Dennis Quaid has just washed his hair and oh, what fun it is to watch it dry. Dennis is the "cute" Quaid, not to be confused with older brother Randy, the "sort-of-famous" Quaid. "I consider myself to be a semifamous movie star and international beauty expert and son of Rula Lenska," says kid Quaid, grinning rakishly.

That grin! It's the leer of a riverboat gambler, a sterling-silver screen smile of the sort that ought to make a man a superstar, bring big bucks for MasterCard endorsements and a boldfaced name in People magazine. Instead, Quaid gets, "You were great in 'Top Gun.' "

Alas his knack for picking parts is comparable to Rodney Dangerfield's knack for picking ties. He's gone down with such major box-office bombs as "Enemy Mine," where he played space ace opposite Lou Gossett's sentient lizard, and "The Right Stuff," where his engaging Gordo Cooper just got lost in the flock of astronauts.

Outer space has not been kind to Quaid, so the easygoing actor is making a midcareer switch to "Innerspace," opening in area theaters today. He plays a miniaturized, smarty-pants flyboy on a fantastic voyage through Safeway clerk Martin Short's innards. The pilot and his pod are tiny-fied as part of a top-secret Defense Department project, then placed in a hypodermic needle and accidentally injected into Short's shorts. Given that Steven Spielberg is producer, this summer science-fiction fantasy should make Quaid at least as well-known as his brother.

"It's a dumb, stupid comedy, which is exactly what people need in the summertime. It's very idiotic and I love it," says Quaid of his gutsy escapades. "We encounter every dumb, stupid cliche' in the book. Leave your brain at home and you'll have a good time."

In turn, "Innerspace" director Joe Dante praises the actor's intestinal fortitude. "We had a list of big-name actors we wanted for the part. But obviously Clint Eastwood is not going to spend a whole movie sitting in a capsule. Dennis had to sit inside this pod for weeks and weeks. We shot Marty first and Dennis in a video booth. The other actors couldn't see him, so he formed his character on audio."

Dante liked him so much, he reworked the movie to include more cuts from Short to the encapsulated Quaid. "I'm possessed," screams Short, growing ever more cocksure as the inner astronaut whispers macho suggestions in his ear. Their clever teamwork impressed preview audiences, but Quaid is not reckoning on busting blocks. He's aggressively nonchalant about "Innerspace" and the upcoming releases of the locally shot "Suspect" and the New Orleans detective thriller "The Big Easy."

Opening in August, "Easy" promises to do for Quaid and costar Ellen Barkin what "Body Heat" did for William Hurt and Kathleen Turner, but Quaid shrugs. "I just learned long ago not to get my hopes up too high. I did 'The Right Stuff' and I figured we made the greatest movie ever made. I just expected it to go through the roof. And it came out and went neeowwww," he says imitating a B52 in a nose dive. "I just can't get excited about hype," says this hype-hater. "That's pie in the sky."

"This is the house where they invented electromagnetism," says Quaid of the Tilden Street house he rented here while filming "Suspect." The political thriller, which costars Cher as a defense attorney, is due out in fall. And if it isn't "Easy," surely "Suspect" will turn this semifamous son of a Texas electrician and housewife-turned-real-estate-agent into a household word. Quaid doesn't comment, but is nonetheless electromagnetic. He sucks on a Marlboro with vacuum cleaner-like gusto, polluting the room with chain-smoke and charm. He pushes dark Palomino bangs out of his eyes and talks about a personal epiphany that put him where he is about to be.

" 'Jaws 3D' was the turning point in my life," he says. "When I finished that movie, I asked myself, 'Why am I an actor. Why?' Then I was walking down the street in New York on Broadway and this hustler came out of his shop and said, 'You're in "Jaws 3D," aren't you? Why do they make movies like that?' And I said, 'So people like you will pay $5.50 to see them.' "

The guy wasn't exactly Pauline Kael, but Quaid knew he had a point. He went back to his Big Sky Country home to lick his wounds. And out there in the big quiet, he realized he was selling his future to pay the mortgage on his Montana dream home. "I sold the house, got divorced and moved to New York and started doing plays. Once I sold the house, I got my inspiration back.

"This lobbyist I play {in 'Suspect'} is in the same place I was after I did 'Jaws.' He feels he's lost. 'Why am I in Washington?' When he came here he wanted to be president. It's come to the point where he just doesn't know anymore. That's why he gets involved in {Cher, the defense attorney's} case. He kind of gets that passion back in his life again. He starts out as a little bit of a scumbag, then learns something in the process. It's the characters I really like to play, to tell you the truth. Scumbags who redeem themselves ... That's what interests me about acting -- how a person goes from this way to that. It's like stringing beads."

Despite leading man looks -- stomach muscles to shame Cher's and a face that women love and men trust -- he's appalled that he has officially been called "hunky" by the Los Angeles Times. "God, they're still using that term? I always try to avoid that kind of word. I try to stay out of Teen Beat magazine." The notion that a 33-year-old might seem aged to the readers of Teen Beat gets a laugh. "You think I'm past being a major hunk?" he looks surprised. And laughs some more.

