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Quantum Cool: An Interview With Scott Bakula

By Tony Peregrin in Arts & Entertainment on Aug 6, 2012 3:20PM

resized_SCOTT_BAKULA Dressed up.jpg As time-traveling physicist Sam Beckett on NBC’s Quantum Leap, Scott Bakula morphed into a different character each week, solving the host’s problems before “leaping out” (to borrow from the show’s patois) into another person’s life to “put right what was once wrong.”

Today, the 58-year-old actor continues to jump into new characters, most recently as “Terry,” a womanizing bachelor in the critically-acclaimed TNT series “Men of a Certain Age.” Up next for the square-jawed, St. Louis-born actor—a role in the new Steven Soderbergh film “Behind the Candelabra,” an HBO movie based on the life story of Liberace. (Now, that's a quantum leap—but one that makes perfect sense once the amiable actor gently reminds you he has a background in musical theater.)

In town as part of the 2012 Wizard World Chicago Comic-Con all-star roster, Bakula joins William Shatner, Stan Lee, WWE® Superstar CM Punk, Dean Cain, Jon Bernthal, Kevin Sorbo and a galaxy of other pop-culture celebrities for a four-day weekend of panel discussions and one-of-a-kind photo opps. (In case you were wondering, the Scott Bakula VIP package is $249.99; the William Shatner VIP package, by comparison, is $299.99.)

According to Comic-Con organizers, the Chicago Con is the longest-running and highest-attended show annually on the Wizard World calendar.

The former Enterprise captain spoke with Chicagoist about the enduring allure of Quantum Leap (yes, there are Leapback conventions), and who he is particularly excited to meet at the Chicago Comic-Con this year. (Hint: He’s a shapeshifter from Bon Temps.)

resize_Scott Bakula Enterprise.jpg Chicagoist: All five Star Trek captains made history earlier this year by appearing together for the first time on stage at Wizard World Philadelphia. Talk about Sci-Fi Star Power—I’m surprised the gathering didn’t result in some kind of tear in the time-space continuum.

Scott Bakula: It was crazy. It was so much fun. It was the five of us in front of several thousand people. It was (pause)—you just kind of stop and acknowledged that that moment may never happen again. And it might—who knows? But the odds are unlikely. Patrick [Stewart] was a whisper away from not being able to be there because of work.

It was so funny—we are all so very different. We had a lot of laughs. Bill [William Shatner] presided over the whole thing. We all defer to him, as we should. I had met everyone before, but I had never spent any time with Kate [Mulgrew], and we got the chance to have several conversations over the weekend, which was really fun. The whole experience really was very lovely.

Chicagoist: Quantum Leap celebrated its 20th anniversary a few years ago, and fans remain as loyal to the show as they did two decades ago. Why do you think the show resonates so strongly with viewers?

Scott Bakula: The fantasy element is very appealing to sci-fi fans, but for new fans, I think they’re drawn to good storytelling, too. I always think that walking in someone else’s shoes—if we all could that—we’d be less likely to judge others, less likely to put people down, and we’d have more compassion for each other. The show is basically a simple concept, but our creator, Don [Bellisario], managed to do that in a very interesting way.

Chicagoist: At a Leapback Convention in Los Angeles to celebrate that milestone anniversary, one audience member was so star-struck she was unable to pose her question to you, at which point you were gracious enough to walk out into the audience and give her a hug. She responded by rattling off your character, Sam Beckett’s, Social Security number. Wow.

Scott Bakula: Having been in the sci-fi world for many years now, I am never surprised that people have such strong connections to these shows, and that they are attached to that kind of detail— that’s part of the joy of being a devoted fan, immersing yourself in that world. And you know, [laughs] people go to different lengths to show their devotion.

Chicagoist: I’d say you’re just as devoted to your fans, especially this weekend when you’ll be splitting your time between two different sci-fi events, Comic-Con in Chicago, and a Star Trek Convention in Las Vegas. What are some of your favorite things to do when you visit Chi-Town?

