It’s heartening to read the clearly sincere tributes to Patrick Swayze, dead at 57 after a balls-out 20-month battle with pancreatic cancer. There aren’t many actors who could suffer aggressive chemotherapy and still film 13 episodes of The Beast, which debuted on A&E in January. Look, The Beast wasn’t much of a show, and it was hard to watch Swayze’s ravaged face in the role of an undercover F.B.I. agent. But he fought his battles on his terms, not at the dictates of a medical diagnosis. I met Swayze only once. He was doing Chicago the Musical on Broadway, singing and dancing as shyster lawyer Billy Flynn. As ever, he was muscular poetry in motion. Backstage, he shook my hand, stared hard, and called me out on my review of Road House, a 1989 B movie in which he played Dalton, the bouncer at a raucous club in rural Missouri called the Double Deuce.
Didn’t you call it brutal, sexist and stupid,” Swayze asked, hitting me with a Dalton squint. “And didn’t you go on TV after that and say you liked it?” To fill in the deafening silence, I said, “Yeah, and I was right both times.” He burst out laughing. The lines around his eyes showing the laugh-at-life guy his wife and family are now so sorrowfully missing.
I don’t want to use this space to tell you that Swayze was the kind of actor who never got the Oscar he deserved. His range had its limits, but when he was cooking, he did what what real movie stars do — bring us along for the ride through the confidence of their presence. I’ll always remember Patrick Swayze in motion. The guy could dirty dance with real heat, but he could tease himself like nobody’s business. Just thinking of him teaming up with Chris Farley as Chippendale dancers on SNL cracks me up.
In tribute, I’d like to call your attention to some of Swayze’s best movie moments. As movie fans, we all have our favorite Swayze scenes. Please share your own. These are the six I’ll remember — showing a man of extraordinary grace in fluid motion.
Dirty Dancing (1987) Everyone recalls Swayze telling Jennifer Gray’s protective dad, “Nobody puts baby in a corner.” But what sticks with me is Swayze leaping off stage and sweeping Baby into a dance he’s already begun on his own.
Road House (1989) Watch Swayze’s Dalton treat sex as choreography. Nothing as old-hat as the missionary position. He goes at it standing up, slammed against a wall and on a slanted roof.
Ghost (1990). The only movie in Swayze’s career to be Oscar nominated as Best Picture (it lost to Kevin Costner’s wolf-dancing epic) features the famous scene of Swayze and costar Demi Moore turning pottery into erotic art. But the key moment for me is when Swayze, as the ghost of a murdered Yuppie, uses a psychic (Whoopi Goldberg) as a conduit to once again dance with his wife. This is romantic screen acting at its swooniest.
Point Break (1991) The Hurt Locker‘s Kathryn Bigelow directed this cult favorite with Swayze doing many of his own stunts as Bodhi, a surfer and skydiver who moonlights as a bank robber. I can’t be the only one who watches this campfest with genuine affection whenever it’s on the tube. The image of Swayze on a surfboard is a keeper.
To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar! (1995) The charm of Swayze’s performance as drag queen Vida Bohemme is that he never plays the role for easy jokes. The scene where he teaches Chi-Chi Rodriguez (John Leguizamo) to walk like a woman and not a boy in a dress is an illustration of Swayze’s underappreciated gifts.
Donnie Darko (2001) Richard Kelly’s film casts Swayze as self-help fraud and motivational speaker. And Swayze plays him with such charisma and seductive body language that you react in shock to find this font of positive energy is a secret pedophine with child porn in his basement. It’s easily Swayze’s riskiest performance. Just watch him sell it.