As the dancing ends

As the dancing ends

Patrick Swayze, who has died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 57 was a beefcake leading man with rugged, unpretty looks and a lean dancer’s physique, who enjoyed staggering success in Reagan-Bush-era America with two classic movie roles.

In Dirty Dancing (1987), he was Johnny Castle, a summer-camp dance teacher from the wrong side of the tracks, who falls in love with one of his pupils, Frances ‘Baby’ Houseman, a teenage girl from a posh, uptight family whose world is rocked by Johnny’s steamy dance moves. At the end of the movie, Johnny strides into the dance hall to find that she has been forced to sit demurely with her parents at a table well away from the action.

“Nobody puts Baby in the corner!” he declares, and whisks her centre-stage for some spectacular choreography. The image of the blonde princess emotionally liberated by the bad boy with the heart of gold was adored by movie audiences: it was irresistibly similar to Princess Diana dancing with John Travolta at the White House two years before.
Three years later, in Ghost (1990), Patrick Swayze was Sam Wheat, a yuppie banker deeply in love with his ceramic-artist fiancée Molly, played by Demi Moore. Sam is killed by a mugger in the movie’s sensational opening scene, but returns as a ghost to watch over the love of his life. It became America’s favourite date movie, with a much-loved, much-parodied scene in which half-naked Sam embraces Molly from behind as she caresses an oozing brown pot upwards into shape, to the accompaniment of the Righteous Brothers singing ‘Unchained Melody’. This film, too, partook a little of the changing zeitgeist: Patrick Swayze’s gentle phantom-yuppie showed an America interested in a more vulnerable, caring leading man as an antidote to the triumphalist 1980s.

After these movies, Swayze never quite progressed to the A-list, though he did well as the charismatic surfer-dude in Kathryn Bigelow’s 1991 action-thriller Point Break, opposite Keanu Reeves. A workmanlike career unravelled, without letting Swayze’s personality cohere into a clear star-identity.

Typecasting, and a battle with alcoholism hampered any rise to the top. He was the decent American expatriate in Calcutta in Roland Joffé’s City Of Joy (1992), and the wacky drag artist in Beeban Kidron’s To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything!, Julie Newmar (1995). As ex-con Jack Crews in Black Dog (1998), he had to drive a truck full of illicit weapons across country.

It wasn’t until his scene-stealing turn in Richard Kelly’s cult-classic psychological nightmare Donnie Darko (2001), playing the sinister motivational speaker Jim Cunningham, that Swayze’s career found a new act. His looks were now those of a character actor, and a new generation of moviegoers responded to his muscular presence, and direct address to the camera.

He was born in Houston, Texas; his mother, Patsy Yvonne Swayze, was a choreographer with the Houston Jazz and Ballet Company, and she drove Patrick hard as a boy towards a career in dance — and specifically in ballet, not an easy choice for a young Texan male. Swayze became a sports star in high school and got an athletics scholarship to Houston’s San Jacinto College.

After graduating, he moved to New York City, where he became the principal dancer at the Eliot Feld ballet company, but recurrent physical injuries compelled a strategic move into the theatre. On Broadway, he tore up the stage as Danny Zuko in Grease, which attracted the notice of Hollywood, and so moved to Los Angeles.

His big break came courtesy of Francis Ford Coppola, who allowed Swayze to develop his greaser persona in the teen drama The Outsiders (1983), the movie which also launched Tom Cruise and Rob Lowe. His breakthrough in Dirty Dancing played perfectly to Swayze’s strengths: dancing, masculinity, sweaty sensuality. It became one of the first films to find a vast audience in the booming new home video market. After Ghost, People magazine voted him one of the Sexiest People Alive.

After that, things took a turn for the worse. His personal life was troubled; deeply affected by his father’s death from a heart attack and his sister’s suicide in 1994, Swayze repeatedly relapsed into alcoholism. He broke both legs in a horse-riding stunt in 1996 filming the HBO movie Letters From a Killer, which caused career stagnation and depression. There was more controversy when Swayze made an emergency landing in Arizona in 2000 in his twin-engine Cessna, and appeared to attempt to remove a stash of beer and wine from the plane.

After his comeback in Donnie Darko, Swayze presented a calmer, more relaxed face to the world. His likable, easygoing personality struck a chord with London stage audiences, playing Nathan Detroit in the West End revival of Guys And Dolls in 2006. He also played opposite Kristin Scott Thomas and Rowan Atkinson in the British comedy Keeping Mum.
He is survived by his wife Lisa Niemi, his boyhood sweetheart from Houston, whom he married in 1975.

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