Patrick Swayze, Hollywood's Dirty Dancer, Dead at 57

Actor's battle with pancreatic cancer played out in public; he was 57

By Joal Ryan Sep 15, 2009 3:30 AMTags
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Johnny Castle. Sam Wheat. Fighter.

Patrick Swayze, the movie star whose iconic roles in Dirty Dancing and Ghost transcended and the man whose perseverance in the face of advanced cancer inspired, died today in Los Angeles. He was 57.

"One thing I'm not gonna do is chase staying alive," Swayze told Barbara Walters in January. "You spend so much time chasing staying alive, you won't live."

At the time, Swayze guessed he had two more years to live.

Swayze was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in early 2008. Despite the gloom and doom of initial tabloid reports, Swayze went on to star in the A&E cop drama The Beast.

"I'm a miracle, dude. I don't know why," Swayze was quoted as saying shortly before he began work on the series.

Still, not one to sugarcoat the toll the disease took on him, Swayze told Walters the show's summer 2008 shoot was hell.

"By the third episode in, at one point I didn't know if I was gonna finish this thing and I thought I'd made a big mistake," Swayze said. "It just made me angry at myself, though."

Days before the Walters interview premiered, Swayze was hospitalized with pneumonia. He was released within a week and announced plans to write a memoir with his wife of 34 years, Lisa Niemi. The book was due this fall.

"I will write from my heart about these experiences and, aside from the sheer pleasure of doing it, if people happen to garner inspiration from it, or incentive, or find a new way to love, it would be wonderful," Swayze said in May. The statement was issued shortly after a radio-fueled Internet death rumor prompted the never-say-die actor to declare himself "alive and well."

Born Aug. 18, 1952, in Houston, Swayze was in his 30s and already something of a familiar face when he swiveled his hips to leading-man stardom in 1987's Dirty Dancing.

As Johnny Castle, the dangerous dance instructor from the Catskills who romances rich-girl pupil Baby Houseman, Swayze was able to showcase the moves that had been drilled into him since he was a boy, growing up as the son of Patsy Swayze, the choreographer of John Travolta's Urban Cowboy and other films.

Dirty Dancing became a sleeper hit and made brand names of Swayze, Jennifer Grey and choreographer Kenny Ortega. Swayze even scored a hit single, "She's Like the Wind," off the movie's blockbuster soundtrack.

Swayze had a bit in the franchise's belated 2004 sequel, Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights, but for the most part expanded his repertoire beyond the dance floor. He knocked heads as Dalton the bouncer in 1989's Road House, a beloved, if critically dismissed, popcorn picture, protected Demi Moore from beyond the grave as the slain Sam Wheat in 1990's Ghost, his biggest box-office hit, and surfed with Keanu Reeves in the 1991 caper film Point Break.

In 1992, Swayze went for Oscar gold as an American doctor working in the slums of India in City of Joy. But the film was a commercial and critical disappointment, and Swayze's film career never really recovered. Still, he continued to work, through good times and bad.

In 2002, Swayze, a longtime pilot, walked away from a crash of his Cessna 414 in Arizona. Witnesses said the actor seemed impaired and asked them to help dispose of an opened bottle of wine. The National Transportation Safety Board found that Swayze had possibly been made loopy by carbon monoxide gasses.

Other credits include: The Outsiders, Red Dawn and To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, the drag-queen comedy-drama that brought Swayze a Golden Globe nomination. The Beast, during which Swayze made his last stand on screen, was canceled in June after one season.

To the end, Swayze kept his eye on new beginnings.

"I keep dreaming of a future," he said in January, "a future with a long and healthy life, not lived in the shadow of cancer but in the light."

(Originally published Sept. 14, 2009, at 5:01 p.m. PT)


E! Online looks back at Patrick Swayze's life and career.