THE OUTSIDERS (1983)
Francis Ford Coppola’s classic is Swayze’s second film, but it’s the first one he cared to acknowledge (sorry, 1979’s Skatetown USA). Playing the older brother of Rob Lowe and C. Thomas Howell, he stood out as a man among boys. And the last greaser you’d want to meet in a rumble.
RED DAWN (1984)
Again he’s the protector, this time of teens fleeing Soviet and Cuban forces at the start of World War III. One part of the film that still holds up: Swayze carrying his brother (Charlie Sheen) to the playground. ”I’ll hold you as long as I can, Matt. I’ll hold you as long as I can.”
NORTH AND SOUTH (1985)
As a Southern gentleman who enters West Point on the eve of the Civil War, Swayze began to show in this ABC miniseries that he could be both a fighter and a lover. ”I’m a freak for period pieces,” he once told EW. ”Just give me capes, horses, cleavage, and romance, and I’m a happy man.”
DIRTY DANCING (1987)
Playing to his strengths as the much-sought-after dance instructor Johnny Castle, Swayze earned the first of three Golden Globe nominations, as well as generations of loyal — and touchy-feely — female fans. ”I’ve still got 18-year-old girls hugging me,” he told PEOPLE in 2007. ”And I constantly have some old lady pinching me on the rear.”
ROAD HOUSE (1989)
Perhaps Dalton, the Double Deuce bouncer with a degree in philosophy who spouts directives like ”I want you to be nice, until it’s time to not be nice,” wasn’t fully appreciated 20 years ago, but just try not to get sucked in to it on cable today. Or on Sept. 19, when Spike airs the film (for the 21st time since 2005) with a special tribute to the actor.
It takes a lot of heart — and apparently a pottery wheel — for a man to make a woman believe that he loves her when he won’t say those three little words, only ”ditto.” Swayze had that heart. His Golden Globe-nominated turn as Sam, the murdered lover who won’t cross over, helped earn the film a Best Picture Oscar nod and more than $500 million at the worldwide box office. It also cemented ”Unchained Melody” as one of the most romantic ballads of all time.
SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE (1990)
Swayze hosted SNL only once, in October 1990, when he and his amazing physique and mane dueled with Chris Farley for a spot in the Chippendales family. Their shirtless dance-off to Loverboy’s ”Working for the Weekend” bears the wicked sense of humor Swayze’s costars often spoke of, but audiences rarely saw.
POINT BREAK (1991)
He’d been asked to play Keanu Reeves’ role, as an undercover FBI agent trying to nab surfers who fund their hobby by robbing banks. But Swayze knew better — he took the role of the philosophizing bad guy instead. ”Bodhi was the perfect character for me,” he told EW. ”He’s aesthetically in love with challenge and the spiritual side of pushing to the limit. I’ve always been that sort of person.”
TO WONG FOO, THANKS FOR EVERYTHING, JULIE NEWMAR (1995)
PEOPLE’s Sexiest Man Alive of 1991 made quite the beautiful drag queen. His Vida Boheme, the sage who teaches acceptance to a Midwestern town, is part Rosalind Russell and part Audrey Hepburn. ”I don’t have anything to prove,” he told EW. ”I’m as heterosexual as a bull moose. That’s what made me so comfortable as Vida.”
DONNIE DARKO (2001)
Now decades into his career, Swayze found a cure for boredom. ”Take a calculated risk,” he told EW. ”Try something that absolutely shouldn’t work, and make it work.” Playing a self-help guru and closeted pedophile in this cult classic certainly qualified.
ONE LAST DANCE (2005)
Shot in 2001 and released on DVD in 2005, this labor of love costarred Swayze and his wife, Lisa Niemi, as dancers who reunite to save their former company. Fast-forward to their pas de deux — they never looked closer.
THE BEAST (2009)
Swayze knew his role on the A&E series might be his last. And it had the weight and purpose he’d been searching for his entire career. ”I don’t think he’s ever been this intense,” exec producer John Romano told EW last winter. ”He just burns.”