'Dirty Dancing,' 'Ghost' Highlighted Swayze's Film Career

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Patrick Swayze, 57, an actor who enjoyed success in Hollywood as the snake-hipped charmer of "Dirty Dancing" and a romantic lead from beyond the grave in "Ghost," died Sept. 14, his publicist reported from Los Angeles. He had pancreatic cancer.

A former ballet and Broadway dancer, Mr. Swayze rarely received more than tepid reviews for his onscreen emotional range. But he found enduring mass approval for a handful of movie roles that took advantage of his muscular build, tousled hair and charismatic swagger.

Rita Kempley, a former Washington Post film critic, once described Mr. Swayze's appeal as "a cross of Brando and Balanchine. From the neck up, he looks like a guy who could fix your carburetor; from the neck down he has the body of an Olympian."

Mr. Swayze's best-remembered movies -- "Dirty Dancing" (1987) with Jennifer Grey and "Ghost" (1990) with Demi Moore -- were unexpected hits that relied more on terrific soundtracks and appealing performances than dramatic plausibility.

"Dirty Dancing" featured Mr. Swayze as a dangerously hunky Catskills dance teacher named Johnny Castle who teams with a guest's shy daughter for a dance performance at a neighboring hotel. They also fall in love.

Mr. Swayze co-wrote and sang a hit song from the film, "She's Like the Wind," which reached No. 3 on the pop charts.

Film critic Vincent Canby, writing in the New York Times, said Mr. Swayze was "at his best -- as is the movie -- when he's dancing."

"Dirty Dancing" made a fortune at the box office, a fact largely attributed to female ticket-buyers wowed by Mr. Swayze. Eleanor Bergstein, the film's writer and co-producer, told Parade magazine, "I wanted a hooded quality in the eyes -- someone a father would never want for his daughter."

When she saw Mr. Swayze, Bergstein said, "I told him I couldn't imagine doing the movie without him."

After several action films, Mr. Swayze eagerly accepted the role of an investment banker in "Ghost." His character, killed during a robbery, helps his lover (Moore) solve the crime with the aid of a psychic played by Whoopi Goldberg.

A signature moment showed Mr. Swayze's dead character embracing Moore as "Unchained Melody" swells.

Despite brief success as a heartthrob, Mr. Swayze career remained uneven. He was a philosophy major turned bouncer in "Road House" (1989); a Chicago police officer avenging his brother's murder in "Next of Kin" (1989); and a surfing bank robber in "Point Break" (1991). In the last, he performed his own skydiving stunts.

Most of the action films met with critical disappointment. So did his attempts for a more daring career, from the drag queen Vida Boheme he played in "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar" (1995) to the suicidally forlorn American doctor who finds redemption in Calcutta in "City of Joy" (1992).

Mr. Swayze prepared for the latter role by volunteering to work with the dying at Mother Teresa's Calcutta clinic and told The Post, "This film is about my insides screaming to move further as an actor, to see what's on the other side."

Patrick Wayne Swayze was born Aug. 18, 1952, in Houston, where he performed at his mother's ballet school. This prompted bullying by other kids, he said. With his mother's approval, he beat them up.

His mother, Patsy Swayze, later choreographed dance sequences in the John Travolta film "Urban Cowboy" (1980). His father, Jesse Wayne Swayze, an alcoholic, died in 1982. Mr. Swayze said he also struggled with heavy drinking for many years in Hollywood.

Survivors include his wife, Lisa Niemi, whom he married in 1975; his mother; two brothers, including actor Don Swayze; and a sister, Bambi Swayze.

Besides dancing, Mr. Swayze played football and studied martial arts as a youth. He won a gymnastics scholarship to San Jacinto College in Houston before dropping out to skate in a touring "Disney on Parade" ice revue as Prince Charming in "Snow White."

He left for New York at 19 and attended the Joffrey and Harkness ballet schools. He began to study acting after an old knee injury from football harmed his career as a dancer with the Eliot Feld Ballet.

In 1978, he made a positive impression as a replacement Danny Zuko in the long-running Broadway musical "Grease"; Barry Bostwick had originated the part onstage, and John Travolta played the film Zuko. Mr. Swayze's transition to movies came in 1979 with the roller-disco drama "Skatetown U.S.A." as a gang leader named Ace Johnson.

The film was trashed by critics, but Mr. Swayze won ecstatic reviews. Kevin Thomas, writing in the Los Angeles Times, said "not since Valentino did his tango in 'The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse' has there been such a confident display of male sexuality."

Mr. Swayze remained a busy supporting actor on television and in film during the next several years, appearing mostly in tough roles in films such as "The Outsiders" (1983), "Uncommon Valor" (1983) and "Red Dawn" (1984).

He also was a brutal team captain in the hockey drama "Youngblood" (1986) and had leading roles in "Steel Dawn" (1987), a violent sci-fi drama that co-starred his wife, and "Tiger Warsaw" (1988), a poorly received small-budget feature about a man who returns home 15 years after shooting his father.

He also had a supporting role in the miniseries "North and South," which aired on ABC in 1985 and 1986, and stood out for his likability in an otherwise panned production.

Starting in the mid-1990s, he continued to appear on camera but in smaller roles, such as a born-again motivational speaker in "Donnie Darko" (2001). He also raised Arabian horses, rodeo cattle and peacocks on farmland he owned in California and New Mexico and learned to fly single-engine planes.

While undergoing chemotherapy for his cancer, which was diagnosed last year, he received good reviews for his gritty portrayal of an undercover FBI agent in "The Beast" (2009), a drama series for the A&E cable network.

Mr. Swayze missed only one day of work while filming the series. "One thing I'm not going to do is chase staying alive," he told interviewer Barbara Walters at the time. "You spend so much time chasing staying alive, you won't live."

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