Telling most actors that they look fit enough to play a role younger than their real age would be considered a compliment. Unless you're Scott Bakula. This season, on his TNT series Men of a Certain Age, the 56-year-old's character turns 50. And he's actually rather bummed about the idea.
"Nobody's written that Bakula shouldn't be in this show because he's too old, yet I've thought that," he explains. "What if somebody says, 'You're older than the other guys. I don't buy the story'? It's brought a lot more focus on my age in [show] business than I've ever felt."
Despite his concern, it's not like the second season of this series about three middle-age friends coming to terms with their lives is going to seem like Betty White clubbing with the cast of Gossip Girl. If anything, he's probably in trouble for looking too young.
"He does tick me off," confesses costar Ray Romano, 52, who is also the show's executive producer. "I remember one day during a wardrobe fitting, they showed me photos of him in shorts. I was ticked off at what good shape he's in. Then Andre [Braugher, his less-than-svelte costar] came in and I felt better. So we've got a couple scenes this year where I make sure he gets his comeuppance. I'm just not going to say how."
Sounds like that could involve the colonoscopy Bakula's character — unemployed actor Terry — signs up for. But he's not the only one dealing with the discomfort that comes with turning 50. Divorced dad Joe (Romano) will dabble with dating two women at once while struggling to qualify for the senior pro golf tour. The third member of their fiftysomething fellowship, car salesman Owen (Braugher), will have his own midlife crisis to contend with when he finally confronts his oppressive father, who continues to treat him like a child.
It's the perpetually single Terry, however, who may go through the biggest transition. Free-spirited and noncommittal when it comes to work, family and women, he'll try
to settle down with all three this year. There's a new job, selling cars for Owen. There's the arrival of his brother (David Newsom, who also played Bakula's brother two decades ago on Quantum Leap). And, says Bakula, there's the biggest challenge of all: "A much more serious relationship than Terry's had in the past" with Erin (series newcomer Melinda McGraw), a woman a lot closer to his age than the twentysomethings he played around with last year.
Although he admits he got a kick out of playing a playboy like Terry, Bakula's excited about turning his character into someone more like himself. "I've never been a guy interested in 25-year-old girls as girlfriends," says Bakula, who has two sons with his wife of 14 years, actress Chelsea Field. "And my friends who are complain to me, 'We've got nothing to talk about. It's not working out.' And I'm like, 'Is there any surprise that's what happens?'"
That reaction isn't a surprise to anyone who knows him. "Scott's character may be fearful and narcissistic, but Scott is the opposite," says Braugher, 48, whose family enjoys hanging out with Bakula's brood. "He's a very brave, loving man."
His Men of a Certain Age role is certainly a departure from the "ageless" characters he's played, like body-hopping Sam Beckett in Quantum Leap and Starfleet captain Jonathan Archer on Enterprise. "The sci-fi thing puts you in another place. The import of age isn't there," he says. "It's not real because it's sci-fi, so how old you are, what color you are...you get to chuck all that out the window. But because this show is so much about age, it's different for me."
As for Leap, the show itself seems to have become timeless. From 1989 to 1993, the series bounced around on NBC's schedule just as Sam Beckett bounced around in time. The fan base may have been small, but nearly two decades after it went off the air, Bakula is still stopped all the time by fans who reminisce about how much the show meant to them.
"The show's idea that if we could go back and make different decisions, life can turn out better...that's an overwhelming idea for people," he says, noting that Leap creator Don Bellisario is writing a film version of the script that could include a cameo for Bakula and former costar Dean Stockwell.
Whether or not the movie ever gets made, though, he's happy with the show's legacy. It's aged gracefully, not unlike the man himself. He may play a guy trying to avoid growing older, but in real life, he's very comfortable being a man of a certain age. Especially after a check-up with his doctor last year, just as he started work on his series' first season.
"I'd turned 55. And he said, 'Now get ready to start the second half.' I was like, 'Thanks for that,'" he says. "That's a great way of looking at life. I like that optimism."