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Great Conversations: Patrick Swayze

06/10/2015 05:29 pm ET | Updated Jun 10, 2016

All films buffs have guilty pleasures. You know, those movies that high-minded cineastes love to turn their noses up at, especially critics for The New York Times, people with MFAs in some sort of film-related field, or just plain snobs who refuse to acknowledge anything released on celluloid that doesn't have English subtitles and at least one reference to death, either as a character or a metaphor (and oftentimes both). Patrick Swayze was the undisputed King of the Guilty Pleasure. From his screen debut in Skatetown, USA in 1979, to his final appearance on television's "The Beast" as a take-no-prisoners cop, Swayze was an unapologetic good ol' boy who happened to be a classically-trained dancer, student of martial arts and Eastern philosophy, and possessor of an IQ that was nothing to sneeze at. In fact, he closely resembled Dalton, his character in this writer's all-time guilty pleasure, Rowdy Herrington's Road House (1989), as a bar bouncer with a Master's in Philosophy from NYU, who could quote Confucius and snap necks in near-perfect synchronicity.

In June 2004, when I was asked by Venice Magazine to interview Swayze for his turn as pulp fiction icon Allan Quartermain in the Hallmark television production of "King Solomon's Mines," his star might have waned a bit since his mid-'80s heyday, but his stature as a reluctant pop cultural icon had only increased with each passing year, and his refusal to be anything but himself. Renowned for fighting against being typecast as a typical pretty-boy star/leading man, Swayze's rep indicated not only that he marched to the beat of his own drummer, but was also known for not suffering fools. That said, I didn't quite know what to expect when I went to meet Swayze at photographer Greg Gorman's studio for our sit-down. I'd met more than my share of egomaniacs and narcissists in my ten years of entertainment journalism, living embodiments of "never meet your idols." From the minute Patrick Swayze shook my hand, and for the next six hours we spent together, I was completely disarmed by his charm, honesty and just plain normalcy. After a half hour or so, I felt as though I was hanging out with a buddy from the old neighborhood (his Texas to my Arizona made us cultural cousins). Swayze was reflective, yet totally un-self-indulgent. He was engaging, but usually more interested in your opinion than expressing his own. He was close to the earth as a rancher and man who loved the outdoors, yet also a man of letters who could put most PhDs to shame with his knowledge of, from what I could tell, almost everything.

The only bad thing I can say about Patrick Swayze: goddamn, did he smoke a lot. Patrick must have gone through at least a pack and-a-half (a conservative estimate) of American Spirits during our talk. The only time he wasn't smoking was when we were eating a magnificent sushi dinner. The minute those chopsticks went down, a lit nail was back in his hand. I knew he'd gotten sober after an ongoing battle with the bottle, one that had claimed his father and sister, but cigarettes continued to be a demon he wrestled with. When I asked him about the irony of such a fine athlete destroying his lungs with tobacco smoke, he smiled gently, looked at the cigarette in his hand and said "Yeah, I know, but I'll beat this thing eventually. I've beaten worse, man." He had, and for a while, he nearly did: Swayze's self-described "peaceful warrior" attitude allowed him to survive nearly two years longer than doctors predicted he would, after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer eighteen months ago. He lost the battle on Monday, September 14, 2009. He was 57.

At the end of our talk, Swayze took my hand in his, and said "Alex, I'd really like you to stay in my life." Over the next few years, we shared some nice chats over the phone, a few emails, and almost worked together, when Patrick read the script for my AFI graduate thesis film, a Hollywood satire, and loved the part of an arrogant movie star. Scheduling conflicts dictated that collaboration was not to be, however, and eventually we lost touch, as people tend to do in Los Angeles. As Raymond Chandler wrote in The Long Goodbye, "To say goodbye is to die a little."

Goodbye, Patrick. Thank you for always staying down to Earth, even when Hollywood tried to cast you out among the stars.

