At 16 I was not the most popular kid at school, especially with girls. I didn’t know what to say to them. I didn’t know what to do with my life. I wanted to be a rebel, but I was really just a suburban boy. The world had not opened up to me. It was an awkward age for me. It’s a rite of passage in America to try out for the football team, but I hadn’t fully grown yet, so I was laughed off the field. That’s how I wound up in the drama class instead. That was where all the girls were.
If I met the 16-year-old Dennis now I’d think, he’s a shy boy. Not a handsome boy. A shaggy-haired country bumpkin in a raggedy polyester shirt with polyester jeans. Casting about trying to work out who he is. I would tell him to take a breath. Take it easy. Don’t take everything so seriously. He had a tendency to over-dramatise, take things personally. He was over-sensitive. I’d tell him, the world is lighter than he thinks. It’s what you make it.
LA is a very tough town. But I’ve been there 40 years and now I love the life
Both my parents were very supportive. As I got older I got even closer to my dad – we became very good pals. And mom has always been my rock. I get my tenacity from my mom. And I had my brother Randy – we were in the same bedroom for 12 years so we’re really extremely close. He’s 6’5” so he’s always been my big brother. Of course we also fought all the time but if anyone else said anything against him…
I didn’t get serious about drama until I went to college. There was a teacher there, Cecil Picket, and he taught acting as a craft. Within a week, I knew what I wanted to do with my life. It was quite a gift, the way he talked about what acting was, the study of human behaviour. Once I decided what I wanted to do I became very driven. After college I worked as a waiter to save some money then loaded all my stuff in the car and drove from Houston to LA. That was it, I was going to do it. LA is a very tough town. It can be very mean when you first move out there. But I’ve been there 40 years and now I love the life.
I guess I had success relatively early. I struggled for a couple of years, but then I got the part in Breaking Away and that changed things for me. My brother drove me to the cinema when it came out, and when we got to the cinema there was a line round the block queuing to see it. That put a tingle up my back. And he said to me: “Looks like you’ve got a hit.”
The thing that would impress the 16-year-old Dennis most about his future would be the 16-inch reflecting telescope I got. It was a powerful piece of kit. When I was a kid it was always my dream to be an astronaut, maybe because I grew up in Houston. The telescope would interest the teenage me more than any of my films, except maybe The Right Stuff [the 1983 film about the Mercury Seven astronauts selected in 1958 for the first American manned spaceflight]. He’d love that, especially that I got to play Gordon Cooper. When the book came out I read it cover to cover and I thought, man if they ever made a movie of this, gosh, I’d love to play Gordon Cooper. He was always my favourite of the seven. Then when they were casting for it I went in and I got it! It turned out Gordon Cooper lived three miles from me in LA. So I went to meet him and we became friends and he turned me on to a flight instructor and eventually I got my pilot’s licence. The whole thing was just a dream.