Dennis Quaid transformed himself into "The Killer" Jerry Lee Lewis in the 1989 Great Balls of Fire movie. The Jim McBride-directed movie follows the life and career of the 1950s rock 'n roll phenom from his start at Sun Records with Sam Phillips in Memphis, Tennessee, to his path to stardom, and finally, to his downfall. That downfall occurred when the world found out about his marriage to his 13-year-old cousin once removed, Myra Gale Brown. Before the scandal, however, the "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" singer had a rock 'n' roll career which rivaled that of Elvis Presley's. Dennis Quaid was the actor chosen to take on the eccentric rocker Lewis, and the famous singer himself helped train Quaid along the way.
"Jerry Lee was on the set every day, and he carried a bottle of Seagram's 7 in this pocket, and a .38 in this," Quaid told BUILD Series. "And he was behind me every day going, 'You're getting it wrong, son! You're getting it wrong!'"
"It toughened me up," Quaid added.
Telling Quaid he was "getting it wrong" wasn't the most outlandish thing Lewis told the actor on set. According to The Oklahoman, Lewis had some words for Quaid when he first met him.
"Boy, I'm gonna put you in that river (the Mississippi), and you're not going to ever come up," Lewis said.
Quaid took the comments in stride, realizing it was just a part of Lewis' personality.
"That's just Jerry Lee's way of getting to know you," Quaid told The Oklahoman. "He once told me, 'You can't sing like Jerry Lee Lewis.' I told him, 'You can't act like Dennis Quaid, either.' "
Learning how to accurately portray Lewis was no walk in the park for Quaid. In addition to being coached by Lewis, the actor went on the road with the musician to study him. Although the Great Balls of Fire movie did worse than expected at the box office, Lewis was happy with the job Quaid did of portraying him, and Quaid had a newfound respect for the musician.
"He's a real virtuoso, you know," said Quaid. "I think you could stack him up against just about any classical pianist."
Quaid's part in the Great Balls of Fire movie came well into his successful career, and he has gone on to keep that success going into the present day. And Quaid wasn't the only A-list actor who starred in the movie. Here's a list of other notable cast members who portrayed real-life people in the film.
'Great Balls of Fire' Cast
1. Winona Ryder as Myra Gale Brown
Winona Ryder took on the part of Myra Gale Brown (later Myra Lewis and now Myra Lewis Williams), the singer's first cousin once removed and wife, whom he married when she was 13-years-old. Lewis's marriage was the reason for his career decline, leading to declining record sales and concert ticket sales. Brown and Lewis had two children together, and in 1970, Brown filed for divorce citing abuse from Lewis.
"It's not a story that ever went away," Myra Lewis Williams (formerly Myra Gale Brown) said. "I'm still the 13-year-old child bride. Sometimes I say something about Jerry and people say, 'Isn't he the one married the little girl?' and I say, 'Wait a second, you're talking to the little girl now--be careful what you say.'"
In 2016, Williams wrote a book about her experience, The Spark That Survived.
Winona Ryder, of course, has had a storied acting career in films such as Beetlejuice, Little Women, and many more.
2. Alec Baldwin as Jimmy Swaggart
The other A-list actor who starred in Great Balls of Fire! is Alec Baldwin, who played the part of Jimmy Swaggart, Lewis's preacher cousin. The movie finds the two butting heads, as Swaggart lives a godly life and considers his cousin's lifestyle to be sinful. Of course, Alec Baldwin has been in many films and TV shows over the years, with his most famous including Beetlejuice, The Hunt For Red October and The Departed.
3. John Doe as J. W. Brown
Actor/musician John Doe took on the role of J. W. Brown, the father of Myra Gale Brown and the first cousin (and later father-in-law) of Jerry Lee Lewis. Brown was also Lewis's bass player and the person who started the band. Brown was played by musician John Doe in the film, and although he's not an A-list actor, he has had a successful music career and founded the LA punk band, X.
Other roles from the Great Balls of Fire movie include Stephen Tobolowsky as Jud Phillips, Trey Wilson as Sam Phillips, Lisa Blount as Lois Brown, Joshua Sheffield as Rusty Brown, Mojo Nixon as James Van Eaton, Steve Allen as himself, and Michael St. Gerard as Elvis Presley.