It happens, every so often, that an actor comes upon a role that permits him to explore a strange new life. Dustin Hoffman put on a bra for "Tootsie." Daniel Day-Lewis was born with cerebral palsy in "My Left Foot." Tom Cruise lost the use of his legs in "Born on the Fourth of July."
For some actors, such choice roles come once in a lifetime.
For Scott Bakula, they come along about once a week.
In the NBC series "Quantum Leap," which is in reruns on Wednesday nights at 10 p.m., the 35-year-old actor has assumed the body of a mentally disabled man, a to-die-for female secretary, an elderly black in the pre-civil rights South, an alcoholic schoolteacher at an all-girls college and a teen-age hot-rodder in the 1960s.
"I'll probably be a dog someday," Bakula said thoughtfully. "I'd like to be a baby in a big, oversized crib. I mean, we can do anything on this show. I want to be homeless. And I hope to do an AIDS story. I'd like to have AIDS, yeah. I think that would be good."
"Quantum Leap," a time-travel odyssey and a hit with critics, is patiently waiting to find its audience. Despite poor ratings, the show was renewed early for 22 new episodes next season on the basis of its quality by an ever-hopeful Brandon Tartikoff, the president of NBC Entertainment.
The weekly series finds Bakula the victim of a weird science experiment gone awry. His character, Sam, helplessly bounces back and forth in the years from his birth to his death, quantum leaping each week into a new body with a different mission. Dean Stockwell plays Al, Bakula's partner on the misfired experiment, who gives counsel from beyond as a helpful hologram.
In each episode, Bakula appears as himself. He can only catch a glimpse of the bodies he inhabits by looking at his reflection in a mirror.
"My role is an acting tour de force," Bakula said, reinforcing his solid all-American persona with polite words and enthusiasm. He was seated in his dressing room on a lunch break from the Columbia Pictures comedy "Sibling Rivalry," his first feature film, in which he plays Kirstie Alley's husband.
Bakula had just unraveled his career like a colorful ball of yarn--from his Broadway debut a decade ago as Joe DiMaggio in "Marilyn: An American Fable," to his two short-lived sitcoms, ABC's "Gung Ho" (1986-87) and CBS' "Eisenhower & Lutz" (1988), to his Tony nomination two years ago for the musical "Romance, Romance."
"Not just the theater experience, but my whole life is contributing to 'Quantum Leap,' " he said, "because we keep finding little things for me to do or learn."
Among Bakula's "Quantum" feats: He sang in three episodes--as a theatrical understudy to the lead in "The Man of La Mancha," as an old black pool player crooning a gospel tune and as an Italian hit man belting out "Volare."
Bakula played his own piano as a blind pianist in one episode. He danced the tango in another. And he performed many of his own stunts as a trapeze artist, boxer and football player.
"I don't know of any other actors who could have done what he did," said "Quantum Leap's" creator and executive producer, Don Bellisario.
"Physically, it was a very demanding year," Bellisario continued. "What most people don't realize, and what we take for granted, I guess, is Scott's genuine acting ability. Every week he plays a different character, a different role. And he plays each one with an arc, with its own subtle nuances."
"Quantum Leap," scheduled for Friday nights next season, debuted as a mid-season replacement in 1989. It's something of an anomaly in television--a science-fiction, anthology and weekly drama series all time-warped into one. Of those three genres, however, only the weekly drama can be counted on to attract a wide viewership.
"Don Bellisario has created a situation where he can basically do an anthology time-travel show, (yet) get away from the curse of the anthology because Dean and I are there every week," Bakula said. "We have two characters who the audience can hopefully get really involved with, and the science-fiction angle lets us put them in totally unique situations."
But the problem is most audiences don't even know Sam and Al. Among 111 prime-time network programs last season, "Quantum Leap" tied for obscurity at No. 72 with Valerie Harper's sitcom, "City."
NBC focus groups have shown that even the title, "Quantum Leap," is a deterrent because it sounds too sci-fi, though once people sit down and watch the show they are pleasantly surprised. To recruit new viewers, Tartikoff aired an episode a night for five straight weeknights at the end of last month.
"There's a lot of belief in the show by Brandon, and the show has survived because of Brandon," said Bellisario, who also created and produced "Magnum, P.I."
"I knew it would take a while for an audience to latch on and understand the concept," Bellisario said. "It used to be that you gave a show a chance. You gave it a run. That's what he's doing."
Bellisario already is assembling a fresh new cast of characters for the multitalented Bakula to step inside next season--his own body as a 16-year-old kid, a female beauty pageant contestant, a black boy during the Watts riots who is in love with a white girl, a motorcycle gang member, a Chippendale stripper, a priest and, possibly, a gay man.
"There's a desperate need in television for shows that are different," Bellisario said. "I think that's what all the noise last season was over 'Twin Peaks.' Something different. That's what's kept us afloat. We're a very, very different show."