“My life has been full of sorrows & full of happiness. It’s been an incredible journey.”
September 25, 2009
By Mandi Bierly
Photograph by Mary Ellen Mark
“No matter what opinion Hollywood has of you," Patrick Swayze once told ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY, "the fans never forget you if you never forget them." It was 2005, and he was phoning from the California compound he and his longtime wife, Lisa Niemi, called Rancho Bizarro. Located in the San Gabriel Mountains outside of Los Angeles, the ranch was a creative haven with its own dance studio, a subterranean recording studio, and a barn that housed both their offices and Egyptian Arabian horses. It went without saying then, as it does now, that Patrick Swayze wasn't in danger of being forgotten. Though he was nominated for three Golden Globes over the course of his 30‑year career, Swayze measured his success by lives touched, not money made or awards won. That day in 2005, he spoke almost with awe about the fact that when 1987's Dirty Dancing and 1990's Ghost were first available on VHS, fans spent nearly $100 each to own them. "That people paid that much money then, it just meant, ‘Wow, those movies really did touch them,’" he said. He talked about how he had recently visited troops on the USS Harry S. Truman aircraft carrier and been blown away by the reception he got. "When I found out that they watch my movies every day of the week – Red Dawn for four days; Next of Kin, Road House, and Point Break the others ‑ I thought, I ought to make sure I put out there that I really believe this is the day of the peaceful warrior." On Sept. 14, at the age of 57, Hollywood's own peaceful warrior died after an extraordinarily brave and dignified 20‑month battle with pancreatic cancer. Swayze had initially responded well to treatment, and spent four months working 12‑hour days on the A&E undercover drama The Beast while undergoing chemotherapy. He refused to take medication that might hinder what would become his final onscreen performance ‑ even though the pain became so intense that he'd find himself curled up on the bathroom floor at 3 a.m., muffling a scream so he wouldn't wake the woman he'd loved since he was 19.
After he passed away, tributes poured in from friends and colleagues. "Patrick was a rare and beautiful combination of raw masculinity and amazing grace," recalled his Dirty Dancing costar Jennifer Grey. Whoopi Goldberg, who won an Oscar for her role opposite Swayze in Ghost, added that "Patrick was a really good man, a funny man, and one to whom I owe much that I can't ever repay."
Born to a Texas cowboy and a dance instructor (Urban Cowboy choreographer Patsy Swayze), Patrick Swayze grew up in Houston, taking classes at his mother's studio and getting bullied so badly that he began studying martial arts. (He also took up so many sports, so successfully, that he earned the nickname Troph.) Swayze moved to New York City, where he trained with both the Harkness and Joffrey Ballets. In 1975, he married Niemi, whom he'd met while she was a student of his mother's. A knee injury eventually closed the door on his ballet career, but a window had opened on Broadway, where a manager quickly discovered him while he was playing Danny Zuko in Grease.
As he told EW years ago, his film debut was the movie he'd most like to see removed from his résumé: 1979's SkatetownUSA (a.k.a. "The Rock and Roller Disco Movie of the Year"). After that project, Swayze held out for meatier roles. It paid off. Before long, he was playing a soldier who learns he has leukemia in a 1981 episode of M*A*S*H; the protective older brother to Rob Lowe and C. Thomas Howell in 1983's The Outsiders; the young gun in Gene Hackman's rogue platoon in 1983's Uncommon Valor; a leader of the teenage Wolverines trying to save his Colorado town from invading Soviet forces in 1984's Red Dawn; and a Southern rebel making friends with his first Yankee at West Point on the eve of the Civil War in ABC's 1985 miniseries North and South. "Patrick wanted to be Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, and Errol Flynn all wrapped into one," says his Outsiders costar Ralph Macchio.
The first hints of Swayze's stardom emerged in his 1987 breakout film, Dirty Dancing, a fitting showcase for his Kelly‑like masculine dancing style. Dancing was an independent film that no one, or at least none of the first 40 people producer Linda Gottlieb originally approached, wanted to make. But watching Swayze's Johnny Castle, the brooding dance instructor with beautifully sculpted back muscles, move his hips to a soundtrack that spent 18 weeks at No. 1 (and included Swayze's own chart‑topping adult contemporary hit, "She's Like the Wind"), a generation of teens instantly came of age. Swayze's Look of Love ‑ the one that said he wanted you so badly it hurt, so badly it might make him cry ‑ also seduced their mothers, who saw in Johnny the misunderstood bad boy they wished they'd gone out with. Dirty Dancing later became the first film to sell one million copies on VHS, and, according to a 2007 poll, remains the movie that British women watch most often. "He was one of the most creative, enjoyable, and alive people I knew” says director‑choreographer Kenny Ortega, who worked with Swayze on his routines for both Dirty Dancing and To Wong Foo, Thanks for EverythingJulieNewmar. "He did as much for dancing as any man of our generation."
