Patrick Swayze: the image of dignity, decency and defiance

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Though it was not his first film or even his breakthrough -- he’d already had that three years earlier with “Dirty Dancing” -- my favorite memory of Patrick Swayze came in 1990 with the romantic thriller “Ghost” with Demi Moore: He played a man whose love was so strong that, despite being gunned down in the street, he refused to leave this life until he knew she was safe.

Like countless other women around the country, I suddenly wanted to buy a potter’s wheel, slip into a guy’s oversized white shirt and work with clay, the Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody” playing in the background.

As he was in “Ghost,” Swayze tended to be cast as the noble sort, the decent one, whether as the leader of a band of Colorado teenagers fighting evil forces in 1984’s “Red Dawn,” or the post-apocalyptic warrior of 1987’s “Steel Dawn.” Even when society had labeled him a bad guy, when anger and outrage came it was because someone else had stepped over a line and it was up to him to make things right, as he did as a bouncer-drifter in the gritty 1989 flick “Road House.”

It was that decency and dignity, along with that defiance, that he would bring to his final challenge as he fought the pancreatic cancer that would fell him at 57, too soon. Rising above the denial and diffusion that characterizes so much of Hollywood, Swayze told Guy Adams in Britain’s Independent in January after he’d gone through a difficult round of chemotherapy, “Yeah, I’m angry; yeah, I’m scared,” as if to say otherwise would be insane.

Whatever the role, Swayze brought to it the body and grace of a panther, an effortless sense of movement that took Baby’s breath away in “Dirty Dancing,” giving Jennifer’s Grey’s character the courage and support she needed to find herself. He seemed content to stay in the background, amused by the irony of the affluent at play in that ‘60s Catskills summer. The lifts and spins when they danced were stunning, but there was a modesty Swayze brought to the character, as if he understood that he was just a part-time player in Baby’s drama, a soon-to-be afterthought.

You felt that generosity of spirit was really Swayze, and by all accounts it was. It was there again and again on screen as he seemed forever to be stepping back to let someone else dominate the spotlight. And because of that quality, you couldn’t help but notice him, the quiet intensity, the goodness, pulling the eye back in his direction.

Swayze was one of the many young actors whose careers would get an early boost in 1983 in Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Outsiders,” based on the S.E. Hinton cult novel that captured disenfranchised youth before many adults realized they existed. He was the angry older brother of Ponyboy, from the wrong side of the tracks, fighting other people’s battles, wishing for more. Stars were born in that film, many that would burn brighter than Swayze -- Tom Cruise, Diane Lane, Matt Dillon, Rob Lowe among them.

His best working years were the ‘80s and ‘90s, when he found substantial work mostly in film, though he made a significant stand as the dashing soldier Orry Main in the acclaimed 1985 miniseries “North and South.”

The truth is, Swayze just never fit the Hollywood hunk mold, though he had that reddish brown hair, blue-sky eyes, chiseled cheeks and equally chiseled abs going for him. There were no strange eccentricities, no sex tapes to be leaked. He was, by all accounts, a professional on set, a worthy colleague for any actor who played opposite him whether friend or foe; kind to the crew; generous to a fault; sentimental and not ashamed of it.

Maybe that’s in part because Swayze was really never raised for this world. A Houston native who grew up dancing and riding horses, he married the love of his life, Lisa Niemi, when they were still young. They stayed together more than 34 years, until the end, spending their time just outside L.A. on what in Texas we would call a spread; here it was dubbed Rancho Bizarro.

Swayze’s values were rooted in this country’s heartland ethics, and like his Texas twang, they stayed with him, he held them close. The actor had no taste for the tabloid culture and until he was dying, it had no taste for him -- then and only then, it would not let him alone. They should be ashamed.

His cancer was diagnosed in early 2008, but, not content to go gently into that good night, Swayze defied all -- including death -- and took on the lead in an A&E drama series, “The Beast.” You had to wonder, as you watched the ferocity of his performance as an FBI undercover agent with a dark back story, if he’d given the name “The Beast” to the disease as well.

By the time the show premiered in early 2009, the exquisite bones that had once carved out handsome some 25 years ago had become so gaunt they cast dark shadows on his face, gave his smiles a forced look. Still he carried on.

Years from now, most of us won’t remember “The Beast,” and visions of a young, handsome Swayze will more likely spin through our memory, when he was strong and invincible. The quiet warrior, who always accorded respect to his adversary.

And so it was in the end. Cancer may have taken him, but it did not defeat him.