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Voices -- Patrick Swayze, 1952 - 2009

September 14, 2009 |  6:05 pm

Nov. 30, 1984, Patrick Swayze

Nov. 30, 1983: Patrick Swayze dances "Without a Word."

From the Bayous to the Catskills

'Dirty Dancing' Takes to the Screen With Some Smart and Funny Steps

August 21, 1987

Nov. 30, 1984, Patrick Swayze By SHEILA BENSON, Times Film Critic

By being smart and funny, touching and unabashedly sensual, "Dirty Dancing" (selected theaters), a musical/love story set in the Catskills in the early '60s, is the sweet sleeper of a hot season.

It works with the kick that it does because writer Eleanor Bergstein and director Emile Ardolino know their milieu so well they can handle it in throwaway-perfect detail. And it especially works because from his first, incendiary title dance sequence, Ardolino, using every tool of film making, has an extraordinary ability to let us feel the exhilaration and the pure animal pleasure of dancing in perfect sync with a partner.

The "dirty dancers" here are young; their audience doesn't have to be to share their elation. In this movie we're encouraged to dream--no less than we did when Fred Astaire danced with Cyd Charisse or Gene Kelly with Leslie Caron--that their transports are ours. Because half the film's dances have to be learned by a faintly klutzy amateur, we learn with her, and her final burst of joy is ours too.

Jennifer Grey is that student, Frances (Baby) Houseman, bright, Peace Corps bound, cherished by her doctor-father (Jerry Orbach) who prides himself that in her shiny idealism they think alike. Take the subject of tragedy: To father and daughter Baby, what tragedy is not is having left behind a 12th pair of pumps for a three-week Catskills vacation. Tragedy is police dogs used in Birmingham. Older daughter Lisa (Jane Bruckner), and her conciliatory mother (Kelly Bishop) aren't quite so sure--it's Lisa's shoes in question.

Baby has the brains, Lisa has the beauty--it's one of those family givens, as immutable as the rules at Kellerman's, laid down by Mr. Kellerman himself (the imperishable Jack Weston). The guests come first; the waiters come from Yale or Harvard; the busboys and maids come from the Bronx or Brooklyn and the entertainment staff come from the fringes of show business and are absolutely not to be let anywhere near anyone's precious daughters.

The movie's dancing is also along strict caste lines, the mambo or merengue for above-stairs, their elegance painstakingly taught by the entertainment staff, ex-Arthur Murray teacher Johnny Castle (ex-Eliot Feld dancer/actor Patrick Swayze), former Rockette Penny Johnson (Cynthia Rhodes), exhorting her ladies that "God wouldn't have given you maracas if he didn't want you to shaaaaaake them!"

In the help's quarters it's the smoldering exhibitionism of dirty dancing, imported from Bronx basements and a guaranteed cause of cardiac arrest for any parent who discovers his child grinding away in this fashion. It's into this absolutely off-limits, smoky scene that Baby blunders late one night, to find herself face to face with dozens of kids, barely more than her age, dancing with an intimacy and an insinuation that shocks and mesmerizes her. And it puts her eye to eye with Johnny, who gives her a taste of this undreamed-of physicality before he moves on to another partner, leaving her shaken and dazed.

The film makers use dirty dancing as a hint of what is almost palpably around the corner in the America of 1963, change of a radical, all-pervasive nature. They use Baby's growing involvement with Kellerman's have-nots, with the charismatic dancers who seem to have everything and haven't got carfare, and especially with the complicated Johnny, to shake the foundations of Baby's nice, simplistic liberal values.

The film is carried by the painful, growing awareness of Baby, Johnny and her father, each forced to give up some cherished prejudice about the other. Grey and Swayze are tough, thoughtful, lovely actors, and their teacher-pupil sequences absolutely soar. The Orbach-Grey moments are tear-stingingly poignant.

