Swayze was only 57 when he died on Monday, Sept. 14. When he received his diagnosis of pancreatic cancer almost two years ago, he was still healthy and vibrant. I saw him appear on Oprah on Nov. 6, 2007, and he appeared as physically fit and graceful as he’d ever been, although he was once a heavy drinker and he smoked all his life. Just three months later, in January 2008, he received the terrible news that he had Stage IV pancreatic cancer. He went on to star in A&E’s The Beast, but his declining health precluded him from taking the show past one season. A&E cancelled it in June.
Like everyone else, I know what a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer usually means, but like everyone else, I thought Swayze could win his fight against it. Apple’s Steve Jobs, whose pancreatic cancer I understand is of a different strain, has managed to escape thus far; I hoped Swayze could manage it too. When I saw Swayze’s appearances in the later months, however, I knew he was nearing the end. The unsustainable emaciation that terminal cancer brings on is unmistakable, especially when it shows up in one who once was as hearty as Swayze.
Swayze’s death makes me feel older than either Michael Jackson’s or Farrah Fawcett’s, even though those performers also were each icons of my childhood. I was graduating from high school when Dirty Dancing came out in 1987. What’s not to love about a movie that featured dancing, summer camp, a gorgeous bad boy with a heart of gold and a not-so-ugly duckling who gets her man? I ate it up. I think I’ve seen that movie about 25 times.
Swayze’s Dirty Dancing co-star Jennifer Grey said this of him: “He was fearless and insisted on always doing his own stunts, so it was not surprising to me that the war he waged on his cancer was so courageous and dignified. When I think of him, I think of being in his arms when we were kids, dancing, practicing the lift in the freezing lake, having a blast doing this tiny little movie we thought no one would ever see.”
I was a junior in college when he performed his legendary Chippendale’s skit with Chris Farley on Saturday Night Live in 1990. It seems like such a short time ago; it’s incredible to think that both of those talented performers have now passed.
The romantic Ghost also was released in 1990, a movie that made every girl sigh. Whoopi Goldberg, who won an Oscar for her performance in Ghost and now co-hosts ABC’s The View, cried today when she talked about her co-star.
“This was a well-fought battle,” she said on the air. “Patrick fought like the dickens to survive it, or to get through it. He never thought of himself as someone who was dying. He said, `You know, we’re all dying.’ And so his attitude was, `Until it kills me, I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing.’
“He worked, he did his show, he just was a cat that never gave up,” she added. “I would like to be able to be that. I would like to have that bravery.”
Demi Moore, who plays Swayze’s beloved girlfriend, Molly, in that movie, and who has become a complete Twitter addict, predictably tweeted her response: “Patrick you are loved by so many and your light will forever shine in all of our lives. In the words of Sam to Molly, ‘It’s amazing Molly. The love inside, you take it with you.’ I will miss you. I love you, Demi.”
And almost every man I know loves two Swayze movies: Point Break (1991) with Keanu Reeves, and Red Dawn (1984) with Grey and Charlie Sheen. He later played against type, cross-dressing with Wesley Snipes and John Leguizamo in 1995’s To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar.
His status as a leading man wound down in the late nineties and 2000s, and he began playing more character roles, including a pedophile in 2001’s dark and bizarre Donnie Darko. His star turn in A&E’s The Beast, which turned out to be his last, had critics heaping praise on him. The New Jersey Star Ledger’s Alan Sepinwall wrote: “You realize that this is the best performance of his career - that the opportunity to play a part like this, and to play it as well as he is, may be fueling his ability to keep fighting against the cancer. And you realize, in an odd silver lining, that the cancer may, in turn, be fueling the performance.”
You can catch that performance on Wednesday, Sept. 16, when A&E honors Swayze with a special and marathon of The Beast.
Perhaps the saddest thing to me about Swayze’s death is that he leaves behind his wife, Lisa, who he met when he was 18 and married when he was 23. Theirs was one of the rare Hollywood unions that stood the test of time and fame.
RIP Patrick Swayze. Thanks for everything.