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.
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.
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.