Everyman movie star succumbs to long battle with pancreatic cancer.
A native of Houston, Texas, Swayze’s thirty year career spanned theatre, popular music, television and of course film. His earliest professional work included co-starring in the Broadway production of Grease and a guest appearance on M*A*S*H, and a regular role on the short-lived TV drama The Renegades. In 1983 he gained widespread notice as Darry Curtis, the older brother of C. Thomas Howell and Rob Lowe, in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders. The role defined his early screen persona as the steadying influence to a younger character’s recklessness, both in 1985′s Red Dawn, opposite Howell as well as Charlie Sheen, and Lowe again in the hockey drama Youngblood (1986). He also appeared in two parts of the top-rated mini-series North and South in 1985 and 1986.
His breakthrough role came in the 1987 musical Dirty Dancing, playing dance instructor Johnny Castle opposite his Red Dawn co-star Jennifer Grey. Though not expected to peform well at the box office, the film was the year’s highest grosser, eventually making $213 million worldwide. Its best-selling soundtrack included his own vocal debut, “She’s Like The Wind,” which reached #3 on the Billboard charts. But the success was short-lived, with Swayze next appearing in a string of box office disappointments including Tiger Warsaw and Next of Kin, films that typecast him in redneck action roles with little depth. The most notorious of these, 1989′s Road House, became something of a cultural punchline throughout the 90s.
But success found him again with 1990′s Ghost, co-starring Demi Moore and Whoopi Goldberg. That moody romance proved an even bigger hit than Dirty Dancing, earning more than half a billion dollars worldwide and winning Swayze People magazine’s Sexiest Man of the Year award. In a surprising career pivot he followed that success with the Kathryn Bigelow-directed heist adventure Point Break, which has subsequently become a cult favorite.
Following a little-seen starring turn in 1992′s City of Joy, his film appearances remained steady but drew progressively less public attention even as they became more diverse. He appeared as a transvestite opposite Wesley Snipes and John Leguizamo in 1995′s To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar while starring in the family dramas Three Wishes and Tall Tale: The Unbelievable Adventures of Pecos Bill that same year. By the end of the decade he was back in blue-collar action star mode, playing a trucker in 1998′s Black Dog.
His career remained low-profile through the current decade, including a guest appearance in the 2004 sequel Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights and starring as Alan Quartermain in the Hallmark Channel original King S0lomon’s Mines. In 2008 he seemed poised for a major comeback, playing an undercover FBI agent on the A&E Network original series The Beast, even as news of his battle with pancreatic cancer dominated tabloids. The Beast debuted in January of this year but was cancelled six months later as his health declined.
Though much of his filmography is seldom considered classic cinema in the conventional sense, the best of his 1980s work helped introduce a generation of audiences to the thrill of moviegoing, while The Outsiders demonstrated how cinema could speak to our own lives. Our best wishes to his friends and family.
- Michael Kabel