Because director Ardolino comes from a background in dance films (including "He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin' "), he doesn't insult us with the impossible, too easily achieved. When Baby does her crucial exhibition, it's brave and it will pass but it isn't perfection; this is a director who knows the difference between a natural dancer and a created one and he won't blur the distinctions. At the other end of the spectrum, the Swayze/Rhodes dance numbers have that wonderful, showy mixture of pride and abandon that comes only with a lifetime of training.

"Dirty Dancing" is also a musical, one of the most significant fusions of drama and dance since "Saturday Night Fever"--and more involving. It has some the cliches of classic musicals: the untried girl who must go on for the pro; the wrong that can only be righted by a damning personal confession; the prideful, wrongly accused hero. And it has a finale that's the utmost test of the great Brackett and Wilder rule of movie making: Make an audience want something desperately . . . and then give it to them.

To get away with these conventions you have to build on completely believable characters and action, and here is where Ardolino, Bergstein and their impeccable colleagues shine--choreographer Kenny Ortega and his sensational young dancers, cinematographer Jeff Jur, editor Peter Frank, costume designer Hilary Rosenfeld, production designer David Chapman, John Morris, who did the music, R/Greenberg Associates, who created the electrifying opening and closing credits, et al.

Kellerman's is loaded with the real thing--sketched in swift, sometimes stinging detail: the low lifes, Kellerman's nephew Neil (Lonny Price) who, in the tradition of short, rich young men, is a blowhard and a bully; Robbie-the-Creep (Max Cantor), the philandering med student, and Baby's spoiled sister Lisa, who almost (but not really) deserves him. And the memorable tap man, Charles Honi Coles, leading Kellerman's ultraconservative dance band through a lifetime of waltzes and fox trots.

One shock is saved for the trip home: with its PG-13 rating, this may be a movie intended for young audiences--certainly it's one of the rare films that take seriously the considerable struggles of young people to find their place in the real world. If so, they're going to have to share the theater with a lot of bemused adults, torn between libido and nostalgia.

'DIRTY DANCING' A Vestron Pictures presentation in association with Great American Films Limited Partnership of a Linda Gottlieb Production. Producer Gottlieb. Executive producers Mitchell Cannold, Steven Reuther. Director Emile Ardolino. Screenplay, co-producer Eleanor Bergstein. Editor Peter C. Frank. Camera Jeff Jur. Choreography Kenny Ortega. Musical score John Morris. Music supervisors Danny Goldberg, Michael Lloyd. Music consultant Jimmy Ienner. Costumes Hilary Rosenfeld. Production design David Chapman. Associate producer Doro Bachrach. Art directors Mark Haack, Stephen Lineweaver. Sound John Pritchett. With Jennifer Grey, Patrick Swayze, Jerry Orbach, Cynthia Rhodes, Jack Weston, Jane Bruckner, Kelly Bishop, Lonny Price, Max Cantor, Charles Honi Coles, Neal Jones.

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

MPAA-rated: PG-13


Sexy Swayze

On the Set of His First Film Since 'Dirty Dancing'

July 24, 1988


Patrick Swayze has discovered that with huge success comes the feeling "everything is designed to help you sell out." He doesn't like the feeling.

For years, the Houston-born actor with the Adonis body and good ol' guy face has been talking a true believer's line when it comes to the subject of artistic integrity. Now riding the tidal wave of his "Dirty Dancing" success--magazine covers, mob scenes with fans, and a Barbara Walters interview behind him--Swayze is finding himself with the opportunity to practice what he preaches.

"There are people who want me to do a cologne. They want to call it 'Patrick,' " he scoffs. "I was offered a fortune to make exercise videos. Posters, all kinds of stuff--something like $10 million worth. It's insanity. I'm not going to do any of it."

What Swayze is doing is producer Joel Silver's $15-million "Road House," now shooting in the Santa Clarita Valley near Valencia. Due out next winter, it's the first feature Swayze has made since "Dirty Dancing" mamboed its way to box-office heaven, and it's a decided switch from the romantic "women's movie" that marked his breakthrough.

