championing. I’d been in New York for 10, 11 years and I was wrapped up in my theater life and traveling and touring. Dean, coming out of the ‘60s, had a lot of social issues that were front and center to him — quite prominently the environment and the ozone layer, which was a big deal at that time.
So Dean was always looking for an opportunity. We did an episode on Queen Elizabeth II [the cruise ship, not the person]. It was back in the ’50s, and they just opened up the back of the ships and they dumped the trash in the sea. In that episode, I ended up in the trash container. They were getting ready to kill me by turning on the trash compactor, and then I would’ve been pushed out to sea. So whenever Dean would see something like that, he’d find a way to go to Don and say, “Can we just talk about dumping all this trash into the sea?” He’d find a way inside the story to make a little social commentary.
We just got in the habit of looking for it. If I’m in the secretary’s world in the ’60s and she’s being sexually harassed at work — while that’s funny because Sam’s running around in heels — it was serious. Sam wanting to clock the guy on the couch for trying to make a pass at him is funny, but underneath it, there are all of these issues. Certainly there are ways to relate to those episodes that were subtle. It wasn’t like we were doing a Law & Order: SVU episode. But there was a whimsy to the show, and there were definitely underlying elements to the show that lurked in the nostalgia.
As Sam leapt into these other people’s lives, bits of their personalities would emerge in his character. How did that become part of the show?
It’s almost impossible to talk about it, because it was really something I just came up with midway through the run. I didn’t even tell Don about it for a long time. When you’re in a series for a long time, you’re looking for ways to find everything that’s available to you in the character that you’re playing, to keep yourself interested and keep it interesting for the audience. It just made sense to me.
It led to the “Shock Theater” episode, where I was in the insane asylum and I was having literally that effect, these fragments of lives that I’d been associated with over the course of time. It was almost more of a metaphorical physicality, assuming metabolically your molecules are getting mixed up. [Laughs]. Simply put, if we’re at all present and at all open, we are affected by everybody that we come into contact with in our journey on this planet. An accumulation of those experiences define who we are.
If indeed we lived this way, of walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, the planet would be a different place. We could see all sides of the spectrum of life, all different religions and races, all of these things we’re not usually forced to do. And many people don’t ever do that. So if, in the run of the show, we could get somebody to say, “Well, I never thought about it that way …”
You know, I never dreamed this little show could have the kind of legs that it has, in terms of affecting people. It was fascinating to work on. It never got boring — and not just because one week I was hanging upside down on a trapeze and the next week I was a chimpanzee.
Even now, it feels sort of mind-boggling to watch a show where the central premise is “a handsome white dude learns what it feels like to be other people.” It feels like a particularly relevant concept right now.
We are sadly moving at a snail’s pace in terms of making adjustments where we don’t have to watch a farm boy from the Midwest have his eyes opened every week. I’d like to think, but the reality doesn’t back it up, that we’re moving on, that we’re moving faster, that we’re speeding toward a different kind of world. But certainly in the world that we’re living in right now, it seems like we’re paddling back against the current to try to hold onto something that’s not worth holding on to. But I know exactly what you’re talking about. Today, you say, Would they even let that character on the show be a white guy, if they re-created the show today? Not that he would need to be, which is the beauty of the show.
If a reboot ever happened, how do you think it would get cast? I sort of wish it could still be led by a relatively privileged person. It feels like the power lies in watching someone with privilege learning what it’s like to live very differently.
I think that’s part of it. The tricky part is that Sam — because of his genius and because he’d sped through school and gotten to MIT early — his formative years were not out drinking beer with his buddies. He had that naïvete. I don’t know that a jaded person creates that experiment. But certainly, I think the beauty of the show is that you could plug in almost anyone.
Don was talking about rebooting it a while ago, where it’d be about Sam’s daughter and she followed in his footsteps. I thought that was a pretty interesting way to do that, also. Or you could take it to another country and reboot it as a young female physicist in South America somewhere. The possibilities are endless. It still feels like a fresh idea.
What do you imagine happened to Sam Beckett after the show ended?
He’s still out there doing his thing. I like that sentiment that there’s a Sam Beckett out there and he’s doing right by a lot of people. There are a lot of people who make a difference every day, and take time to look at other people and not just assume that they know better. So I like that idea. Is it sad that he never gets home? Yes. But sometimes, there’s greater work to be done.