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Patrick Swayze: Back in step

Patrick Swayze: Back in step — The actor talks to us about ”Ghost” and a sequel to ”Dirty Dancing”

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What’s wrong with this picture? Patrick Swayze kept asking himself. He could have demanded that Paramount Pictures send a comfortable, air-conditioned limo out to his five-acre ranch at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains, but Swayze had chosen ton tode into town on his own. Now, the Monday morning after his new movie, Ghost, opened to heartwarming reviews and teary-eyed audience applause, Swayze stood stranded on the side of the San Diego Freeway, his Harley-Davidson motorcycle out of gas.

He finally flagged down a cop, who, after checking out the dude in the khaki colored T-shirt, jeans, and black suede boots, decided he couldn’t be bothered — until Swayze removed his Darth Vaderish helmet. Then the cop suddenly snapped to. ”Are you Patrick Swayze? Do you want a ride?”

”Get out of my face,” a disgusted Swayze answered. Refusing to pull celebrity rank, he grabbed his bike and stubbornly began pushing it up the long, dusty pass where Interstate 405 cuts through the Santa Monica Mountains. The freedom achine! Real macho, all right!

Though unscripted, the moment perfectly captured Swayze’s uncalculating mix of manly self-sufficiency and post-feminist sensitivity. Raised in Houston, where his father, Jesse, was an engineering draftsman and his mother, Patsy, a local dance instructor, Swayze grew up cultivating a tough- guy exterior to compensate for the fact that he dug ballet. Even when he moved into films (after being discovered by Bob LeMond in the Broadway musical Grease), he was determined to establish himself as an actor who happens to dance, rather than a dancer who hoped to act.

After a spate of young hunk roles in such films as The Outsiders and Red Dawn, Swayze hit it big in 1987 with the Catskills cha-cha Dirty Dancing, a movie that successfully tapped the actor’s soulful studliness. But in his subsequent action pictures — Road House and Next of Kin — he opted instead for bare-chested fisticuffs, and almost knocked his rising star out of orbit. With Ghost, a blissfully romantic last tango that allows him to luxuriate in his emotional earnestness, Swayze, 37, has managed a mid-career course correction.

After coasting his bike to the nearest gas station, Swayze finally arrives at his Westwood office, dunks his head in a sink full of cold water, and lights up a True. ”I read the script, and it just affected my heart to such a degree, it was a movie I had to do for my insides,” he says. ”It made me believe there was still a chance to complete relationships with my father (who died of a coronary several years ago), with my manager (LeMond, who died in 1986), and some other people who were important in my life. It allowed me a little more room for faith that maybe my father is in this room with me, that he’s really looking out over me, that he’s not gone forever.”

As Sam Wheat, a murdered investment banker who postpones his heavenly reward so that he can watch over his girlfriend, Molly (played by a tender Demi Moore), Swayze is a far cry from other movie poltergeists. Bewildered and frustrated, he haunts the screen, yearning to express the love he never voiced in life. It isn’t until he meets the bogus medium Oda Mae Brown (Whoopi Goldberg) that he discovers a vehicle for his emotions.

An improbable hybrid — part romance, part comedy, part fantasy, part thriller — Ghost defies cynical disbelief. Amid the smoking wreckage offered by the summer’s action movies, Ghost, in its simplicity, is on the way to becoming the season’s perfect ”date” movie, and industry analysts predict it will gross over $100 million.

The film’s happy fate was by no means preordained, though. Screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin first began pitching the idea in 1984. He found a sympathetic champion in producer Lisa Weinstein, who convinced Dawn Steel, then a Paramount executive, to put the script into development. For nearly a year director Frank Oz, the Muppet alumnus, was involved in the project, but abandoned it when the studio balked at its prospective cost. (The movie wrapped costing more than $25 million.) Eventually it fell to director Jerry Zucker, one-third of the trio responsible for Airplane! and Ruthless People, who was making his solo-directing debut. ”I was appalled,” admits Rubin, who feared ”a Saturday-afternoon comedy version.” But after a soul-baring dinner with Zucker, Rubin came away convinced that the two were on the same wavelength.

When Swayze’s name came up during casting, it was Zucker’s turn to balk. Having seen Road House, Zucker vowed, ”No way! Patrick in that movie was stoic and macho and humorless. Not that he was a bad actor. He was just not much of a personality. I felt that Sam had to be a very alive dead guy.”

Giving in to Swayze’s agent, Nicole David, Zucker reluctantly agreed to allow him to read for the part. ”I took it as a challenge, even though it looked pretty hopeless because this man was taking a pretty hard position about me,” Swayze recalls. ”It sort of freed me up to go in there and be completely honest.” Zucker was won over. ”I saw the movie working in front of me,” he says. ”Patrick has enormous heart. He had much more range than I’d seen before. By the last scene, we had tears in our eyes.”

Up next for Swayze is director Kathryn Bigelow’s Riders on the Storm. Currently filming in southern California, the thriller stars Keanu Reeves and Gary Busey as FBI agents investigating a string of bank robberies. With his hair dyed blond and an artificial scar or two to make him look menacing, Swayze is playing what he calls ”a Zen guru-like adrenaline junkie. I see it as a sort of Jack Nicholson choice. I thought it would be interesting not to have to carry the movie myself, just to see if I could be a powerful ingredient.”

Together with his wife of 15 years, actress Lisa Niemi (who appeared with her husband in Steel Dawn), Swayze has also just formed his own company, Troph Productions, at Twentieth Century Fox. One goal is to find a project they can work on together.

And, yes, there should be a Dirty Dancing II in his future, as soon as contractual rights are sorted out. Swayze was skeptical about doing it, but a conversation with Shirley MacLaine at a dinner party helped him decide. ”You owe it to the public and yourself,” she said. ”I feel it would be ripping the public off,” he countered. But she argued, ”Not if you stay true to who those two characttrs are. Because almost never in an actor’s lifetime do you get the opportunity to affect people’s lives and hearts and fantasies to that degree. You’ve got to take that seriously.”

Swayze does, and now feels twice-blessed that lightning appears to be striking a second time with Ghost. ”The movies that have had the most powerful effects on my life have been about romantic characters,” he says. ”I have to face it. I am a romantic to the death, whether I like it or not — and I like it.” Still, he says, ”I don’t want to be Mr. Romantic Leading Man. I don’t want to be the Dance Dude. I don’t want to be the Action Guy. If I had to do any one of those all my life, it’d drive me crazy.”

It’s a question of maintaining his integrity as an actor, Swayze insists. With his Texas roots asserting themselves, he likes to quote his horse breeder Tom McNair, who once warned him: ”Buddy, the way I figure it all you got is your integrity, because I’ve been going to funerals all my life and I ain’t never seen a hearse pulling a U-haul.”

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