Patrick Swayze, who died this morning at the age of 57 from advanced pancreatic cancer, was a Hollywood leading man despite working in an era that didn't quite know what to make of him. A handsome, graceful man, Swayze was a movie star, which made him a throwback to a simpler, pre-method acting era when he was at the peak of his popularity in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Born and raised in Houston, Texas Swayze was the son of an engineering draftsman and a dance instructor. As an actor he would combine those two schools: Swayze was a trained dancer who had a string of action films to his name; he understood both balletic and blunt force.
A quick succession of action-orientated roles beginning in 1983 – Uncommon Valour, The Outsiders, Red Dawn – broke him into film and the 1985 American Civil War mini-series, North & South, solidified his nascent stardom before the first of his iconic roles, as dance teacher Johnny Castle in 1987's Dirty Dancing.
The film is teenage melodrama, flush with passion and a surprising perception of class differences, but it's best remembered for Swayze's iconic line upon taking the hand of his co-star, Jennifer Grey, before the dance finale: “Nobody puts Baby in a corner.” Swayze delivered the line straight, without irony or self-deprecation, and that was a stance he adhered to.
His dominant screen qualities were a valiant spirit and righteous purposefulness, and it carried through to his other defining role as a leading man, opposite Demi Moore in 1990's Ghost. Swayze had the commitment to make very broad scenes work – and Ghost had a few of them – and he was a masculine presence that female audiences flocked to.
He made too many action flicks, with the one classic title (1991's Point Break opposite Keanu Reeves for director Kathryn Bigelow) mirrored by a masterpiece of misplaced camp (1989's Road House, where he played a legendary bouncer).
His career never recovered from the box-office failure in 1992 of Roland Joffe's City of Joy, where Swayze played a disillusioned doctor who ends up working in a Calcutta slum.
After that he alternated between low-budget leading roles and interesting supporting roles, most notably as a deeply flawed motivation speaker in 2001's Donnie Darko. If he'd been at his peak either today or 50 years ago, Swayze would have worked for the leading directors, but as it was his career was highly successful without ever challenging his screen image.
Swayze was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in January of 2008 and brought the same vigour to his fight for life that he did to his characters on screen. Alongside his wife of 34 years, Lisa, he endured various treatments, with his condition dramatically fluctuating between apparent good health and worrying gauntness. He worked on his final role, as an undercover FBI agent in the television series The Beast, until the final few months of his life.
“Am I dying? Am I giving up? Am I on my death bed? Am I saying goodbye to people? No way,” said Swayze, typically upbeat, in a recent television interview. “I keep dreaming of a future, with a long and healthy life, not lived in the shadow of cancer but in the light.”