The Hollywood Sex Symbol Died With Patrick Swayze
The Hollywood sex symbol died 10 years ago with Patrick Swayze.
Don’t agree? Watch a Patrick Swayze movie.
Okay, maybe not Donnie Darko, though his performance there as a creepy motivational speaker with a dark secret is one of his best, and a sign of just how much we lost when he died of pancreatic cancer aged 57. But time and again throughout his career Swayze took on cheesy roles, gave them his all -- and made them classics.
Hollywood didn’t know how much it needed Swayze when he first started acting.
The '80s might have been a great time for a lot of things, but sexy guys on the big screen wasn’t one of them. Action heroes looked like Arnold Schwarzenegger; if you wanted someone a little more plausible, you had Bruce Willis. Michael Douglas was the go-to guy for sexy thrillers; Harrison Ford was hiding out with the Amish.
Swayze though, had something special. For one thing, he knew how to use his body. His mother was a dance choreographer; his Texas childhood had been spent between roping cattle on a ranch and taking ice skating and ballet. He was a high school sports star and when a serious injury left him in a full-length leg cast for six months, he didn’t just fight back -- he decided to go professional with his dancing.
While he’d been around Hollywood for a while, he’d had to fight for everything he got. He was the last main cast member hired for The Outsiders, the first film to give him serious cred. Cold War fantasy Red Dawn might not be renowned for its acting, but when Swayze has to say goodbye to his father (who’s locked up in a Soviet death camp) it’s almost startling how much emotion he puts into the scene. Swayze’s father had suddenly passed away not long earlier; he channelled that into his acting, and gave an otherwise forgettable B-movie something special.
That was him all over. He’d appeared with his Dirty Dancing co-star Jennifer Grey in Red Dawn and they hadn’t gotten along, but three years later their chemistry in that crowd-pleaser was electric. Originally it was planned to give Dirty Dancing a week-long run in cinemas and then push it straight to video; instead, it broke across America like a sexual tsunami, and word-of-mouth made it a massive hit around the world. The soundtrack did pretty well too, including ‘She’s Like the Wind’, which Swayze sang and co-wrote.
The script wasn’t great -- seriously, anyone who tells you “Nobody puts Baby in the corner” is a great line (and not a great piece of camp) is not to be trusted -- but so much of the film is just Swayze and Grey dancing that none of that matters. The man was physically graceful, and women loved him for it.
Men, on the other hand, loved Road House, Swayze’s absurdly violent follow-up where he played a bouncer who beats the crap out of rowdy patrons at a road house in between saving a small town from a sinister businessman. For any other actor this kind of wild career swing would be tough to pull off; Swayze promptly did it again with two of his biggest films back-to-back, Ghost and Point Break.
Swayze’s action movies performances almost ruled him out of consideration for the role of Ghost’s sexy ghost Sam Wheat. Yet again, he had to fight for a part. It wasn’t until he auditioned for director Jerry Zucker by reading the film’s final scene that he won the part, and the rest is sloppy pottery wheel history.
He may have been playing a ghost for most of the film, but it’s his physicality -- and his vulnerability -- that makes what could have been a train wreck (look, it’s a romance featuring a ghost) both sexy and authentically emotional. At a time when most of Hollywood’s big name male stars were all about invulnerability, he wasn’t afraid to open up.
By the time he did Point Break, it was clear other actors were starting to pay attention. His co-star Keanu Reeves was finding his own way to be an action star while remaining a plausible human being, and throughout the 90s the idea of action stars who could also be vulnerable went mainstream. Today, there’s no modern Schwarzenegger, but guys wanting to be the 21st century Swayze -- a tough guy who’s not afraid to cry? They’re everywhere.
Occasionally we’ll see a leading man with some of Swayze’s charisma and sex appeal. Channing Tatum gave it a red-hot go in the Magic Mike movies. But these days mainstream appeal means sexless superheroes, and none of the current contenders for Swayze’s crown quite match up.
Swayze was a charming, good looking guy and they’re never in short supply in Hollywood. But he also had an ease, a sense of being relaxed and confident in his own body that was rare then and is rare now.
No doubt a lot of that came from his dance training, but it’s hard not to think other factors in his life played into it too.
Throughout his career, he made sure to spend time away from Hollywood on his New Mexico ranch. He got married when he was 23 and he and his wife were together until he died at the age of 57 -- ironically, the same age his father was when he died.
Men wanted to be him, women wanted to be with him.
He’s the man who gave Hollywood back its sex appeal.