Quantum Leap is the quintessential science-fiction tale of a man trapped in time. From 1989 to 1993, over five seasons, Dr Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) travelled along his own timeline, ‘leaping from life to life, striving to put right what once went wrong’, with the help of his holographic best friend Al (Dean Stockwell) and supercomputer Ziggy. Quantum Leap’s heady mixture of science fiction, adventure and a helluva catchy theme tune soon established it as a bona fide classic, and fans worldwide took it to their hearts.
In addition to Quantum Leap, Scott Bakula’s career has seen him lead the charge for the proto-Federation as Jonathan Archer in Star Trek Enterprise. Alongside TV appearances in Looking, Chuck and Desperate Housewives, he turned in memorable big-screen performances in American Beauty, The Informant, Behind the Candelabra and Lord of Illusions. He is currently starring as Agent Dwayne Pride in NCIS: New Orleans.
We were lucky enough to have a chat with Scott about the show’s enduring appeal.
We also get bonus points for inadvertently getting him to say ‘Oh Boy’.
The Reel Word: Did you ever think, twenty years ago when you were making Quantum Leap, that you would be discussing it this long after the fact, and that it would have become such a beloved TV show to so many people?
Scott Bakula: You know, I don’t think I ever really thought that. I mean, now, actually, we’re twenty-seven years since we premiered in 1989 and, you know, you’re so caught up in the middle of doing it. It was such a hard show to make and we were struggling to stay on the air and get an audience, and you’re focussed on that kind of myopic world of just getting the show done. We knew we were doing good things, and we felt good about it, but projecting ourselves ahead twenty years or whatever, I don’t think any of us contemplated that, or what we were going to be. And it’s not only talked about still, but really kind of embraced. And new fans are finding the show still and these kind of (Blu-Ray) releases and things bring new audiences in. It’s pretty special.
The Reel Word: One of the things I think that’s interesting about Quantum Leap is that it goes completely against the ‘sci-fi staple’ that suggests you shouldn’t interfere with the past. It just goes ahead and says ‘let’s change as much as we can and put things right.’ Do you think that’s part of its appeal? That kind of vicarious will to want to go back and fix things that weren’t right?
Scott Bakula: I think so. And I think we all have moments in our lives that seem crucial to us. We touched on some of the obvious ones – early on I leapt back to a time and I realised once I was there that my dad was still alive and I could talk to him. And who wouldn’t want to go back and talk to a loved one that you’ve lost? Or go back and meet a famous person that you always admired, or have an impact on a situation? But I think what made the show special was most of the time we just centred around average people – somebody in trouble, somebody who needed something or lost something – and so I felt that’s what made the show so relatable, and even though it was sci-fi there was a definite way that it felt personal. And then going back in time, there’s this nostalgic layer on top of that which makes it feel like a comfortable old coat or something! Something you can relate to. And it was at a time when there weren’t other shows like it, so it worked in that capacity also.
The Reel Word: Yes, and I find it quite surprising that there haven’t been too many other shows that have gone with that concept. Most other ‘time travel’ narratives mess with the timeline accidentally. I think Quantum Leap did something original and I still think that’s part of the reason why it’s popular and stands out on its own.
Scott Bakula: You know, we had funny things in the beginning, we got a few angry letters from people saying we were violating the space/time continuum and laws of time travel, and they were upset with us. It was as if Spielberg had written the laws, and we must obey them. So we used to chuckle about those things. My answer was always, if Sam Beckett was around and he did change the way an event occurred, or something that happened in your life, you wouldn’t know it. So you wouldn’t know that it had been changed, and you wouldn’t know that it was different than it was meant to be.
The Reel Word: Yes, that’s true.
Scott Bakula: I used to argue it that way. “Well how do you know this was the way it was meant to be? Because that’s the way it is?”
The Reel Word: Quantum Leap allowed you to deal with a lot of heavy hitting issues – in a similar way to Star Trek – in that it addressed issues and had a message, and was able to do that because of its science-fiction setting. The show confronted racism, gender equality, disability prejudice and animal rights – is there any particular episode in that respect that you are most proud of?
Scott Bakula: Oh, there were many of them. I mean you just hit on several of them. Certainly we dealt with gay rights issues, we talked about civil rights a lot, and animal rights.