"Road House" has Swayze as a bouncer with a difference (a Ph.D. in philosophy) who takes on the chore of cleaning up a rowdy Missouri honky-tonk and soon runs into trouble from local kingpin Ben Gazzara. Sam Elliott is Swayze's buddy and newcomer Kelly Lynch provides the love interest.

The movie is chockablock with the sort of macho-minded ingredients that have become producer Silver's stock in trade in movies like "48 HRS.," "Commando," "Lethal Weapon" and this summer's Bruce Willis-vs.-terrorist adventure, "Die Hard."

It features stunts ranging from a high-speed chase in which a Mercedes is blown up in midair to a "big foot" truck smashing through a plate glass window. Instead of lifts, splits and swiveling hips, Swayze will be seen executing a combination of nine different fighting styles, from basic street scuffling to exotic kick boxing.

After five days of shooting a fight scene on a river bank near Fresno, Swayze, 35, had to have 80 cc.'s (approximately 2 1/2 ounces) of fluid drained from the damaged left knee that's plagued him throughout his career. Four operations on that knee led to Swayze's 1978 decision to move to Los Angeles from New York--where he had studied and performed with the Harkness, Joffrey and Feld dance companies--and channel his drive into an acting career.

More surgery now looms. "Running, I think, is difficult for him," says director Rowdy Herrington. But he adds that whatever pain the actor has experienced, it hasn't slowed him or the production down. Even stunt coordinator Charles Picerni says that among other things, Swayze handled a stunt that required making a 20-foot drop from a rooftop to a truck bed.

During a break in shooting, Swayze talks about his physical woes with the unemotional air of a professional athlete doing a locker-room interview.

"God knows," he says, asked how he initially hurt his back. Then, off-handedly: "I've had so many injuries." But he's quick to point out that they haven't stopped him yet.

What Swayze's anxious to get across is his desire "to turn an action film into a performance film--by turning this character into a real, feeling human being."

He also hopes to attract a considerable portion of his female following to "Road House" by bringing as much sensitivity to his tough-guy-with-a-brain character as possible.

While it isn't a romantic film, "Road House" does have a romantic moment or two, he notes. "The love scene is probably the hottest I've ever done, and clothes don't even come off.

"What's powerful about a love scene is not seeing the act. It's seeing the passion, the need, the desire, the caring, the fear," Swayze adds. "You don't need to get graphic unless the actors can't deliver the goods. . . . Maybe that's not always true, but in most cases it is. Sometimes it's just that the film maker wants a little porn for himself. I don't believe in that."

One of the creative collaborations in which Swayze and his wife, actress/dancer Lisa Niemi, engage, he says, is "figuring out these love scenes together in advance, working out what is going to make them the hottest."

The at-home choreography also helps him, "because it's very scary to do a love scene. You're displaying something private with 50 people on the set watching. I don't think you ever get used to it, because, boy," he laughs, "it still intimidates me!"

Since Swayze fans have proven ravenous enough to queue up for a chance to sleep in the same hotel room he used while on North Carolina location for "Dirty Dancing," it's not surprising that admirers have been out en masse whenever the "Road House" company has worked in public.

(In one frequently-cited case, the film production unit was working on what was thought to be inaccessible private land--but a pickup truck full of middle-aged blond women trundled in just the same.)

Swayze is widely perceived by his co-workers as being generous about giving time to his fans. Several members of the production team remember a night when he was still out signing autographs as the crew was leaving.

"He hasn't realized yet that he's not going to be able to sign an autograph for everyone who wants one," says his manager, Lois Zetter, who said she receives an average of 50 pieces of fan mail addressed to Swayze each day. "He has very strong feelings about what he owes the fans."

A few days later, in the quiet of his motor home dressing room, Swayze talks wistfully about getting away from it all. His wife recently spent six days alone in an isolated mountain cabin in order to get back in touch with herself. He would like to do the same.