PATRICK SWAYZE: PEACEFUL WARRIOR

Patrick Swayze has always been his own man. As early as 1979, when the former dancer and stage actor made his big screen debut in the roller disco opus Skatetown, USA, Swayze easily could have let himself be packaged into that year's teen idol. But despite his cover boy looks, Swayze refused to be pigeonholed as flavor-of-the-month, and persevered as a serious actor, until 1983, when Francis Ford Coppola cast him, along with a crew of other unknowns with names like Tom Cruise, Emilio Estevez, and Matt Dillon in a little picture called The Outsiders. When he landed the lead in the hit miniseries "North & South" two years later, his stardom was solidified, and Patrick Swayze became another "overnight success," whose single night of paying dues lasted over a decade.

Patrick Wayne Swayze was born in Houston, Texas August 18, 1952 to Jesse Swayze, an engineer and former rancher, and Patsy Swayze, who would go on to become a world-renowned choreographer in her own right. Young Patrick was driven to be a success in everything he did, pushed by his mother in particular, excelling in sports, as well as music and dance. By then, Patsy Swayze had a thriving dance studio, with many attractive female students. One young lady, Lisa Niemi, caught Patrick's eye and the two were married in 1975. It continues to be one of the most enduring marriages in show business.

After studying with the Harkness and Joffrey Ballet Schools, Patrick went on to act in dozens of Broadway and off-Broadway shows, before making the trek out to Hollywood, where he and Lisa lived on "a jar of peanut butter and oranges from our tree in the backyard" for more years than the actor would probably care to admit, before finally wrangling a secure career as an actor at age 30. Other notable films in the '80s included Walter Hill's Uncommon Valor and John Milius' Red Dawn, but it was the year 1987 that truly solidified Patrick Swayze's star in the Hollywood lexicon.

Dirty Dancing was a small film that became a cultural phenomenon, and Patrick's turn as Catskills dance instructor Johnny Castle made young girls' hearts skip a beat and young men by the hundreds suddenly sign up for Arthur Murray classes. The film, which was made for a meager six million dollars, went on to gross over $170,000,000 worldwide. With his name now on the top of the A-list, Patrick went on to star in such films as Road House (1989), Next of Kin (1989), and another cultural phenomenon, Ghost (1990). The '90s also showcased Patrick in Katherine Bigelow's Point Break (1991), Roland Joffe's City of Joy (1992), and Three Wishes (1995). Recently, Patrick has lent his star power to such indie gems as Green Dragon (2001) and Donnie Darko (2001).

Patrick Swayze brings his bigger-than-life heroics to the small screen this month with the Hallmark Channel's production of King Solomon's Mines, based on H. Rider Haggard's legendary pulp novel, with Patrick starring as its iconic hero, Allan Quartermain. Credited as being the inspiration for Indiana Jones, as well as dozens of other pop culture heroes, Quartermain is a 19th century adventurer who travels to Africa in search of a missing archeologist, a man who holds the key to untold treasures, and power. Patrick is given fine support from Alison Doody, Roy Marsden, John Standing and Sidede Onyulo in this full-throttle adventure that is must-see viewing for the whole family. It premieres on the Hallmark Channel Saturday, June 12.

Patrick Swayze sat down recently to discuss topics ranging from his impressive body of work, to spirituality, to the genius of Marlon Brando. Here's what transpired:

Tell us about wearing the shoes of Allan Quartermain, one of the first heroes of pulp fiction.

Patrick Swayze: I think any kid who's ever had an adventurous bone in their body, either read Haggard's book or saw one of the film versions. It was a lot of fun for me because I felt like I was coming home, back to that kind of period hero role that I was born for, and in many ways I've lived my whole life, with all the training I've done in things like martial arts, horsemanship, stunt work, and just being a mountain man and survivalist. All these things that are passions in my life were great to bring to this character. It was also an interesting choice they made changing him from an Englishman to an American. There was a very specific reason for that; to try to bring it into a more contemporary feeling. "King Solomon's Mines" helped launch an entirely new form of storytelling that evolved into films like the Indiana Jones trilogy and Romancing the Stone, although those films were all pretty tongue-in-cheek, and I think we take it much more seriously. We wanted to create a dramatic epic that had a sense of fun. What I also wanted to try to do with it was incorporate my passion for conservation and wildlife, to have Quartermain evolve from a great white hunter into a conservationist.

