When you think of Patrick Swayze, what role do you picture him in? Roadhouse? Ghost? Donnie Darko? Or do you see him as dance instructor Johnny Castle in the 1987 low budget straight to video release that became a global hit and catapulted him to stardom? If it’s the latter, I expect you’re already singing, “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life…”
Prior to 1987, Patrick Swayze had appeared in a couple of films, but no one really knew his name. By 1991, he had been voted Sexiest Man Alive by People magazine, and everyone knew his name – so what happened? The answer is Dirty Dancing. It was a low budget film destined to go straight to video release after one weekend in cinemas, and not even the stars believed it would be a hit, but it proved everyone wrong.
I Was a Teenage Mambo Queen
At a time when most films cost at least $12 million to make, Dirty Dancing had a total budget of just $5 million. Patrick Swayze didn’t like the title, he thought it might give the wrong impression, going so far as to suggest I Was a Teenage Mambo Queen instead.
It wasn’t expected to set the world alight, but it did, becoming a massive box-office success, bringing in around $170 million worldwide, and then becoming the first film to sell over a million copies on video – making global stars of the leading actors, Jennifer Grey and Patrick.
Sadly, Patrick died of pancreatic cancer in 2009. At his funeral, Jennifer Grey said, “When I think of him, I think of being in his arms when we were kids – dancing, practicing the lift in the freezing lake, having a blast doing this tiny little movie we thought no-one would ever see.”
Patrick Swayze was a trained dancer and his skills landed him the role in Dirty Dancing, but developing those skills had been a tough journey.
His father was an engineer and champion cowboy and his mother a choreographer with her own dance academy.
She pushed Patrick and his three siblings hard as they were growing up and he once said, “Our mother made us feel that we were never good enough. If I did anything, I had to be the best because that’s what my mother expected of me. It was hard to deal with. All the love we got came from our father.”
As a teenager, he was picked on at school because of his artistic tendencies, filling him with what he called “self-depreciating rage”, but he channeled his energy into martial arts and remained resolute in his ambition to become a professional dancer.
After the success of Dirty Dancing, Patrick found himself in demand, going on to play tough guy James Dalton in Road House and then to become an international sex symbol playing Sam Wheat in Ghost, another film that wasn’t expected to be a blockbuster but defied all expectations.
Fans and critics alike praised his ability to be masculine and vulnerable, but he wanted to be recognised for more than just his appearance on screen, saying, “It’s good for the career, but it’s not good for the head… I want to make a mark as an actor. I’d like to think that my career isn’t about things like swinging my ass in Dirty Dancing. I’m looking for the spiritual. How far can it take me? How far can I go? What are our emotional limits?”
He went on to play a range of characters, everything from drag queen Vida Boheme into Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar to motivational speaker Jim Cunningham in Donnie Darko, but whether any of those roles ever replaced the images of his swinging ass in Dirty Dancing or his potters’ wheel skills in Ghost in the hearts and minds of his fans is up for debate…
I bet you’re now singing “Unchained Melody” as you think about it!
In 2006, the stage show version of Dirty Dancing opened in London with Josef Brown in the iconic role of Johnny Castle. He wasn’t even born when the original film first screened, but it’s a film that continues to inspire to this day, inspiring him to dance long before he considered it as a career. He says of it, “It said to me: it’s OK to dance and be masculine, like Patrick.”
Patrick may not have found the same level of fame in the roles that followed Dirty Dancing and Ghost but in an interview with Playboy in 1992, he said, “Fame can make you feel you’ve somehow pulled off an enormous hoax and that your whole life is a lie. All the hype wound up making me cynical, and I turned into a not-very-pretty drunk.”
He recovered from his drink problem, settling into a life of ranching and breeding horses as well as continuing to act in carefully chosen roles. In 2004, he told The Times, “I feel like I wasted time with stardom back in the ’80s, now I want it all. I want to do as much as I can.”
In 2008, Patrick was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, but he chose to carry on working. In an interview with the New York Times shortly before his death, he said, “I’m proud of what I’m doing. How do you nurture a positive attitude when all the statistics say you’re a dead man? You go to work.”
Brave words indeed. Life goes on, as does his Dirty Dancing legacy.