"When I think about it, it brings up a lot of emotions, because I need that. I need it bad," he says. "I'm feeling like I'm walking on the edge of a cliff that drops off either side. If I don't keep my focus straight and clean, I'll fall.

"I thought I had prepared myself for this success," says Swayze, whose earlier movies include "The Outsiders" and "Red Dawn." "I've dealt with a certain amount of notoriety

for six years now, so I felt I knew the ropes. But I knew nothing."

Swayze's decision to "disappear and bury my butt in acting classes" after his almost hysterically lauded 1980 film debut in "Skatetown U.S.A." has become a shopworn article of his celebrity lore. Determined to avoid categorization as a beefcake teen idol, he rejected several of what he deemed "crotch first" roles. He guessed early fame "would mess up my head."

Swayze is already preparing for his next role--a Kentuckian who comes to Chicago to avenge thedeath of his brother, a cop--in Lorimar's "Next of Kin." The picture's set to roll in mid-August.

Meanwhile, he's had the bed taken out of his dressing room and replaced with portable recording equipment. Between "Road House" takes, he is hustling to finish writing songs for the sound track of his upcoming movie, "Tiger Warsaw," a low-budget drama he completed before "Dirty Dancing."

Based on Swayze's new celebrity, Sony's fledgling film distribution arm now plans to give "Tiger Warsaw" a nationwide release in September (the company's first film release). Swayze, who plays the estranged son of Piper Laurie, returns home 15 years after a violent scene during which he shot his father.

In contrast to his $1 million "Road House" fee, Swayze has said that he and the rest of the "Tiger Warsaw" cast took "almost nothing" in payment.

(Swayze and Niemi completed "Steel Dawn" seven months before "Dirty Dancing" opened. The futuristic Western opened and died in two weeks last November, taking in a paltry $526,000. This year, hyped by on-sight billboards touting Swayze's name, it was resurrected in video stores. Vestron Pictures reports sales of 400,000 units to rental outlets.)

As for other film plans, he's high on a Columbia project that would team him with Robert Duvall--"but I really shouldn't say too much about it"--and he's "mixed" about the much-discussed "Dirty Dancing II."

"So many times a sequel is a rip-off. People think they can get away with less because they've got a built-in audience. I don't want to be involved unless it looks as if it has a chance to be better than the first one.

Now, with "Dirty Dancing" passing the $125 million mark in domestic and foreign box-office revenues, Swayze and Niemi have "about 10" projects in the works under their own production company banner, Troph Productions Inc.

On a Friday afternoon inside the Valencia warehouse that's serving as a sound stage for the "Road House" team, crew members cluster around Swayze as he shows off snapshots of the foal his Arabian mare delivered the night before. The event kept him and his wife busy most of the night at their five-acre ranch in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. Even so, he looks only slightly wilted.

Swayze says he's had a total of six hours' sleep in three days.

"It's been an insane schedule, and also, the racehorses are going inside my head," admits the former Houstonite in his normal off-camera drawl. "But I have a well of energy that's never run dry. People say, 'You'll burn out.' I say, 'Really? Watch me.' "



An Afterlife Love Story

July 13, 1990


In our increasingly fragile and unpredictable world, "Ghost"(citywide) might well strike a seductive chord: a lover from the afterlife hovering over his beloved to keep her from harm, trying to communicate the love he couldn't express to her in life.

The movie's slogan is "Believe," not an unreasonable request. But even those who'd be happy to comply must get past "Ghost's" one casting jaw-dropper, a certain woolly-mindedness to its script and a production prettified to the point of stickiness.

With some of its actors--Demi Moore as the cracked-voice, desolate lover; Whoopi Goldberg as an extremely reluctant spirit go-between and Vincent Schiavelli as an irascible, subway-dwelling ghost who will teach our novice tricks of the nether world--things are in the best hands possible.