But the thing that I remember most about all of this is that Don [P. Bellisario, Quantum Leap creator]’s intention was that he never approached a story like ‘this is going to be our big statement show’ about an issue. He always said, “Our job here is to put out an hour of entertaining television.” So people can jump in and pull out what they want to pull out. If you’re sitting watching television with your grandmother and she says, “I remember mood rings, I haven’t thought about them for fifty years” or “your grandfather used to drive that kind of car”, if people pull that out of the show then that was great; but people [can also] dig in and say, “well who do you think killed John F Kennedy?” [Note: season five of Quantum Leap began with a two-part episode in which Sam ‘leaped’ into Lee Harvey Oswald.] You know, Don had his opinion about it, and obviously other people had theirs. So he really had this ability to wrap all of the entertainment and the political/social/environmental sides that would be sort of disguised in the middle of it. And of course Dean (Stockwell) and I were always pushing for more of that stuff and Don would say, “no, no, entertainment first.”
The Reel Word: So if you were able to leap to any point or event in history, is there anything specifically that you would want to leap to?
Scott Bakula: Oh boy! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked that question!
The Reel Word: Oh, really?!
Scott Bakula: I should have really come up with a great answer years ago. Only because we did this episode – I wonder sometimes what the world would have been like if JFK had not been assassinated. I wish, certainly, if I could go back and change the course of any of the World Wars that have caused so many losses. We did an episode where I leaped into my grandfather’s body, so we could go do a Civil War episode (‘The Leap Between The States’). I think those are the kind of things that I’m drawn to. And of course, more recently when we think about 9/11 or things like that, if we could have had knowledge to stop some of those things, you’d want to do that. You know, it would be fun to go back to the days of yore and the courts of such and such, but I always tend to think more about the huge world events that have happened and if there was some way we could have prevented these big disasters.
The Reel Word: If we’ve got time for one quick non-Quantum Leap-related question, I was wondering what your experience of working on the Clive Barker movie Lord of Illusions was like? Was that a conscious decision to do something a lot darker, after the more upbeat Quantum Leap?
Scott Bakula: I think that was part of it, but to be totally honest, I loved that script. I didn’t know Clive – I knew Hellraiser and everything – but I didn’t really know that much about Clive. And we got in a room together and I just adored him, and I adored his talents. He’s an amazingly gifted person, and he directed it, which was spectacular. He wrote it and his whole artistic world was wrapped up in that environment, and it was wonderful. It was a very difficult shoot, it was very hard to make. Oddly enough, I just worked with one of the actors who I hadn’t seen in twenty-one years or so and he just wrapped up today and he was like, “I was in Lord of Illusions with you”. So yeah, I thought it was a great movie, I thought it came out really well.
The Reel Word: I think it’s one of those films that’s waiting to be rediscovered. I think it’s a real hidden gem.
Scott Bakula: In fact, we tried to do a sequel to it and got very close. A script was written and then United Artists was sold and it got tied up in all kinds of other legal stuff and it never went forward. But I think he (Clive Barker) has one of his books being made into a series on HBO now, or Showtime.
The Reel Word: Oh really? That’s interesting.
Scott Bakula: Yeah, I forget which book it is, but it just happened a couple of months ago. They announced they were going to make a series out of one of his books.
The Reel Word: Have there ever been any rumblings about Quantum Leap coming back? A lot of those old series are coming back at the moment, like the X-Files and Twin Peaks.
Scott Bakula: People have talked about it for years. People that love the show want it to come back in some incarnation and Don has tried a few times. He’s been approached many times. There was a whole Australian idea that was going to happen for a while, and that didn’t happen. The last time I saw him was on his birthday, he just turned 80 last year, and he said “I don’t know”. And I said, “Don, come on”, and he said, “I can only write it for you and Dean”. So we laugh about it, but I don’t know. I’m sure somebody eventually will grab it and do it.
The Reel Word: Ok, well I think our time is up, so thank you very much for talking to me. I watched Quantum Leap when I was at school, and I’m in the business end of my thirties now and I still love it, so it’s a big thrill for me to be able to interview you today. Thank you very much for your time.
Scott Bakula: Oh, it’s my pleasure. Thank you.