Friends and colleagues recall the actor who combined tough-guy masculinity and balletic grace

By Mandi Bierly
Updated September 18, 2009 at 04:00 AM EDT

No matter what opinion Hollywood has of you,” Patrick Swayze once told ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY, ”the fans never forget you if you never forget them.” It was 2005, and he was phoning from the California compound he and his longtime wife, Lisa Niemi, called Rancho Bizarro. Located in the San Gabriel Mountains outside of Los Angeles, the ranch was a creative haven with its own dance studio, a subterranean recording studio, and a barn that housed both their offices and Egyptian Arabian horses. It went without saying then, as it does now, that Patrick Swayze wasn’t in danger of being forgotten.

Though he was nominated for three Golden Globes over the course of his 30-year career, Swayze measured his success by lives touched, not money made or awards won. That day in 2005, he spoke almost with awe about the fact that when 1987’s Dirty Dancing and 1990’s Ghost were first available on VHS, fans spent nearly $100 each to own them. ”That people paid that much money then, it just meant, ‘Wow, those movies really did touch them,”’ he said. He talked about how he had recently visited troops on the USS Harry S. Truman aircraft carrier and been blown away by the reception he got. ”When I found out that they watch my movies every day of the week — Red Dawn for four days; Next of Kin, Road House, and Point Break the others — I thought, I ought to make sure I put out there that I really believe this is the day of the peaceful warrior.”

On Sept. 14, at the age of 57, Hollywood’s own peaceful warrior 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 so intense that he’d find himself curled up on the bathroom floor at 3 a.m., muffling a scream so he wouldn’t wake the woman he’d loved since he was 19.

After he passed away, tributes 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. Whoopi Goldberg, who won an Oscar for her role opposite Swayze in Ghost, added that ”Patrick was a really good man, a funny man, and one to whom I owe much that I can’t ever repay.”

BORN TO A Texas cowboy and a dance instructor (Urban Cowboy choreographer Patsy Swayze), Patrick Swayze grew up in Houston, taking classes at his mother’s studio and getting bullied so badly that he began studying martial arts. (He also took up so many sports, so successfully, that he earned the nickname Troph.) Swayze moved to New York City, where he trained with both the Harkness and Joffrey Ballets. In 1975, he married Niemi, whom he’d met while she was a student of his mother’s. A knee injury eventually closed the door on his ballet career, but a window had opened on Broadway, where a manager quickly discovered him while he was playing Danny Zuko in Grease.