But Patrick Swayze as a corporate New York banker? The filmmakers know Swayze's appeal perfectly well: He has to move, he has to turn dancing into an act of lovemaking and he has to take his shirt off more often than Sigourney Weaver. All this he does, no matter how implausible the surroundings; you even begin to suspect that certain scenes were earmarked Swayze Shirt Opportunity.

In all his athletic scenes, leaping through doors, leaping between uptown and downtown trains, leaping on an assortment of villains, Swayze is just fine. It's the movie's big cosmic questions that throw him; for these he's reduced to a look of total stupefaction--not the movie's finest moments, although they may be some of its most collectible ones.

Ah well, the same audiences who bought Jennifer Beals as a rugged shipyard welder in "Flashdance"--from the same studio--will probably have no trouble with Swayze's banker. Put it down as wish fulfillment.

Screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin has had fun updating the rules governing ghostly behavior: Today's ghosts don't seem to be able to whooooosh places at will. In New York they must still take the subway, although they can change without a transfer. Making objects move, however, is harder than it might seem; it takes a lot of practice--and first-rate special effects, which "Ghost" fortunately has.

Rubin is less successful with the lovers' winsome dialogue; the bit with Moore saying "I love you," Swayze answering "Ditto." Rubin's frail little plot involves skulduggery among the bank accounts and supposedly bright central characters who can't seem to tell the snakes from the saints. "Ghost" is billed as a mystery, but it doesn't stay one long: The villain's sincerity is about as real as Eddie Haskell's, and as transparent. In any case, mystery isn't the point of "Ghost."

Director Jerry Zucker is packaging the distilled essence of romantic yearning and he's done a canny job of it. First there's his setting: A lot of "Ghost" takes place in a yuppie dream of a Manhattan TriBeCa loft, all muted creams and taupes and beiges, with enough square footage to set up a bowling alley. In the bathroom.

Then he teases us with one situation after another in which we think Swayze's Sam Wheat will depart this life. Will it be as he helps the movers wrestle a highly symbolic antique angel through his loft window? Will it be at the hands of a late-night intruder, as he and Demi Moore's Molly Jensen smooch over the clay she's shaping on her potter's wheel?

Zucker's staging of this scene isn't subtle but it's certainly effective. He mixes his audience's childhood memories of messing around with silky, squishy, slippery clay with the full-blown visual eroticism of two adults sharing the same sensual experience--and each other. It's an almost tangible charge, and probably before you get out to the theater parking lot it will have been knocked-off by seven less adroit directors.

One way or another, Sam does die, Molly does mourn and after a sort of baptismal sprinkling of astral dandruff, Sam begins to figure out his ghostly guidelines and the fact that Molly is in danger. Most importantly, he discovers that psychic Oda Mae Brown (Goldberg), the biggest charlatan since the Wizard of Oz, is the only person on Earth who can hear him. With her arrival, this little spun-sugar movie gets some needed vinegar.

Oda Mae, stunned to discover that for the first time her gift is real, is Goldberg in her element, giving the film its kick and energy. In the three-way scenes with Sam and Molly, as Sam's mouthpiece on Earth, translating, transposing, deleting in outrage when his language offends her, Goldberg is gleefully, wickedly funny. Working out the villain's comeuppance, she's even better.

As the anguished and vulnerable Molly, Moore manages to give backbone and definition to a role that must be played largely through sheets of tears. Clearly the hope is that the audience is in a similarly soggy condition and doesn't giggle at moments when they should be wowed, like Sam's radiant oneness with the hereafter. It may be pushing believe one step beyond.


Dancing in like Flynn

* Got a musical for Patrick Swayze? Bring it on!

