If first impressions are accurate, these men have nothing in common.

On the right is a clean-cut novice, wearing khakis and a blue button-down, trying desperately to appear calm before a roomful of journalists.  On his left is a razor-stubbled veteran, a quarter-century older, wearing jeans and a leather jacket and joking with those same reporters, carefully steering them back on course when they dare to venture off message.

The message is Universal Pictures’ upcoming film, “In Good Company,” starring Topher Grace and Dennis Quaid.  And if appearance is everything, particularly in looks-conscious L.A., these boys are night and day.

But dig a little deeper, and you might be surprised at what they have in common.  In fact, in the spirit of the season, one might even say that Quaid and Grace are like two ghosts:  one, of Christmas Past; the other, of Christmas Future.

“Having to act opposite someone who is so good, for three months, was daunting,” Grace says.  “You can get away with it for one day, maybe.  But Dennis, from the first day, was the nicest, most easygoing guy.”

He blushes beet red then adds, “Well, come on, it’s hard for me to say in front of him, but it’s just fame, that his talent has bought him, that’s intimidating.”

Famous, Quaid definitely is.  After dropping out of the University of Houston, he appeared in a handful of films and television movies then landed a lead in the 1979 runaway hit, “Breaking Away” followed by “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” for which he wrote some of the music.  Quaid’s career started to flow. 

Unfortunately, so did the booze and drugs, which reached a visible crescendo in 1989 when Quaid played the late Jerry Lee Lewis in “Great Balls of Fire.”  Quaid’s first marriage, to actress P.J. Soles, had ended in 1983 after five years, and he became engaged to actress Meg Ryan.  But instead of marrying right away, he checked into rehab.  

“For the first year after I got out, it was awful,” Quaid said, during a 2003 interview with “The Guardian.”  “I was grinding my teeth, trying to stay away from the coke. For another year after that I had to make a conscious effort to stay away from it.”

Quaid is one of the rare success stories in Hollywood.  He’s been clean for almost 15 years.  And, while his career hasn’t reached the upper echelons of fame – perhaps due to some poor choices, perhaps not – he’s nevertheless had 20 years of regular work, in a town that doles out roles like a toddler sharing candy.

Some of Quaid’s films, like “Easy Rider” (which many consider to contain some of the sexiest love scenes in film history) and the more recent remake of “The Parent Trap,” have become classics.  Others, like “The Day After Tomorrow,” “The Alamo” and this month’s “Flight of the Phoenix,” have brought financial rewards but critical disparagement.  And still others, like “Postcards from the Edge” and “Cold Creek Manor,” have been box office disasters.

But nothing deters Quaid, who just keeps on doing what he loves to do.  Just this year, he completed a record four films.

He hasn’t been as lucky with his personal life.  In addition to the addictions, Quaid went through a second divorce with Ryan, after 10 years of marriage, in the midst of her widely-publicized affair with Russell Crowe

But, like the comeback he made in 2002’s critically-acclaimed “Far From Heaven,” which garnered him two nominations for Best Supporting Actor (Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild) and one Independent Spirit Award, the 50-year-old actor hasn’t given up.  Quaid recently married for a third time, to real estate agent Kimberly Buffington, and the two have purchased a house in her hometown of Austin, Texas, not too far from where Quaid grew up, in Houston.  And, while Buffington is 18 years younger than Quaid, she possesses one quality that just may make this marriage work: she is not an actress.

Unlike Quaid, Topher Grace is just beginning his career. 

Raised in Darien, Conn., Grace cut his teeth on high school plays and, like Quaid, dropped out of college, at the University of Southern California.  After deciding to pursue acting, he landed one of the leads in the popular television sitcom, “That ‘70s Show,” in 1998.  During the past two years, he’s been drifting toward film, with brief appearances in “Traffic” and “Mona Lisa Smile” and the male supporting lead in last year’s “Win a Date with Tad Hamilton.”

Despite his lack of formal training, Grace is confident but not cocky onscreen.  Like Quaid, he can also act – something that’s not exactly commonplace in a world where, well, appearance often wins out over talent.

According to Paul Weitz, these were exactly the qualities he was looking for with “In Good Company,” which he co-wrote, co-directed and co-produced with his brother, Chris Weitz (“About a Boy,” “American Pie”).

“Topher came in on auditions numerous times and a.) he made me laugh the most and b.) I believed that he appeared sharky enough that someone would give him that type of responsibility,” Weitz says.  “Beyond that, he has a good sense of humor and a degree of vulnerability – but not the vulnerability where he’s sort of winking at the audience and saying, ‘Yeah, I’m a nice guy, don’t worry.’  I thought it was very important that one believed that he could fire Dennis Quaid, because that was an important part of the jeopardy of the movie.”

In the film, Quaid plays Dan Foreman, a 50-year-old advertising executive who has just learned that his wife is pregnant, even as his company is being taken over by a large conglomerate.  As Dan and his wife Ann (Marg Helgenberger) juggle college tuition for their daughter, Alex (Scarlett Johansson) and prepare to cope with a new baby, Dan fights to keep his job.  He is demoted then placed under a boss half his age, Carter Dureya (Grace), who has never run an ad campaign in his life, much less managed an advertising staff.  Then Dan discovers that Carter is dating Alex.

Like many of the films released during the last four years, “In Good Company” has a strong message about fathers and mentors, and focuses on what it means to be a dad under challenging circumstances.

“Here I am, a guy with two daughters and you’re rooting for him to have a son,” Quaid says.  “He’s certainly surrounded by women and he winds up in the end happily having a daughter, but he’s also gained a son in his relationship with Topher’s character.”

Grace agrees. 

“Carter has got everything on paper,” he says.  “His parents were both absent, but he’s got the right car, the right job, the right life and the right house. But I think that once I go home to Dennis’ character’s house, I start to actually see something that I really want, but I don’t know how to get it. I don’t know if Paul would agree with me on this, but I think that [Carter] is dating Dan’s daughter as a consolation prize, instead of actually being in the family. Like, he would trade it all in just to be the fifth member of the family.”

So there they sit – two opposites, who aren’t really opposite at all – playing conflicting roles, who aren’t nearly as far apart as they might seem.  It’s life mirroring art, in another curious twist, with a message about growing older and wiser, yet still being at the top of your game, no matter what life may bring.

A bit like Quaid, who probably looks at Grace with a mixture of regret and relief.  And like Grace, who would probably give anything for the success that Quaid has enjoyed.  Anything, that is, except the personal holocausts that Quaid has been through.

So, while neither actor even remotely resembles old Ebenezer Scrooge, one can only hope that, as they look at one another, they both see what might have been, as well as what might still be.


Universal Pictures' "In Good Company," starring Dennis Quaid, Topher Grace, Scarlett Johansson and Marg Helgenberger, opens in limited release in theaters on Wednesday, December 29, 2004.