Patrick Swayze (1952 – 2009)

Half-way thru watching the A&E series “The Beast”, I couldn’t help but think to myself ‘Ya know what? Patrick Swayze looks and is acting quite well for someone battling a debilitating disease. I’ve a feeling he’s going to beat this thing!’. That was my optimism – but that was also Patrick Swayze’s sanguinity. The man went out with more ‘Hope’ than a “Days of Our Lives” episode. Even in his final days, the dancing superstar remained not only buoyant, but very busy working in TV (the abovementioned cop series “The Beast”, which he played a could-be crooked fed) and in film (He was last seen in the ensemble drama “Powder Blue”)… and if I’d had enough money to gamble with (which I don’t), I’d have laid down a few bucks on Swayze continuing to work for quite a while yet. He just seemed…. fine.

I think that’s why this has come as a shock to most of us. Patrick Swayze knew his days were numbered – but we didn’t.

We knew Swayze was battling Pancreatic Cancer, and we’ve all seen the pictures showing how emaciated he’d gotten, but the guy was up-and-about, always bright and breezy, and regularly photographed doing something frivolous – be it running, or just picnicking in the park with his family. But that was a man making the most of his final days – and it should be a lesson to us all. The guy knew he was fading, but he wasn’t going to go out frowning… he wanted to appreciate all the time he had left. And it seems he did. It’s courageous… it’s a sad, but beautiful thing.

It was likely “North & South”, the 80s TV series which put him on the map and led to “Dirty Dancing”, that I first saw Swayze in. Overnight, he became a big-time pin-up and the next big thing. The film of his that probably made the biggest impression early on was “Red Dawn” (1984). Terrific movie. One of the best films of the era – and Swayze was magnificent in it. Just check out his final scene with on-screen brother Charlie Sheen again and tell me you’re not goosebumping up. But of course “The Outsiders” was another film that we’ll all remember him from too. I remember seeing that film at the theatre in the early 1980s – and though I don’t honestly remember being impressed by Swayze’s performance, if only because the film was packed with so many good turns (C.Thomas Howell, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, Ralph Macchio et al), it was a landmark film for it’s time. Having had to later study the film in high school, I must’ve ended up watching it a dozen more times.

But yeah, “Dirty Dancing” was the film that made Patrick Swayze a bonafide box-office superstar. He not only bought proficient dance moves to the role of Johnny Castle, he bought magnetism, charisma and likeability. That character could’ve come off as a smug, cocky perfectionist in another actor’s hands, but Swayze’s big-bear performance saw Castle win the audience over almost immediately. (At the same time, he also showed us what a great singing voice he has – singing the ditty ‘She’s Like The Wind’ for the soundtrack).

Strangely enough – considering “Dirty Dancing” was a musical – Swayze, whose mother was a choreographer and ballet dancer, became somewhat typecast as an ‘action star’ after that. I don’t quite know how that happened, I assume his physique got the better of him… or his manager at the time. And though “Steel Dawn” and “Next of Kin” were easily forgettable, he did give us the all-time action ‘classic’ “Roadhouse” – a favourite in any beer-guzzling bloke household. Ah, Dalton!

I remember at the time reading about Patrick’s battle with the bottle. He’d lost his father, and the only way he could deal with it (and his other problems) was by drinking. His wife, former student Lisa Niemi stood by him through this. Very admirable. An indication of their strong bond. I know we’ve all been there at one stage or another though – drinking to block out bad memories – if even to that not extent. He was magazine fodder for the remaining years of the 80s… and it wasn’t until “Ghost” that his acting suddenly became prominent again. And so it should’ve. A film Paul Hogan passed on (thank god!), Jerry Zucker’s romantic-thriller had it all – - mostly, lots of warm-and-fuzzies…. And such wonderful stuff between Patrick and Demi Moore. Whoopi Goldberg may have won the Oscar for the film – - but if awards were given out to people who evoked the most tears in the audience, Swayze would’ve definitely scored one for his performance as Sam Wheat.

“Point Break” followed – the fun surf-thriller co-starring Keanu Reeves – and for the most part, that would be Swayze’s last big movie. After that, he started to break free of the action-hero persona and tackle other things. Films like “City of Joy”, “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything Julie Newmar” and “Fatherhood” just didn’t seem to work for him. His fans stayed away in droves. Sad that his appeal had waned so quickly.

And it was around this time that Swayze again became magazine fodder – this time for all the plastic surgery he’d ‘allegedly’ had. Most of the articles about the work he’d apparently had were inconveniently timed with the release of his trucker actioner “Black Dog”. Whether he did or not, I don’t know, and I don’t fuckin’ care – all I’m saying is, nobody seemed much interested in his movies there for a while… and it had a little bit more to do with the films themselves. Print media turned on – as they do most actors at one stage in their lives – Swayze. The same print media that will be singing his praises today, yeah.

Swayze did a lot of smaller films in the 90s – some of them quite good, if little-seen. There was a terrific movie called “Green Dragon” that he did for director Timothy Linh Bui. In it, he played an army sergeant who befriends the Vietnamese refugees as they first arrive at Camp Pendleton in the United States as the Vietnam war ends in 1975. He was amazing in that movie; he really was – it’s probably one of the best performances he’s ever given. It’s so sad the film went nowhere. Hopefully y’all discover it now.

Swayze’s highest-profile gigs in recent years included a cameo in the atrocious “Dirty Dancing : Havana Nights”, a small role in the acclaimed indy hit “Donnie Darko”, and a hilarious performance as a scumbag tennis-coach in the British comedy “Keeping’ Mum”.

It was upon seeing his performance as Lance in the 2005 comedy that producers (those who’d optioned the script at the time) preceded to talk to Swayze about playing the role of Dennis Camrock – a cocky skunk-loving studio head that’s closets are overflowing with skeletons – in a film I’d written, “First Howl”. I couldn’t think of anyone more perfect for the role – and as the film was written as somewhat of a love-letter to the 80s, and the product of the era, everyone was in unison… all agreed it’d be perfect to have Swayze be a part of it. And it looked good there for a while. We were talking costumes. We were talking drumming up his lines. But then… he got sick. And suddenly Patrick wasn’t taking on any more parts – not immediately anyway. We let it rest.

I’m just glad of one thing – the “Point Break” sequel was canceled just a few days shy of Swayze’s death. Sometimes god can offer you a final bit of peace before he unlatches the lock on the pearly gates.

To Patrick Swayze : Thank you Sir, for many, many good times. I’ll never forget working my first job at the Stargazer Drive-In… but I’ll largely remember it for the umpteen sessions of ‘Dirty Dancing’ we’d been blessed with.

I’m actually really sad right now….

Rest in peace, Patrick.