Scott Bakula: I adore Chicago. The last time I was there we went to [Navy] Pier with some friends who live there. I love the lake, and the food in Chicago is ridiculously great. Years ago, we shot an NBC movie-of-the-week in Chicago called In the Shadow of a Killer, which was about a policeman who opposes capital punishment. We actually got the opportunity to visit the famous prison outside of Chicago and I got to sit in a real electric chair—which was weird. What was the name of that prison? It’s going to bug me until I think of it. *

Chicagoist: Your latest film is certainly no movie-of-the-week. Behind the Candelabra—directed by Steven Soderbergh and co-starring Matt Damon—is based on the book “My Life with Liberace,” a memoir published by the performer’s live-in lover, Scott Thorson. You play Liberace’s friend, Bob Black, the choreographer who introduced Thorson to the beloved entertainer. What drew you to this project?

Scott Bakula: I’m obviously old enough that I grew up listening to Liberace. I am a piano player so I had a great fascination with him. I wasn’t necessarily all that entertained by the mystery of his life at that time—I just knew he was a fabulous piano player. So, his story is very new and unique to me. The script is fascinating and wild.

Everyone who shot The Informant! is making this movie—Matt Damon, Steven Soderbergh, and my friend [and producer] Greg Jacobs, so we all had a previous relationship. They called me up and asked me to do another movie with them, and you know, I would do anything these guys asked me to.

Chicagoist: The gay and lesbian community has whole-heartedly embraced shows like Quantum Leap, and Star Trek Enterprise, and more recently, Chuck, and I’m guessing some of these fans are going to be equally thrilled to hear you are a part of Behind the Candelabra. When did you first realize you have such a strong gay fan base?

Scott Bakula: I think I did a couple magazine covers in the early 90s, when I was on the cover and stuff, and I was pleased [with the response]. I happily acknowledge my gay fans. And I am a musical theater guy, so it’s not like it’s anything usual to me. The reason I love the theater world so much is that it embraces humanity! It’s a nonissue for me. I am happy they follow me and my work and I very much appreciate it.

resize_bakula 2 hat playgirl.jpg Chicagoist: So, not only do you have a handsome mug—one that has graced the cover of Playgirl, actually—but you’re also a grounded, gay-friendly guy who can sing?

Scott Bakula: [Laughs.] I sing every week, and I actually just came from my voice lesson about an hour ago. My first love is definitely music, and it was such a huge part of Quantum Leap, because of that.

Chicagoist: What has been the most memorable thing a fan has said to you while on the convention circuit?

Scott Bakula: Well, I had a funny thing happen in San Diego last year. This guy told me how he used to watch Quantum Leap with his mom, and as he was growing up, he would call her, and if he was having a tough time with something, he said she would use an expression that always made him feel better—WWSBD. I looked at him and I was like, what is that? And he said, ‘What Would Sam Becket Do?” And he meant it very sincerely, and I thought that was so very sweet. That moment really stands out to me. Don always said that Quantum Leap was about entertainment and that he wasn’t trying to preach—but that show still managed to touch people in so many ways and I am really grateful to have been a part of that.

Chicagoist: Do you ever get excited about the possibility of meeting other celebrities at these events?

Scott Bakula: Always! There are so many people. I’m always delighted to look at the program and see, ‘Oh! There’s the guy who plays Sam Merlotte on True Blood—Oh my gosh, I love that guy!’ I once got to have lunch with Stan Lee and, wow, he talked all about his own journey and what it’s like to be in his world. And I was at one event where Ray Bradbury was speaking, but I did not get to meet him—I would have loved to have met him. Look—I’ve hung out with Bill Shatner, and I never dreamed that I would ever get to do that!

*(As near as we can determine the prison Bakula is referring to is the Stateville Correctional Center, a maximum security state prison in Crest Hill, Illinois, and one of three sites where executions by electrocution were carried out in Illinois at that time.)

2012 Wizard World Chicago Comic-Con
Donald E. Stephen Convention Center (Rosemont)
5555 North River Road
Rosemont, IL 60018

Thursday, August 9, 2012 - 12 noon - 8pm
Friday, August 10, 2012 - 12 noon - 8pm
Saturday, August 11, 2012 - 10am - 7pm
Sunday, August 12, 2012 - 10am - 5pm