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He got it in a little one: Dirty Dancing, an indie romance with a nostalgic vibe and the heat of first lust. Swayze plays Johnny Castle, a dance instructor at a Catskills resort for New York Jews on a 1963 summer holiday. To "Baby" Houseman (Jennifer Grey), a restless daughter in a protective family, Johnny is Brando in The Wild One, but with better footwork. Dance brings them together; it makes her a woman and him a rover who finds a home in her arms. Working with choreographer Kenny Ortega (who would go on to direct the High School Musical trilogy and is now completing the Michael Jackson concert film This Is It), Swayze and Grey danced as if they'd been going cheek to cheek and pelvis to pelvis all their lives. What's more, the movie seared the catchphrase "Nobody puts Baby in a corner" into the collective consciousness of seemingly every female who saw it. Featuring a host of golden oldies, the film also had room for top 10 hit single "She's Like the Wind," sung and co-written by Swayze. Dirty Dancing earned $60 million at the domestic box office on a $6 million budget, it secured the first of three Golden Globe nominations for Swayze, and it became one of the most reliable VHS-DVD date movies ever.
Every star's résumé needs a guilty pleasure, and for Swayze that was Road House in 1989. He's Dalton, a bouncer in a rowdy bar who also has a doctorate in philosophy ("Man's search for faith that sort of s___t") and gets in so many fights, he carries his medical records with him ("Saves time"). In acknowledgment of his premier stud status, Swayze spends half the movie topless, including in his big fight with the bad guy. In one of the movie's unabashed beefcake portraits, Swayze leans idly against the windshield of his Mercedes convertible a resplendent hood ornament. And to seal the deal with his fans, he has a Dirty Dancingstyle sexy dance with Kelly Lynch. She undresses him.
Spitting out such iconic lines as "My way or the highway," "It'll get worse before it gets better" and "Pain don't hurt," Swayze is fully engaged in the picture's lunatic machismo. That's what helped secure Road House an honored place for discriminating fans of deadpan camp. The film and its star received their ultimate accolade in 1991 with the seasonal serenade "Let's Have a Patrick Swayze Christmas" on the movie-mocking TV show Mystery Science Theater 3000: "Open up your heart and let the Patrick Swayze Christmas in/ We'll gather at the Road House with our next of kin ... It's my way or the highway, this Christmas at my bar/ I'll have to smash your kneecaps if you bastards touch my car! ... Oh, let's have a Patrick Swayze Christmas, one and all/ And this can be the haziest, this can be the laziest/ This can be the Swayziest Christmas of them all!"
Going from Road House to penthouse, Swayze had his biggest hit (more than $500 million at the worldwide box office) the following year with Ghost, the tale of a murdered man who, through the gifts of a psychic, manages to warn his beloved widow (Demi Moore) of threats to her life and, while he has her attention, to make mad pash one last time, to the strains of the Righteous Brothers' "Unchained Melody." Skeptics found the movie crippled with contradictions in internal logic, but there was no doubting Swayze's otherworldly intensity as a man for whom love means never having to say it's over. Ghost even found favor with Oscar (twice), including a Best Supporting Actress award for Whoopi Goldberg.
Swayze took a rare villain role in Kathryn Bigelow's 1991 film Point Break. Keanu Reeves is the undercover FBI agent who is assigned to break up a gang of beach-bum bank robbers who are led by the mystical surfer Bodhi (Swayze). Riding waves, he intones, is a "state of mind. It's where you lose yourself and you find yourself." Though on opposite sides of the law, Swayze and Reeves forge a bond of two beautiful dudes, hanging ten on a scale of 10. The scenario was preposterous; they made it irresistible.
The white-hot phase of Swayze's celebrity was over, but the actor kept being more interesting than most of the movies he was in. He could grab attention by playing against type, as in the 1995 comedy To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (for which he received a Golden Globe nomination), in which he plays a draq queen named Vida Boheme. For once, the stud actor was every inch a lady, demonstrating that inside every gay man, there's a beautiful woman just dying to accessorize. Swayze also kept making love stories, like the tender drama Three Wishes. Late in his career, he had a few chances to get on his feet again. He returned to Broadway in the revival of Chicago. He appeared in the not-so-popular 2004 sequel to Dirty Dancing called Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights. The year before, he starred in One Last Dance, playing the former lead dancer of a company whose founder has died, and who is asked to perform a number with his old partners. His co-star was his wife Lisa.
The pancreatic cancer that was diagnosed in January 2008 would have forced other men into retreat. But to prove to his fans (and maybe to himself) that although the disease might kill a man, it wouldn't stop him from living and working, Swayze took on the role of a craggy cop teaching a young recruit the art of undercover work in the A&E series The Beast. With his workload carefully monitored, he invested the part with a weary grit the sense of a veteran who has seen it all and can take it all that was both fine acting and naked autobiography. But even a classic hero can't outwit or outlast his fate. He died surrounded by Lisa and his family.
In his last months, Swayze railed at the tabloids that published pictures of the gaunt actor, weakened by cancer and chemotherapy. But with his death, in our memories, the star is restored to his glamorous prime. He's the handsome ghost who, on TV and DVD, will brood and brawl, live and make love forever.