"No, I want to be an actor. Actually I think it's kind of helpful to me that I didn't make it big in my twenties 'cause it's hard to get out of the heartthrob thing. It's not like I didn't want it at the time. I guess I was a gumball goombah. I also went against being coifed. It's all past and so what?"

In "The Big Easy," Quaid is coifed scum, a dirty New Orleans police chief who comes to his senses in the arms of a sexy lady DA played by close friend Barkin. Their on-screen chemistry is hotter than Cajun cooking -- a jambalaya of the libido. "Laissez le bon temps rollez," says Quaid showing off his mastery of bayou lingo, who suddenly changes his mind. "Now I like it, being a leading man," he says in his bedroom baritone. "I like wearing suits and getting the girl. It's fun. It's a lot more fun than being with a lizard ... Nothing happened with the lizard."

Quaid taps out another Marlboro. His chauffeur, the fetching Teamster Danielle, urges him to hurry if he wants to be on time for dailies downtown with "Suspect" director Peter Yates. Quaid changes his white and black polka-dot shoes for a pair covered with musical notes. "I'm going out to dinner," he explains as if he'd just come downstairs in white tie.

She drives toward D Street, while Quaid's hair blows dry like a spaniel's in the wind. "I like to go to dailies now, but I didn't used to. I couldn't stand to look at myself." And the same went for his movies. "Forty by 60. It was horrifying. You wouldn't even know what the movie was 'about cause all you could do was look at yourself. You think, 'I'm itching in that scene.' "

Danielle's driving, smooth and swift, reminds him of the time he flew over Washington for "The Right Stuff" premiere in 1983. "That was the most fun I ever had in my life. We were in P51s going right down the Potomac in restricted air space. I was Yeager's wing man." Afterward Quaid tried to join the Air Force Reserve, but at 27, he was six months too old.

He learned to fly for the Cooper part and to look at real corpses for "The Big Easy." "What you do for a living affects the way you act, the way you dress, the way you talk. And this affects your insides. I find out as much as I can about a character and let it all bubble up ... kind of like osmosis."

He worked with pistol-packing patrolmen for three months and "watched how it affected them and their work. I even had a police car to drive around down there and a gun. What's it like to carry a gun around all the time? It affects you. It affects the way you move. It affects the way you think about things.

"Up here, I've been going around with lobbyists. About five or six of them. I have a much different opinion now than I did before I came. I think there are scumbags in every field there is. I'm convinced the government couldn't run without them, the way it is. If you're a congressman or a senator with thousands of pieces of legislation, there's no way you actually know what each piece is about so you have to rely on people who do and that's what lobbyists are all about. If you lie, you won't hang around very long. Actually {they are} a necessary piece of government."

He had political ambitions, he says, but Washington squelched his fantasies. "I get involved in other things politically -- the International Hospital for Children in Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador. We go down there and take kids who are heart patients, bring them up here, get them well and send them home, which I think is the greatest diplomacy. Get somebody's kid well and they think better of the United States."

Quaid has made a couple of trips to Honduras with Dr. Mayer Heiman (a glimmer comes to his eye) who treated him for flu in New Orleans -- "the only doctor who ever made a house call." I said 'If there's anything I can ever do for you, let me know.' And he said, 'Well, as a matter of fact there is.' We took two plane rides in 36 hours, DC3s down to this island. It was sunset and I went out and slept on the beach. I woke up at 4 in the morning and Halley's comet was right above me. We picked up this kid and flew the plane till the sun rose. I never saw Honduras.

"And I got us on 'Good Morning America' one day. If anything, that's what being semifamous or being in the movies can do."

He's almost too good to be true.

Dennis Quaid has just washed his hair. It is not quite so much fun to watch it dry this time because he is sneezing and puffy from an allergy to tree pollen.

Danielle has brewed strong black coffee, which Quaid chugs back like a gringo bandito at a border-town bar. He worked till the wee hours and is just waking up at noon. "I feel like a vampire sometimes, working from 6 at night to 6 in the morning. You do that sometimes for two weeks," he yawns, blows his nose, lights a Marlboro and inhales some wake-up nicotine. He's wearing a MoMA T-shirt today with Italian dress pants, the bottoms rolled up for a flood. Rock Creek chic.

"It's hard to shoot a scene after 4 o'clock in the morning. I mean the body just doesn't know what to do. Things slow down. You're supposed to be pretending it's 7 o'clock at night. Somebody shouts, 'Hey, wanna go to dinner?' 'Yeah, well where do we go?' It's 4 in the morning and you're supposed to look like you want dinner." He gags for emphasis through a stuffy nose. "The worst is three days at night, then three days at day. Your brain gets turned into tutti-frutti."

