Though he was nominated for three golden Globes over the course of his 30-year career, Patrick Swayze measured his success by lives touched, not money made or awards won. “No matter what opinion Hollywood has of you,” Swayze once told Entertainment Weekly, “the fans never forget you if you never forget them.”
On September 14, at the age of 57, Swayze died after an extraordinarily brave and dignified 20-month battle with pancreatic cancer. Swayze had initially responded well to treatment, and spent four months working 12-hour days on the A&E undercover drama The Beast while undergoing chemotherapy. He refused to take medication that might hinder what would become his final onscreen performance – even though the pain became intense. After he passed away, tributes have poured in from friends and colleagues. “Patrick was a rare and beautiful combination of raw masculinity and amazing grace,” recalled his Dirty Dancing costar Jennifer Grey.
The first hints of Swayze’s stardom emerged in his 1987 breakout film, Dirty Dancing. After that film’s success, Swayze was offered everything from a cologne deal to a record contract. But he was determined not to be pigeonholed as a gyrating boy toy. He sought cover in action films that let him run in what he called “crazy Swayze adrenaline-junkie mode.” The movies that he chose appealed to the side of him that was a self-proclaimed “searcher.” To Swayze, Road House showcased the beauty of martial arts via a bouncer with a philosophy degree from New York University.
Ghost brought him greater fame and accolades, but these were also years of personal turmoil. Swayze did a stint in rehab for alcohol abuse in 1993, and his sister Vicky committed suicide the following year. By the mid-’90s, he was ready to work again and was focused on playing interesting characters instead of the usual action heroes and dreamboats. The actor made what he later jokingly called “a conscious decision to have a great time screwing up my career.” His next movies were surprising and revealed new colors to his acting. He played the proud and elegant drag queen in To Wong Foo, and a closeted pedophile in the cult hit Donnie Darko. Supporting Darko at the Sundance Film Festival in 2001, he explained, “In my career, when you get offered an absolute fortune for crap, your insides start screaming for some kind of fulfillment. When I started meeting with some of these young filmmakers, the passion was restored in my life…This is the fifth reinvention of Patrick Swayze.”
Swayze’s hard-fought battle may be over, but his story hasn’t ended. On September 29, Atria will publish Swayze’s inspirational memoir, The Time of My Life, co-written with his wife. “Dance is a metaphor for life,” Swayze told EW in 2005. “You’re born. You peak. Your physical body goes downhill, but your spirit stays intact.”
For more on Patrick Swayze, including his essential filmography and a preview of his upcoming memoir, pick up the new issue of Entertainment Weekly on stands Sept. 18.