Dennis Quaid has played a wide range of characters in a career spanning five decades. The 63-year-old actor has portrayed a loving father in such films as “The Parent Trap,” “The Rookie” and “A Dog’s Purpose.” His new role in “I Can Only Imagine” is a stark departure, with Quaid limning a monstrous paternal figure in a movie that follows the story behind MercyMe’s popular faith-based song of the same name.

Quaid says he has always been attracted to father-son stories but that he was particularly drawn to this “brutally truthful” portrait. He says depicting the character’s metamorphosis was a new challenge for him.

Variety first mentioned Quaid on Sept. 29, 1976, when the up-and-coming actor appeared in his first film role, the James Bridges drama “September 30, 1955.”

What do you most remember from working on “September 30, 1955”?

It was my first job. I came out from Houston in February of 1975. It was a couple months short of my 21st birthday. I sent my photo and résumé — college dropout — to every agent in town. I got turned down by every agent in town. I started looking in Variety. I read through Variety every day. You used to have [the charts] Films in the Future or Films in Production, and they would list the films that were being cast. So I started calling up casting directors based on those Films in the Future. After nine months of doing that, I went to see a casting director, Geno Havens. After talking with him for about half an hour, he called an agent for me. Then about three months later, I got this film, “September 30, 1955.” It was called “9/30/55” actually at the beginning. I saw it in Variety.

What were your other career goals starting out?

I wanted to be a working actor. Back then the whole thing of being a movie star was kind of not a cool idea. It was about being an actor. Back then you had the antiheroes, the rebel heroes. You had Jack Nicholson, who’s probably the best example of that. They didn’t even show up at the Golden Globe Awards. It was not cool to go to the Golden Globes. [Barely] cool to go to the Academy Awards [laughs]. Or do a TV interview or anything like that. I just wanted to be the best actor I could be.

Who were some of your early idols and mentors?

Early idols would of course be Marlon Brando, who I wound up actually meeting. My brother [Randy Quaid] was doing “The Missouri Breaks.” He wanted his car in Montana, so I
drove it up there. I wound up staying on the set for the entire shoot. So my very first movie set that I was on, I was watching Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson work every
day. Of course, on that movie too was Harry Dean Stanton, who turned out to be really a lifetime mentor and friend/father figure. I became his assistant to make a little money to spend there. Harry Dean was in my life all the way up until a couple months ago when he passed.

Do you recall the moment you realized you accomplished your career goals and became a praised actor?

I don’t think I ever really had that view that I was a great working actor. I’m trying to be better. I still enjoy doing it. I love getting to go all these places in the world that as a tourist you would never go. I’ve been very lucky, and I’ve had a very rich career. I will say that. I’m very grateful.