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Patrick Swayze dies at 57; star of the blockbuster films 'Dirty Dancing' and 'Ghost'

The actor and dancer had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last year. He struggled against being typecast as a leading man.

September 15, 2009|Valerie J. Nelson

Patrick Swayze, the actor and classically trained dancer whose role in the enduringly popular "Dirty Dancing" made him a movie star, one who struggled with the alienation of fame and against being typecast as a leading man, died Monday. He was 57.

Swayze, who also starred in the blockbuster film "Ghost," died in Los Angeles with his family at his side, his publicist, Annett Wolf, said.

Early last year, Swayze learned he had pancreatic cancer, a diagnosis that came two weeks after production wrapped on the pilot of "The Beast," an A&E series in which he starred as an unorthodox FBI agent.

Although the cancer was advanced, he was found to have a more controlled form of the disease and persuaded the network to go ahead with the series.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, September 24, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Swayze obituary: The obituary of actor Patrick Swayze in Section A on Sept. 15 said he played Prince Charming in a touring "Disney on Parade" ice show. The "Disney on Parade" shows, performed from 1969 to 1973, took place on wooden floors at arenas.

It was shot over five months in Chicago while Swayze was undergoing chemotherapy and taking an experimental drug that targets tumors.

"I'm proud of what I'm doing," Swayze told the New York Times in October. "How do you nurture a positive attitude when all the statistics say you're a dead man? You go to work."

Days before the series debuted in January, Swayze was admitted to a hospital with pneumonia, a turn that cast a pall over the launch of the show. He was released after a week and went home to rest.

His fame intruded on his final months as he wrestled with what he called the "reckless reporting" that regularly pronounced he was near death. Such coverage amounted to "emotional cruelty," he said, "when hope is so precious."

When "Dirty Dancing" was released in 1987, it was a sleeper hit that soared in large part because of Swayze's considerable charisma and dancing skills. Critics praised the ruffian nobility he brought to the character of Johnny Castle, a sexy-yet-sensitive dance instructor from the wrong side of the tracks.

They also noted the red-hot chemistry between Swayze and his teen pupil, nicknamed Baby, played by Jennifer Grey. Their exuberant performances were considered career-making.

To Swayze, the musical love story set at a Catskills resort worked because people relived "those wonderfully painful moments . . . when you just need to love somebody with all your heart, and to be loved back. . . . Plus, it was a pretty sexy movie," he told The Times in 1997.

In "Dirty Dancing's" climactic scene, Swayze delivers a line with swaggering perfection. "Nobody puts Baby in a corner," he says as he defies her father and pulls her up for a final uplifting dance sequence. Fans said that scene secured the movie's place in the pantheon of best date movies of all time.

He turned down a reported $7 million to star in a "Dirty Dancing" sequel and resisted roles that would cast him as a hunk with a heart.

"I look for curveballs in my life," Swayze told the Chicago Tribune in 1989.

After appearing as a roughneck cop in "Next of Kin" and as a steely bouncer in "Road House" -- two 1989 movies that flopped -- he fought for a leading role in the romantic tear-jerker "Ghost." Swayze told an interviewer that he thought the part would help him be seen as an actor, rather than the "dance dude" or "action guy."

In the film, Swayze is an investment banker who gets killed and returns as a ghost to solve his murder and more fully express his love for his girlfriend, played by Demi Moore. Whoopi Goldberg, in an Oscar-winning role, is the reluctant medium who conveys his messages. The film struck a seductive chord with audiences and was a runaway hit.

"Ghost" confirmed Swayze's heartthrob status -- former Times movie critic Sheila Benson wondered in her 1990 review whether certain scenes had been earmarked "Swayze Shirt Opportunity" because he went without one so much. But the movie conferred legitimacy on Swayze as an actor.

The film seemed to assure a career for him as a leading man, but he went in other directions.

He starred with Keanu Reeves in the action-packed "Point Break" (1991) so he could become a licensed sky diver and surf big waves. In the noble "City of Joy" (1992), Swayze was an idealistic American surgeon in Calcutta; critics said he was miscast but acquitted himself well.

In "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar" (1995), he played a drag queen.

Defending his choices, Swayze said he was "fed up with that Hollywood blockbuster mentality."

Cult movies "have given me a career for 30 years. It wouldn't have been worth it if I had been stuck as the leading man or the dance guy," he said, according to a story last year in the London Daily Express.

"The loneliness of fame" was a theme to which he often returned, cautioning in Playboy in 1992: 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 credited his wife, Lisa Niemi, a dancer he met back home in Texas and married in 1976, for pulling him back from a drinking problem that he said started after the death of his father in 1982 and seemed to keep pace with his growing fame.

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