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Video: A look back at Swayze’s memorable roles

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    >>> we begin with more on the tragic death of actor patrick swayze and his two roles that will be forever tied to american pop culture. * had the time of my life * and i owe it all to you * * i've been waiting for so long * * now i've finally found someone * *

    >> swayze's " dirty dancing " co-star jennifer grey released this statement, patrick was a rare and beautiful combination of raw masculinity and amazing grace . when i think of him, i think of being in his arms when we were kids, dancing, practicing the lift in the freezing lake having a blast doing this tiny little movie we thought no one would ever see. my heart goes out to his wife and childhood sweetheart, lisa niemi , to his mom, patsy, and to the rest of her family. for more on the life and career of patrick swayze , let's bring in larry hackett, "people's" managing editor. good morning to you.

    >> morning, matt.

    >> we've been following this story on and off for the last 20 months. i would imagine you folks at "people" have been following the events of the last several weeks. what have you been hearing?

    >> as some people may know, he was planning on having an autobiography coming out. and in the last week or so there was an abrupt change in those plans. the reporting last night is that his condition had worsened, he had been taking new chemo treatments. some of the folks on "the beast" had seen him at one of his ranches and said clearly the chemo was taking an effect. he remained vital and forward thinking and positive but things were really starting to turn.

    >> let's talk about his career for a second. if he had only done " dirty dancing " and "ghost," it would have cemented his place in hollywood history. what was it about his performance that made such an impact?

    >> he's like gene kelly , an incredible mixture of grace and amazing athleticism. the people we've been speaking to said he could have been a professional kickboxing from the work they saw him doing on " road house ." he was the son of a champion rodeo man and also the son of a dancing coach. i mean, he had an amazing neatly american mix of virility and grace. he seemed authentic in these roles. there was never embarrassment. in someone's hands, they may have been self-conscious.

    >> "people's" sexiest man alive in 1991 .

    >> there was something about him that was completely real at all times.

    >> what i liked is he had a sense of humor, playfulness, a self-depp indicrecating sense of humor. we saw him playing the chippendales dancer on "saturday night live." there aren't a lot of actors that allow themselves to have fun poked at.

    >> he had that great sense of tone at all times to be authentic in those pictures and then to be able to make fun of himself. you know, people love that. they love that accepts of who he -- that says more about who he was than anything else.

    >> he had some troubles.

    >> yep.

    >> let's not brush over them, some drinking problems. he was a heavy smoker.

    >> right.

    >> i think he attributed some of it to fame at an early age.

    >> right. and, again, he had a struggle with it his whole life. there was an issue of when he was flying the plane, alcohol and things like that. so he had some tough times. but he was also very candid about it and talked about the challenges that he had. and i think the third part about his life was his marriage. you talk to anybody in hollywood , it was a 30-plus-year marriage. they met as teens at his mom's dance studio . they were legendary in hollywood , a couple that were there for each other.

    >> what will we learn about the memoir? will that be released?

    >> they're planning to. it's going to be a lot about his treatment and remaining positive and things like that. we'll see whether or not any of that changes. but i think what you'll get from him is a spirit of who this guy was and how optimistic he was and how he lived a full a life as he could.

    >> did he manage to also raise some awareness over these last 20 months?

    >> i think so. he was very reluctant, stage 4 pancreatic cancer . 75% of the people who get it die in the first year. he was reluctant to take the treatments because like a lot of celebrities, it's your individual choice. but i think in terms of struggling with what pancreatic cancer is and how devastating it can be and the work that needs to be, it goes without saying.

    >> he'll be on the cover of "people" this week.

    >> yes.

msnbc.com contributor
updated 9/14/2009 8:06:52 PM ET 2009-09-15T00:06:52

Patrick Swayze did action movies and historical drama. He even hosted a well-regarded episode of “Saturday Night Live.” But he will be best remembered for being the leading man in two enormously popular romantic fantasies: one where he was the first-love fantasy, and one where he was the perfect-martyr fantasy.

His huge success as a romantic hero came after an early flirtation with pure Brat Pack success: his first major exposure came in “The Outsiders,” followed by “Red Dawn” and “Youngblood,” meaning that he’d been in something with practically every well-known young actor in Hollywood in the early ’80s before he took on much in the way of leading roles.

