as: Dr. Sam Beckett
Quantum Leap was one of the most interesting network shows of the early 1990s. In it, Dr. Sam Beckett travels willy-nilly through time, taking the place of ordinary people at crucial times in their lives and hoping to “put right what once went wrong.” On his missions, if you can call them that, Sam appears to everyone else as the person whose place he’s taken; to viewers at home, he looked like Scott Bakula. Over five seasons and 90-something episodes, Sam saved people’s lives, fought mobsters, flew through the Bermuda Triangle, explored Ancient Egyptian tombs, and was, briefly, a chimp.
Bakula did quite well in the role, scoring four Emmy nominations and a Golden Globe win. However, we feel there’s an actor who would’ve done even better and scored five Emmy wins, five Golden Globe wins, and, somehow, five Academy Awards for his work, with a Tony and a Grammy thrown in for EGOT purposes. That actor, of course, is Thomas Steven Wopat.
Why Not Wopat?
Quantum Leap debuted at the tail end of the 1988-1989 television season, a good four years after the end of The Dukes of Hazzard. Wopat would’ve been in prime position for a solid return to the boob tube—enough time had passed that he wouldn’t’ve automatically been “Luke Duke” to every viewer who saw him, but it also wasn’t so long ago that he’d’ve been forgotten.
Initially, the show struggled a bit in the ratings. At the time, Scott Bakula was a quintessential “that guy” on television and in movies. With a more established star like Tom Wopat in the lead role, Quantum Leap would almost certainly been a bigger hit from the get-go.
Like the show itself was fond of pointing out, one small change in the past can have a big impact on the future: if Wopat brought better ratings for the first season, the subsequent second season would’ve been given a bigger budget, which would’ve led to overall better-quality episodes, which would almost certainly translated to larger viewership and higher ratings, which starts the whole “bigger budget” cycle all over again.
Instead of running “just” five seasons, a higher-rated Quantum Leap could’ve continued to air new episodes for many more years. Someone put Donald P. Bellisario in the show’s time machine and have him put right the casting choice that once went… not wrong, exactly, because Bakula was pretty great… hmm… how about, “put right the casting choice that could’ve been even better”? That works.