After the success of Dirty Dancing, Swayze was offered everything from a cologne deal to a record contract. But he was determined not to be pigeonholed as a gyrating boy toy. He sought cover (figuratively, at least, since he was still often shirtless) in action films that let him run in what he called "crazy Swayze adrenaline‑junkie mode." The movies he chose appealed to the side of him that was a self-proclaimed "searcher." To Swayze, Road House showcased the beauty of martial arts via a bouncer with a philosophy degree from New York University, and Point Break explored the spiritual side of a Zen‑like surfer/bank robber. Today, Road House is a cult classic and a staple of cable TV, but when it was released in 1989 it grossed a mere $30 million ‑ and nearly cost Swayze a role in the only film he ever made that was Oscar‑nominated for Best Picture: Ghost. The story goes that after seeing Road House, Ghost director Jerry Zucker refused to even audition him for the role of moony murder victim Sam because he thought of the actor as "stoic, macho, and humorless." Zucker eventually relented, and by the end of Swayze's audition, Zucker said he had tears in his eyes. Ditto movie audiences, who watched Swayze deliver one of the most comforting lines in cinema history to Demi Moore as he walked into the light: "It's amazing, Molly. The love inside, you take it with you." It was the first movie Swayze made with which he was 100 percent happy.
Ghost brought greater fame and accolades (PEOPLE named him Sexiest Man Alive in 1991). But these were also years of personal turmoil. Swayze did a stint in rehab for alcohol abuse in 1993, and his sister Vicky committed suicide the following year. By the mid‑'90s, he was ready to work again, this time focused on playing interesting characters instead of the usual action heroes and dreamboats.
The actor made what he later jokingly called "a conscious decision to have a great time screwing up my career." Thank heavens he did: His next movies were surprising and revealed new colors to his acting. In 1995, he played the proud and elegant drag queen Vida Boheme in To Wong Foo. (For his audition, he improvised a 30‑minute monologue based on the bullying he suffered as a young Texan in tights.) Despite the potentially risky subject matter, the film opened at No. 1, and earned Swayze his third Golden Globe nomination (after Dirty Dancing and Ghost) for a performance EW called a "serene, sweet glide" at the time. Then, in 2001, he turned heads again playing a closeted pedophile in the cult hit Donnie Darko. Supporting the film at the Sundance Film Festival that year, he explained, "In my career, when you get offered an absolute fortune for crap, your insides start screaming for some kind of fulfillment. When I started meeting with some of these young filmmakers, the passion was restored in my life .... This is the fifth reinvention of Patrick Swayze."
Swayze's new motto, "Never work for money, only for passion,” brought more unexpected turns on screen, ranging from a horny golf pro in 2005's Keeping Mum to the long‑haired, heavily eye-linered owner of the strip club where Jessica Biel plies her trade in 2009's Powder Blue. It also led to a return to the stage (with the musical Chicago on Broadway in 2003, and Guys and Dolls in London in 2006), and the sixth reinvention of Patrick Swayze: TV star. In December 2007, he shot the pilot for the gritty A&E drama The Beast, playing the undercover and possibly rogue FBI agent Charles Barker.
A month later, just as A&E was about to greenlight the series, Swayze received his cancer diagnosis. He told the producers he planned to "cowboy up" and fight the disease, and his determination persuaded network execs to wait for him. By July, he had resumed filming in Chicago, and managed to complete the entire season. "You could do the show for weeks on end without this ever crossing your mind or being a topic of conversation," exec producer John Romano said shortly after production wrapped. "But we're always quietly aware of the fundamental greatness of heart, the terrific act of courage, that stands behind and informs this incredibly intense performance."
"Patrick was a really good man...I believe in Ghost's message, so he'll always be near. ‑Whoopi Goldberg
Swayze's hard‑fought battle may be over, but his story hasn't ended. On Sept. 29, Atria will publish Swayze's inspirational memoir The Time of My Life, co‑written with his wife (see sidebar). If it's anything like their previous labor of love, a film called One Last Dance that was loosely based on their time as concert dancers in New York City, it will be both deeply personal and emotionally universal. "Dance is a metaphor for life," Swayze told EW in 2005. "You're born. You peak. Your physical body goes downhill, but your spirit stays intact." • (Additional reporting by Benjamin Svetkey)