Swayze as the original pulp fiction hero, Allan Quartermain, in King Solomon's Mines.

You spent five months in South Africa shooting this film. What were your impressions of the country?

I was there once before when I did a movie with my wife, Lisa, called Steel Dawn.

I loved that movie!

(laughs) Yeah, people love that movie. That cracks me up. It's like I'm the king of cult followings, with Point Break, Road House, Next of Kin...but there is something about Africa, this ancient energy that just permeates your whole being, just standing on that earth. As I was there, and spending time with the lions and tigers and elephants--I actually became friends with this elephant named Harry that we used in the movie that was just amazing! He's the huge, 15-foot elephant in the opening of the film. We actually used two elephants playing the same part: Harry and Sally. (laughs) I just decided to approach this elephant the same way I do my horses: with a lot of love and trust. It got to the point where he'd pick me up with his tusks and I'd shake him, and he'd shake back. On my last day, I was leaving the set in this Land Rover, and I stopped the vehicle, and there was Harry. I wanted to see if he'd come to me or not, so I yelled "Harry!" And he saw me, threw back his trunk, and started charging towards my vehicle! I thought "O-kay!" So he stopped right by the vehicle, stuck his trunk inside and wrapped it around me because he didn't want me to go! I was ready to take a big part of my ranch back home and turn it into an elephant preserve after that.

Did you do most of your own stunts?

Normally what I do is let the stunt double do most of the rehearsals, the idea being that the less you do, the less chance you have of getting hurt. Although my stunt double didn't ride horses, so all the horsemanship was up to me. But most of the stunts you see in my films are done by me.

It was nice to see Alison Doody acting again. I think every man who saw her in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade has yet to catch his breath.

It's a real pleasure working with a leading lady who knows exactly who she is. A lot of leading ladies, when they finally get to a certain point in their careers, get angry, and have an attitude, but Alison didn't. She was a real pro and made it safe for us both, because she's very happily married, and so am I, which helped us to establish this relationship set in the 19th century where you just didn't cross a certain line with someone you weren't married to, even though every fiber of your being is screaming to. Plus, it helped us to navigate around that predictable moment of "when is the guy gonna hook up with the girl?"

Of course, with this film, it was just that wonderful kiss between the two.

Which in the 19th century, was akin to a love scene! If there's one thing I've learned in any love scene I've done in a film, it's that it's not about sucking face. It's not about jumping someone's bones. It's about the connection between two human beings in the eyes, the idea that this person makes you whole and completes you. That's what's really sexy. And that's what makes this relationship in the film really sexy: it's all about working up to that kiss.

L to R: Patrick Swayze, Patsy Swayze and Patrick's wife, Lisa Niemi, in Patsy's Houston dance studio, circa 1977.

Let's talk about your background. You were born and raised in Houston, Texas. Your mom is a legendary choreographer who started her own studio in Houston. What did your dad do?

Well, his dad was one of the foremen of the King Ranch, which was the biggest ranch in the world, at one point. So my dad was raised on a ranch. At one point, he was the state champion calf roper. Needless to say, he got me into that stuff from the time I was little. My dad was a really organic, kind of earthy man. He was one of those men that was full of loving energy and had a sweet, gentle nature, but he was also one of those men that you didn't want to cross. He had that Southern man kind of energy to where if they ever lose that graciousness for one moment and that tone changes, you better run. There's no warning. He really taught me so many things that in your younger years are kind of cliché, but as you get older, you realize their importance: like integrity, passion, in your work ethic. I now live my life by most of the things my dad taught me. I think my favorite saying of his would be: "All I got is my integrity. To this day, I ain't never seen a hearse pulling a U-Haul." (laughs) Really, playing Allan Quartermain was an opportunity for me to play my dad.