The night before, Quaid was playing amateur detective in the ruins of the old Railway Express Office near Union Station. Yates, who directed Quaid in "Breaking Away," ribbed the actor affectionately as he skulked through the extras as derelicts. "I decided six months ago that I was only going to work with directors that I think are great. Peter Yates was on that list."

Quaid played the high school football hero in Yates' uplifting tale of Hoosier haves and have nots, bringing a brooding adolescent explosiveness to the part. It was perhaps the highlight of his career until "The Right Stuff" and then "Dreamscape" in 1984. That sci-fi yarn found Quaid walking into other folks' dreams and has won him a cable TV following.

He started out as a stand-up comedian at 15, doing impressions and skits out of comic books. "I played a strip joint one night ... I saw my first strip show in fact. Girls were taking off their clothes to 'Theme From Romeo and Juliet.' "

And he was a clown at AstroWorld for a couple of years. "Kids hate clowns, man. And Santa Claus. It's the same thing. Kids who are 8, 9 and 10, right around there, want to show you that you're not putting anything over on them. So they react with violence, so they kick you and hit you and spit at you and throw their Cokes on you. It's a terrible job." He has a good laugh at that.

And there was a week as an encyclopedia salesman. "It's impossible. These poor people. 'Can I come into your house and screw you out of $500 and give you a genuine simulated Naugahyde briefcase to go with it? All your kids are going to be stupid if you don't give me $500.' "

His first real movie came his first week in Hollywood -- "Crazy Mama," directed by Jonathan Demme. "I played a bellboy and I said, 'Oh, my god don't shoot me.' " The line was cut, but Crazy Mama didn't shoot him anyway.

He's worked with his real father, William Quaid, a frustrated actor, who played the preacher at his make-believe funeral in "The Lights Went Out in Georgia," and his brother in an off-Broadway production of Sam Shepard's "True West," and in "The Long Riders," directed by, in Quaid's words, "Walter -- Manly Men Doing Manly Things With Men -- Hill."

Working with a brother, he says, "is really scary at first. It's hard to trust one another to begin with, 'cause you remember when you were 9 or 13 when he pulled all kinds of crap on you. 'Long Riders' was great because we had {four} sets of brothers. Nobody could con anybody or anything because your brother was there to bust you if you tried."

Indeed the Quaid brothers "about killed each other" during the fraternally physical "True West." After one performance, they argued and Dennis never wanted to see Randy again. But it was January and he had just washed his hair (again) and Randy had the hair-dryer in his room. "It was real quiet and we started talking about why we hated each other, why we loved each other, what we envied about each other, what we admired. We went out and had the greatest time we ever had in our lives. We were skipping down Christopher Street holding hands."

With three years separating them, they hadn't been that close as kids. Quaid describes a lonely childhood. Though he's been romantically linked with screen lovelies Leah Thompson and currently Meg Ryan, his "Innerspace" costar, Quaid claims getting the girl wasn't always so easy.

"I was kind of a goon in high school. Everybody else seemed not to be a goon. I wanted the cheerleader. Forget it. It wasn't happening." Naturally, he sought some other meaning in life. He stole Bertrand Russell's "History of Western Philosophy." "I stuck it down my overalls and walked out of the bookstore with it. My high school education is basically that. It was a great book, Pythagoras all the way through to himself."

He grew up "with the Ozzie and Harriet, Beaver Cleaver dream of having a house and two kids, 'cause I grew up in suburban America. The future couldn't have been brighter, then Kennedy got shot. My parents split up. We moved and I spent all my time alone in my teens. It was actually good. It made me more reflective ... The suburbs are so quiet, you kind of want some action. You kind of wish you grew up in the streets of New York, wish you knew what the blues were like. Where's the character building stuff? This is boring."

As his career seemed to crumble, Quaid finally got a taste of the character-building blues. He likes to play them sometimes on his keyboard, as he did during filming breaks at "The Big Easy," for which he also wrote the love song. At the moment, however, he's singing a more upbeat tune. "I got to be me," he rhapsodizes off-key. "And see how it turns out to be ... "

The Me's just fine, thanks. "I have a huge ego," he says. "It's a selfish thing, an ego. You've got to put back what you've taken out. But really, the most important thing in my life is my life. I lost everything, I lost all my money, my wife ... the more successful I got, the more depressed I got ... I felt like I really didn't deserve to be a success. Then for some reason when I turned 30, I just figured I did. I'd been carrying around all this emotional garbage in my twenties, which I think we all do; once you get through that catharsis, when it comes to that changeover, you just kind of relax.

"It's really more important to enjoy one's life than get worked up over this stuff that doesn't really mean anything and nobody cares about. Like getting the next part, your career, how much attention you're getting in this. Not really realizing the good things that are happening to you right now.

"I was flat broke. Well, I'm not flat broke now. An old black man told me it's okay for a young man to lose his first money, that's a mistake. If he loses his second money, he's a fool. I'm not going to lose the second."