January 04, 2004

By Elaine Dutka,

Patrick SWAYZE, who made his name as the hunky dance instructor-from-the-wrong-side-of-the-tracks in 1987's "Dirty Dancing," will be displaying his moves onstage in Bob Fosse's "Chicago," beginning Wednesday at the Pantages Theatre for a three-week run. To prepare for the role of Billy Flynn, the slick legal eagle popularized by Richard Gere in 2002's Oscar-winning movie, the actor put in a short, unadvertised stint in the Broadway production, his first appearance on the Great White Way since "Grease" more than 20 years ago. Next year, he'll star as Allan Quatermain in Hallmark Entertainment's "King Solomon's Mines" and (one of the town's worst-kept secrets) appear in "Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights," set for release in February. Closest to his heart, however, is "One Last Dance," 17 years in the making. Written and directed by his wife, Lisa Niemi, it's part of their attempt to revive the movie musical -- a species on the rebound after "Chicago" and "Moulin Rouge" scored big.

Is it harder to "razzle-dazzle" an audience after they've seen "Chicago" larger than life -- on celluloid?

Not at all. The film actually created a giant resurgence in the musical's Broadway road companies. "Chicago" continues to work so well because it's so contemporary. These days, everything is smoke and mirrors and showmanship -- with the perpetual undercurrent of a lie. Billy Flynn, this Svengali ringmaster, manipulates people to his way of thinking -- no matter what the truth. The challenge is to bring a level of reality to such a stylized, almost vaudevillian concept. And to avoid falling down those stairs at the side of the stage when I'm making my grand entrance. I had a gymnastics scholarship and rodeoed for three years but, even so, they're an accident waiting to happen.

Were you a fan of the movie?

What [director] Rob Marshall did with people who weren't real dancers blew me away. He and the cinematographer created movement in every shot. If I had my druthers, I'd have cast unknowns and gone with the power that creates. But filmmakers need drawing cards -- a Catherine Zeta-Jones, a Renee Zellweger, a Richard Gere -- who not only pulled it off, but put people in the seats. I could kill myself for not going after that role.

Are you fully recovered from the 1997 horseback riding accident that shattered your legs and left shoulder?

I have a titanium rod in my right femur, 15 anchors and 20 staples in my shoulder. I'm the 6 Million Dollar Man, setting off alarms in airports. Fosse's steps require a virtuoso level of athleticism, but, at 51, I'm in the best shape ever. I no longer drink, and I'm trying to lose cigarettes in my life. I was born with this intensity and drive like my dance-teacher mother, a powerful, talented beast with a "perfection" mentality. I spent so many years trying to be "Patrick Swayze" rather than "Patsy's son." Dad was a cowboy with this sweet, loving energy, and I inherited that from him. That soft but hard quality, I think, is what made my career work.

Did you draw on your experience with the Eliot Feld and Joffrey ballet companies in making "One Last Dance"?

I cleaned it up because no one would believe how grueling it was. Telling the complete truth would get in the way of storytelling and seem bitter or depressing. Still, no dancer calls it "suffering" because it's such a gift to have an opportunity to do what you're trained to do. I only abandoned that world because I didn't want to subject my body to that anymore and knew my career would be finite. "One Last Dance" drew standing ovations at film festivals in Philadelphia and Houston, and we're looking for a distributor. It deals with that moment in time when you give up a dream and, though we don't go for the "Rocky" ending, it passes the "goose-bump" test. Because studios are consumed with blockbusters, and TV is so far down the road of "reality" crap, it's up to the artists to take responsibility for the product.

You promised Gene Kelly to do everything in your power to pump life into movie musicals.

Kelly saw "One Last Dance" when it was a play and convinced us to make it a movie. He was my hero, an athlete -- guys could relate to him. I'm going to make sure "An American in Paris" gets remade -- with me in it. I agreed to do the retelling of "Dirty Dancing," dancing this little girl's heinie off, for free. Keep your money, I said to Miramax. Just give me your musicals -- they bought the rights to "Damn Yankees," "Pippin" and "Rent" -- and your next hero roles.

-- Elaine Dutka