And your mother, Patsy, is world-renowned dancer and choreographer.

That's the other side of me: the intensity, the passion, the drive, the belief in communicating something through the arts. It's all those qualities of my mother's that have really led me down all these tangential paths in my life. My parents were an amazing couple.

Swayze as Orry Main, in the ABC mini-series North & South (1985).

Your father was a man of integrity, and you seem to largely play men of integrity, going back to your character Orry Main in the miniseries "North & South," the role that helped launch your career.

What sucks an audience in is that ticking clock of whether this character is going to achieve what it is that they want in their life and it's usually not something physical. It's usually something internal, some subtext that's eating at them or haunting them like a demon. It's a deep-seated thing that they may, or may not, get past in order to get to what they need to achieve. Who really cares how many things you can blow up and who wins? It's how you get there. It's the process that's really the powerful thing in storytelling.

Clockwise: Patrick Swayze, Matt Dillon, Rob Lowe, Tom Cruise, C. Thomas Howell, Ralph Macchio, and Emilio Estevez in Francis Coppola's The Outsiders (1983).

The Outsiders came out around the same time, and helped to solidify your stardom. Tell us about the experience of working on that landmark Coppola film, which made stars out of a huge cast of unknowns, with names like Tom Cruise, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, and many others.

It was wonderful. Playing Orry really graduated me into playing the role of Darrel Curtis. And Francis was a great teacher for me. What I got from Francis was the true essence of what "organic" means. He would have us live in the house as a family, and be brothers. I would teach these kids how to jump freight trains and ride them. I used to jump freights in my surfing days, when I'd jump a freight leaving Houston for the Gulf Coast and then jump another one to get home. I taught these kids all the skills I knew: how to fight, how to do back flips and hand stands. I was teaching gymnastics classes to all the guys every day. The only one who was too cool to work with us was Matt Dillon. (laughs) He was much more into "I'm a New Yorker. I ain't into that stuff. That's pussy stuff." (laughs) But (Tom) Cruise took to it like a magnet. That's what I love about Tom, same thing with John Travolta. I love guys who are like sponges. No attitude, just "I want to learn." And if you look at them now, those are the guys that have careers. When you come from "I don't know," your growth is limitless. When you come from "I know," your growth stops. But Francis got so detailed. He didn't want anything coming out that didn't come from you as a person. No play-acting. No doing "words." We rehearsed that film completely improvisationally. We really became this family of three boys who were too young to be left alone, but we had no choice, because our parents were dead. And we had to survive, and we had to maintain our dignity. If there's a common thread among all the characters I've played, I think it's the exploration of all our dignity as people. So Francis became a huge part of my life. We were all together at his winery up in Napa for the 20th anniversary of the film, and the director's cut that's coming out on DVD, and it was like old home week. It was like my father was in my life again. Francis will always be an inspiration to me, because he never gives up.

Swayze and Jennifer Grey in the smash hit Dirty Dancing (1987).

With Dirty Dancing, did you and the rest of the cast and crew have any clue that the film would become the phenomenon that it did?

Everyone always wants to say in hindsight, "Oh yeah, I knew it all along." But Dirty Dancing was another one of those situations where we were just re-writing constantly, Eleanor Bergstein, Emile Ardolino and I, around the clock. When you find one of those projects where everyone jumps in with both feet, for me, those are the movies that make history. Dirty Dancing had that kind of energy. I would say it's the only film in my life that made me realize I had to keep my dancing quiet, because if dancing had been the thing that had launched me initially, I would have always been "dancer turned actor," and never been taken seriously as an actor. But what made that movie famous wasn't me shaking my butt. It was the fact that the young, funky Jewish girl gets the guy not because she's the hottest girl on the block, but because of what she's got in her heart. That's what's worth falling in love with. I truly believe that's why that movie continues to live on, like Ghost. I never used to believe in luck before, but when I think back on some of the films I've done, there's got to be a little luck in there somewhere, you know? I mean, who gets to be involved with one movie that makes history? (laughs) It's that mystical law of chance the Buddhists talk about called "miyoho."

