Patrick Swayze: The Man Who Could Do Everything

The coolest cooler who ever lived.

To paraphrase his 1987 Billboard-charting ballad ‘She’s Like the Wind’, you’d be just a fool to believe that Patrick Swayze was merely an average star. Crooning one of the key tracks from one of his key films certainly ranked among his career achievements; however the dancer-turned-actor worked much more magic in front of the camera than behind the microphone. From a resume littered with memorable movies, he’s best known as a romantic lead and an action hero — at the height of his fame, he was ripping out guys’ throats one year, making “ditto” sound like the most meaningful word in the world the next, and bringing a zen mindset to the combination of surfing and bank robbing another year later. Versatile, even when he was returning to familiar genres and again and again, Swayze was one of the go-to talents of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s for a good reason. Whether he was battling an invasion, never putting the woman he loved in a corner, or donning a dress and heels, he made every role he was playing feel natural.

In another world, he’d still be doing just that. In an ideal world, he’d be among the John Wick franchise’s ever-growing cast list, enjoying a new bromance and still going skydiving with his old Point Break pal Keanu Reeves. Or, he’d be joining the family that’s taken their cues from the duo’s movie, popping up as a lawman or a fellow criminal in the Fast and Furious series (and, just maybe, finally sharing some screen time with Kurt Russell, as he really should’ve done three decades ago). Of course, as the new documentary I Am Patrick Swayze reminds us, none of the above is or can be the case, with this September marking ten years since Swayze succumbed to cancer. Thankfully, his work lives on — and, more than that, it provides a constant reminder that he really could do everything.

At the beginning of his career, Swayze skated, strutted, raced cars, revisited one war, tried to fend off another and hit the ice. His films from this period weren’t all winners (most weren’t), but he was a winning presence in them. In Skatetown USA, he oozed attitude. Featured among a who’s who of up-and-comers at the time — C. Thomas Howell, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, Matt Dillon, Tom Cruise, Ralph Macchio and Diane Lane — in The Outsiders, he did the same as the greaser older brother to the movie’s protagonist. Uncommon Valour and Grandview USA are easily forgotten, but in smaller parts as a former marine and a demolition derby driver, he found room to make an impact. While Red Dawn remains problematic for a plethora of reasons, Swayze commandingly helped lead the charge among a group of guerrilla teens fending off World War III, again amidst a lineup of now-famous faces. And although there’s much about the ice hockey-focused Youngblood that’s derivative of countless underdog sports flicks, he wore the mentor mantle well.

None of these films rank among his best, but, as happens with every star, each role helps build a picture of the actor behind it. Even playing a villain or neighborhood punk, Swayze always gravitated towards can-do types with an edge — someone who might make a living teaching wealthy vacationers how to dance, flout uptight rules in the process but still possess a firm set of principles (and abs). He wasn’t the first choice for Dirty Dancing’s Johnny Castle (Billy Zane was considered before him), but his dancing abilities and rebellious charm suit the character to a tee. In any romance, a movie needs to sell the couple’s appeal to each other. In any wrong-side-of-the-tracks outcast story, it needs to flesh out the texture of that dynamic. And, in any dance film, it needs to demonstrate supreme skill. Whether Johnny is teaching Baby (Jennifer Grey) countless smooth moves, trying to help his pregnant dance partner (Cynthia Rhodes) or showing his inner mettle despite Doctor Houseman’s (Jerry Orbach) prejudices, Swayze ticked all of the above boxes.

Dirty Dancing helped define one facet of Swayze’s on-screen persona. After the forgettable post-apocalyptic sci-fi effort Steel Dawn and redemption drama Tiger Warsaw, Road House defined the other. Once more, he played the outsider working in a physical field — this time, bar security — while radiating mystery, allure and a capable air all at once. When Swayze’s Dalton gets on the bad side of local toughs, as well as the businessman (Ben Gazzara) they’re connected to, he’s again charged with fighting for what’s right. Finding the higher ground in murky moral situations is a common thread in many of his starring roles during the late '80s and early '90s, as is the resourcefulness with which his characters deal with their respective scenarios. Nothing else on his cinematic resume involves a solution quite like Road House’s, however. There’s ingenuity and strength in Dalton’s killer blow, snatching out his adversary’s throat with his bare hands, but there’s also internal turmoil. Swayze could do everything, and he could also convey every emotion along with it.

In Ghost, famously, he also conveys the opposite struggle. As, Sam Wheat, Swayze steps into the shoes of someone who says “ditto” instead of “I love you”, though he genuinely means the latter. Actions usually speak louder than words among his characters, each in their own ways, and that’s especially true in this supernatural romance. And yet, in a tale and a performance that’s all about communication troubles, what particularly marks his work here is expressiveness and sensitivity. After Wheat is mugged and murdered, his journey revolves around his determination to once again interact with his still-alive girlfriend (Demi Moore), with psychic Oda Mae Brown (Whoopi Goldberg) assisting as the conduit between them. Swayze gives that difficult quest the weight that it calls for, regardless of the overarching film’s fluffier, sappier tendencies.

If there’s a pattern among Swayze’s output in his heyday — and there is — it’s diversity within familiar confines. Just because he played the action hero, it didn’t mean that he played the same action hero. When he kept rebounding to romantic lead mode, he didn’t just keep doing the same thing over and over again. Swayze explored the many shades evident in his comfort zone. Post-Ghost, he also began to take more risks. As the ‘90s got into full swing, he became the Swayze who could wander through Indian slums looking for enlightenment (in City of Joy), the ex-con dad who could lead kids into a life of comic crime (in Father Hood), the drag queen finding tolerance in a small town (To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar) and the unwitting arms transporter (in Black Dog). He was then the creepy teacher in Donnie Darko, the road-tripping redneck in Waking Up in Reno, a dancer again in both One Last Dance (directed by and co-starring his wife Lisa Niemi) and Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights (in the cameo he had to do, honestly), and a crime boss in Powder Blue — and a veteran undercover FBI agent in TV’s The Beast, too.

Put all of the above together, and Swayze’s career couldn’t be more multifaceted. Sometimes, he found ways to twist seemingly similar roles into their own distinctive shapes. Sometimes, he embraced jumping from one eclectic part to the next. He earned a Razzie nomination in 1989, for both Road House and crime thriller Next of Kin, but he was never the weak link in any film. There’s one entry on his resume that couldn’t illustrate his versatility better, of course — one that, no matter how fondly Dirty Dancing and Ghost will always be recalled, and regardless of the near-cult status that Road House is approaching, will always eclipse everything else that Swayze ever did. In the words of Point Break itself, it’s the source, man. It’ll change your (Swayze-loving) life. Swear to god.

From Kathryn Bigelow’s exacting direction, to the film’s creative array of action scenes, to the unpacking of male posturing on multiple levels, Point Break’s highlights are many. You could call it the perfect early '90s action flick, and you’d be 100-percent right. It’s also the perfect Swayze film, and the perfect encapsulation of his wide-ranging abilities. You don’t just have to take our word on his stellar work as wave-riding, heist-masterminding surf guru Bodhi, though. You don’t merely need to believe us when we point out that Swayze’s shaggy-haired ability to exude bliss and menace — to simultaneously appeal with the character’s softer side and repel with his laser-sharp ruthlessness — offers a one-movie masterclass in all that he could bring to the screen. Instead, just feel the conflict rippling through Keanu’s Johnny Utah, who’s both in awe of and aghast at Bodhi’s mass of contradictions. Swayze made that happen, because Swayze could do it all.