Then, in 1985, in the first sign of what was to come, he played a gallant, romantic southerner in the miniseries “North And South.” They don’t make this kind of massive six-part television event anymore, but at one time, it was a legitimate way to become a leading man. It set the table for the very big year he was about to have.

And the reason he moved up from supporting player to giant star really comes from his ability to convincingly play down his powerfully athletic physicality and be, for lack of a better phrase, a little soft. Swayze was good-looking, of course — and sexy in a way that felt earned, since he had a dancer’s body and not just one built strictly in the gym. But he wasn’t quite as delicately pretty as a lot of similarly positioned stars. Eyes maybe a tiny bit too small, kind of a square head … it could fool the eye, just for a fleeting, foolish second, into believing he was a guy you might actually meet in the wild.

At the time Swayze made “Dirty Dancing” in 1987, the model for crush-worthy young actors was Tom Cruise — after all, “Dirty Dancing” came out the year after “Top Gun.” But Swayze didn’t quite have Cruise’s toothy, ingratiating brand of smoothness. His presence was a little quieter and it was much, much more vulnerable.

Exuding vulnerability
That’s what made him the perfect guy for a sexual-awakening story like “Dirty Dancing.” A lot of actors would have seemed sort of creepy in the role of Johnny Castle, who’s a little older and more experienced than Baby.

But instead of appearing in any way predatory, Swayze came off as lonely and a little sad — the perfect adolescent image of the apparently dangerous bad boy who really does have a heart of gold. There are some interesting beats in the film that rely heavily on his ability to play hurt: Johnny eventually reveals that wealthy older women have essentially been using him for sex by convincing him that they really cared about him. That makes him not just a nonthreatening first love, but one who knows exactly what it feels like to be taken advantage of sexually by someone older and more worldly than you are. Not the most subtle attempt to draw a first lover as ideal, but an effective one, and one that only an actor who can pull off a little uncertainty could manage.

There’s a reason “Nobody puts Baby in a corner” became an iconic line: it combines someone loving you, someone insisting upon your freedom, and someone defending you from your parents — what could be dreamier? Swayze was just the right guy for that scene and that story; it’s a more effective version of a knight in shining armor than you’d get from a slicker, harder-edged actor.

He navigated some potentially tough waters in “Ghost,” too: playing a literal avenging angel is not for amateurs. The schlock in that movie is cranked up to at least 10, and that’s just in the first act. The music, the potter’s wheel, the big emoting — by the time he’s vanishing in a field of little gobs of white light, the movie has hit a level of earnestness that’s almost impossible to maintain. The only way through that kind of story is to commit, and that’s how Swayze made that movie work. Maybe not for taking seriously, but for enjoying, as many (many) people did.

Once again, “Ghost” is a fantasy — this time, not about the first guy you sleep with, but about the guy who loves you so much he would defy the limitations of mortality to keep you from getting hurt. It’s a different kind of ideal, but it’s an ideal nonetheless. In the end, it added up to $217 million — a remarkable and rarely repeated box-office haul for a romantic melodrama.

Slideshow: Patrick Swayze There’s also some nice comedic back-and-forth with Whoopi Goldberg in that movie — showing a game willingness to play around that he repeated in “To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar” and in his famous “Chippendales” sketch with Chris Farley on “Saturday Night Live.”

Interestingly, Swayze was nominated for Golden Globes for both of these movies — the Golden Globe being an award that often combines respect for actual quality work with some deference to what’s wildly popular. These movies aren’t “good,” exactly, but they’re enormously effective. During this period, he was in every way a movie star.

There was the “Roadhouse” and “Point Break” Swayze, too — in fact, on numbers alone, he made more action movies and thrillers than he did romances, once you throw in the forgettables like “Next Of Kin” and “Steel Dawn.” In fact, his last major project, the show “The Beast” on A&E, was a crime-thriller.

But the ones people are still going to be watching, even many years from now, are those two lovely romantic fantasies, perfectly executed.

© 2013 msnbc.com.  Reprints


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