Let's talk about some of your other films. One of your earliest films I really liked was Walter Hill's Uncommon Valor, with Gene Hackman.

I come from a place where I want to be part of a collaborative, nurturing kind of energy. A lot of times you'll have actors who just want to phone it in until their close-up, or just phone it in when they're off-camera, and Gene never did that. It didn't matter if he had an attitude about something that had made him angry on the set, always with the other actor; he was there 100% for you emotionally, no matter which side of the camera he was on. That made me realize that was the kind of actor I wanted to be. I've always been very lucky with those kinds of people. I was in this hardware store off Vineland one day, and somebody got out of a car next to me, and I just turned into a zombie, got off my motorcycle, and followed this guy into the story, without a clue as to who he was. All of the sudden, this big Indian puts himself between me and this guy, and I'm thinking "Oh my God, I've just finished "North & South" and The Outsiders and I've had this kind of stalking stuff happen to me. What am I doing?!" Then I realized it was Marlon Brando! So I did the typical fan thing and said the completely wrong thing: "I just finished working with Francis Ford Coppola on a movie. Then I thought "Oh my God, you dummy! Isn't he in the middle of a lawsuit with Francis?!" (laughs) So I wound up following him around and talking to him, and felt like I was at a therapist's, and he just listened to me talk. I finally stopped myself and said "I'm sorry; I'm really embarrassed by this." He turned around as he was about to leave and said "Hey son, I see something in your eyes. Don't give it up. Believe in yourself." And that has stuck with me forever, through the worst times, that Marlon Brando saw something in my eyes.

Let's talk about Road House, which might be my favorite film of yours. Your character Dalton wasn't the typical action hero. He was quite complex.

The whole basis of Road House was a modern-day western with the lead character being quite a complicated man. It would have been very simple to go down the road of playing tough and acting intense. But just playing "tough guy" never really goes anywhere. It might go somewhere for a little bit in a certain genre of film, but then people get tired of that genre and tired of that actor. This was going to be possibly the one real fight film I did where a lifetime of training I'd gone through would be able to be put into one movie. In the fight scenes, none of us were pulling our punches, except for the ones to the face. We made sure that everyone who was fighting really knew how to fight, so that you'd lift people off the ground, but you didn't break bone. We wanted to avoid the stuntman "biff, bam, bop" thing. In certain ways, I saw Dalton as Shane. And I liked the fact that it was one of the first opportunities for me to put out there my passion for being a peaceful warrior: to be highly-skilled, but to avoid violence or hurting another human being at all costs, unless you have no choice. But my complete concern in that film was to focus on the performance, and the fighting was secondary. The thing that continues to amaze me about Road House is the huge cult following it has, not only with male viewers, but with women, as well. I guess it's that whole idea of the man who's really mush inside. Women want men to get more sensitive, then they do, and women write songs like "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?" (laughs)

Swayze and Demi Moore in Ghost (1990).

Speaking of "chick flicks," let's talk about Ghost.

That, for me, was another testament that when you get people believing they're doing something special, something special happens. Jerry Zucker, being renowned for his comedic work, brought a wonderful thing to this project. And the writer, Bruce Joel Rubin, was a real gift because Bruce is a very spiritual man. When we'd be talking during the re-writes, we'd go into deeper topics about spirituality, but we finally came up with the idea that if you truly love someone and then you die, you take the love with you, because that's all you can really take. By curbing the desire to try to say too much, and thus possibly alienating people, and going back to very simple truths, it just seemed to resonate with a lot of people around the world. It was one of those films that come along and an alarm goes off in my body, telling me that I have to do it. It passed what I call "the goosebump test." When that happens, I know I have to do a film.

Patrick Swayze and wife Lisa Niemi at their ranch, Rancho Bizarro, in May 2009.