Patrick Sawyze: not Hollywood’s greatest actor, but perhaps its nicest guy

[15 September 2009]

By Carrie Rickey

The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

(Abaca Press/MCT)

(Abaca Press/MCT)

Patrick Swayze, the two-fisted Texan who danced like a god, died Monday in Los Angeles after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 57.

“Patrick Swayze passed away peacefully today with family at his side after facing the challenges of his illness for the last 20 months,” said a statement released Monday night by his publicist, Annett Wolf. No other details were given.

It’s hard not to think that the one-time gymnast who vaulted to stardom in 1987’s “Dirty Dancing” had rehearsed his premature exit in the 1990 blockbuster “Ghost.”

As the banker who solves his own murder mystery, he speaks from the dead to his living sweetheart, Demi Moore. Swayze, impossibly sexy and throbbingly sensitive, tells her: “It’s amazing, the love inside. You take it with you.”

That’s a reassuring thought for Lisa Niemi, Swayze’s wife of 34 years years, and for his many fans who greeted the actor’s March 2008 announcement that he had Stage IV pancreatic cancer with prayers and prayer circles. (See patrickswayze.net).

There are great actors and there are great screen personalities. Swayze was the latter. His reputation rests on “Dirty Dancing” and “Ghost,” and what made them beloved was his gallantry. Quite simply, he radiated Galahad-like honor. “Patrick possessed a depth of nobility,” said his “Point Break” director Kathryn Bigelow.

Even while undergoing chemotherapy, Swayze put in long hours on the television cable drama “The Beast” on A&E. When well-wishers inquired how he nurtured such a positive attitude despite a prognosis that claims 75 percent of patients within a year, the consummate professional crisply replied, “When the statistics say you’re a dead man? You go to work.”

To quote the phrase made famous by his distant relative, Timex pitchman John Cameron Swayze, throughout a lifetime of physical challenges, the actor took a licking and kept on ticking.

Along with Tom Cruise, Matt Dillon, Emilio Estevez, Rob Lowe and Ralph Macchio, Swayze was cast in Francis Coppola’s “The Outsiders,” the 1983 teen-angst drama considered the first “Brat Pack” film. Although Swayze opted for neither the commercial path taken by Cruise nor the trailblazing one of Dillon, the late actor possessed a spark — and a sparkle — that few of his peers could match.

Even as a teenager, this firstborn son of a cowboy and a choreographer boasted a rugged grace, excelling both on the football gridiron and at the ballet barre. Like John Travolta, whose mother was also a choreographer, Swayze had swagger and sincerity.

But he wasn’t one for locker-room bragging, which he disdained as “kill-that-guy” talk. Between that and the ballet lessons, he was frequently roughed up by the local bullies for being a sissy. Swayze followed the counsel of his mother, Patsy: “Take your ballet slippers outta your pocket and beat the stuffin’ out of them” — “them” being the bullies.

In 1970 the aspiring dancer was awarded a gymnastics scholarship at San Jacinto College in Houston but soon dropped out to play Prince Charming in a national tour of “Disney on Parade.”

When he returned to his native Houston, he first met his future wife, then 14 and a student in his mother’s dancing school. After a brief stint with the Buffalo Ballet, in 1972 he moved to New York City, where he studied and performed with several companies, including the Harkness, Joffrey and Eliot Feld.

A muscular dancer of the Gene Kelly sort, Swayze stuck out like a cactus among the jonquils. “I had 19-inch arms,” he recalled. “I was the Godzilla of ballet.” When an old football injury flared up, he found it increasingly hard to pirouette. Doctors told him he would be crippled, but he defied them and his balky knee by submitting to five surgeries.

As Feld planned a ballet for Swayze and Mikhail Baryshnikov, the future actor had knee reconstruction that nipped his ballet career in the bud. His fortitude throughout was a preview of the stoicism and resolve he brought to his fight against cancer.

That fortitude, however, had a dare-devil downside. In his early years, Swayze was a reckless motorcycle driver and problem drinker. By all accounts, what kept him from spinning out was Niemi. He was 23, she was 19. Because dancing didn’t pay the rent, and his role as Danny Zuko in “Grease” on Broadway only temporary, they supplemented their income through carpentry. When they moved to Hollywood in 1978, one of the homes they rehabbed was that of Jaclyn Smith, the “Charlie’s Angels” star.

The leap from from ballet corps to screen was, as he was the first to admit, shaky. Swayze was a throwback to the 1950s, a looker who could dance. But in the 1970s Hollywood had John Travolta to fill that particular niche. The closest he came was “Skatetown, USA” (1979), a cheesy roller-disco affair; and “Grandview, USA” (1984), a love triangle set in the demolition-derby milieu.

Though he didn’t have much training as an actor, he registered as the stoic teenagers of “The Outsiders” and “Red Dawn” (1984). In the latter, made shortly after his father had died of a massive stroke at age 56, Swayze first wed physical strength with emotional sensitivity, the secret sauce in his best-loved roles. This hunk of beefcake was unusually tender.

Just as he was on the brink of a breakout role, the guy with the secret sauce was hitting the bottle and trashing hotel rooms. At first, he bucked his wife’s efforts to steer him into Alcoholics Anonymous. Then he tapped into that reservoir of willpower and stopped drinking. That’s when a little movie called “Dirty Dancing,” a bad boy/good girl love story released with zero expectations, restarted his career.

Who could forget his Johnny Castle: Black muscle shirt, black jeans, Cuban heels and snake-hipped swagger? As the misunderstood mambo-king dance instructor at a Catskills family resort in 1961, he leaps off the screen like a cross between James Dean and Baryshnikov, lust object of everyone who loved men, role model for everyone who wanted to be a man. His chemistry with co-star Jennifer Grey made the movie a hormonal contact high. (“She’s Like the Wind,” a love song he wrote for his wife, is on the soundtrack and became a chart-topping single.) To paraphrase the film’s most celebrated line, after “Dirty Dancing” no one put Swayze in the corner.

There are good movies and there are bad movies, and he made quite a few in each category. But he carved a unique niche in what might be called good-bad movies: films enjoyable despite their preposterousness. Flicks such as “Road House” (as a bar bouncer with a Ph.D!). And “To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar” (as Vida Boheme, majestic drag queen). And the extravagantly entertaining “Point Break” (as Bodhi, koan-spouting skydiver/surfer/ringmaster of countercultural bank robbers).

After he turned his life around, the actor many called Hollywood’s nicest guy was named People Magazine’s sexiest man in 1991. He and Niemi bought themselves a five-acre spread north of L.A. at the foot of the Angeles National Forest, named it Rancho Bizarro, and populated it with Arabian horses, dogs and peacocks. They tried for children, but after several miscarriages both felt “the window had closed” on their opportunity to become parents.

A longtime student of Buddhism, Swayze was drawn to “City of Joy” (1992), the Calcutta-set film where he plays a dropout doctor who recovers his vocation.

He often delivered dialogue guru-style, and with his passing, some of his oracular lines seem eerily prescient. Swayze’s family and fans (and who is not?) might find comfort in remembering “Point Break,” in which he says, “It’s not tragic to die doing what you love.” Or “The Outsiders,” where as the big brother counseling his baby bro, he says, “Just because you lose somebody, you don’t stop living.”

Besides his wife Lisa, he is survived by his mother, Patsy, and siblings Don, Sean and Bambi.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/111534-patrick-sawyze-not-hollywoods-greatest-actor-but-perhaps-its-nicest-/