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Swayze's Dancing Brought Characters To Life

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Our story reported that Patrick Swayze's first movie role was in "The Outsiders" in 1983. That was incorrect. Swayze's first film role came in "Skatetown USA" in 1979. Also, in a reference to the film "Point Break," it was said that Patrick Swayze wore a mask with the likeness of President Richard Nixon while robbing banks. He actually wore a mask depicting the likeness of President Ronald Reagan.]

(Soundbite of music)

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Patrick Swayze died yesterday after a long and public struggle with pancreatic cancer. He was 57. Through his movie career, the actor played some real characters - a surfer dude bank robber, a road-tripping drag queen, a lovelorn ghost, and of course a dirty dancer. Jesse Baker has this remembrance.

JESSE BAKER: Patrick Swayze said he always knew he was going to be a performer.

Mr. PATRICK SWAYZE (Actor): I kind of came out of the womb onstage. My mother's a choreographer, so in all my younger formative years, into my teens and early adulthood I've done just about every musical ever written.

BAKER: In that 2004 interview on NPR, Swayze credits the role of Danny Zuko in the original Broadway production of "Grease" as his first big break. He made his first film in 1983 in Francis Ford Coppola's "The Outsiders." And then in 1987 he landed a role that would forever embed him in the anthology of American pop culture, as the roughhewn dance instructor Johnny Castle in "Dirty Dancing."

(Soundbite of song, "I've Had The Time Of My Life")

Ms. BAKER: In the final scene of the film, after being asked to leave the Catskills summer resort where he teaches, Swayze steals the mic and the stage to reclaim what's rightfully his.

(Soundbite of movie, "Dirty Dancing")

Mr. PATRICK SWAYZE (Actor): (as Johnny Castle) Sorry about the disruption, folks. But I always do the last dance of the season. This year somebody told me not to. So I'm gonna do my kind of dancing with a great partner.

Ms. BAKER: An entire generation of high school girls sighed as he stood up for his partner with this unforgettable line...

Mr. SWAYZE: (as Johnny Castle) Nobody puts Baby in a corner.

Ms. BAKER: At the time, the critics pretty much panned the film. But most could agree on one thing: the laconic Johnny Castle became downright eloquent when Patrick Swayze danced.

Here's Philadelphia Inquirer movie critic Carrie Rickey.

Ms. CARRIE RICKEY (Philadelphia Inquirer): There's a moment where he kind of leaps off the stage where he's dancing with Jennifer Grey into the audience, and I heard a gasp, a collective gasp from the audience. It was like watching Baryshnikov crossed with James Dean.

Ms. BAKER: Swayze was back on top of the box office charts three years later with the film "Ghost."

Again, movie critic Carrie Rickey.

Ms. RICKEY: And there was not just little teardrops, but there was there was projectile weeping. There was tears, you know, like a hard rain through the audience. Men, women, everyone.

Ms. BAKER: In the film, Swayze played Manhattan financier Sam Wheat, who's murdered by a co-worker. Wheat spends the rest of the film trying to communicate with his girlfriend, played by Demi Moore. The takeaway scene from this film, which left the audience breathless, has no dialogue. If you need a reminder, it involves a pottery wheel and this Righteous Brothers song.

(Soundbite of song, "Unchained Melody")

RIGHTEOUS BROTHERS (Singers): (Singing) I've hungered for your touch…

Ms. BAKER: Patrick Swayze is not often acknowledged as an actor with broad range, but at times he played against type. In "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar," Swayze sported a bustier and a garter belt as a drag queen. He robbed banks in a Nixon face mask and was on the run from Keanu Reeves in the 1991 film "Point Break."

Richard Kelly directed him in the 2001 indie cult film "Donnie Darko."

Mr. RICHARD KELLY (Director): Patrick was really kind of ballsy to take this role because the character, you know, turns out to be a pedophile, and it's not easy to find an actor who wants to play a role like that.

Ms. BAKER: Swayze was an actor, a dancer, he even dabbled in songwriting. But regardless of the genre, at his core Patrick Swayze was a dancer.

Mr. SWAYZE: Lisa and I are dance whores. We just, you know, just, you know, you put on and you put salsa on and we rock.

(Soundbite of salsa music)

Mr. SWAYZE: It's hard to do these days with all the celebrity and fame stuff, you know? At functions, you know, it's really a bummer because it used to be just a private moment with my wife and I on a dance floor. Now it's like, oh my lord, they're going to dance. Watch, Martha.

Ms. BAKER: And watch they did. Swayze said for him dancing was the most intense way to connect with another human being.

For NPR News, I'm Jesse Baker.

(Soundbite of song, "I've Had The Time Of My Life")

Mr. BILL MEDLEY and JENNIFER WARREN: (Singing) I've had the time of my life. No I never felt this way before. Yes I swear, it's the truth, and I owe it all to you, boy, and I've had the time of life...

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Corrected: September 16, 2009 at 3:44 PM CDT
Our story reported that Patrick Swayze's first movie role was in The Outsiders in 1983. That was incorrect. Swayze's first film role came in Skatetown USA in 1979. Also, in a reference to the film Point Break, it was said that Patrick Swayze wore a mask with the likeness of President Richard Nixon while robbing banks. He actually wore a mask depicting the likeness of President Ronald Reagan.
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Jesse Baker