Patrick Swayze, an all-American hunk of USDA-certified Grade-A prime-cut American beefcake who always seemed to have a real good sense of humor about it, died yesterday after a public but not undignified 20-month battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 57.
Swayze grew up in Houston and trained as a dancer there and in New York, breaking into Broadway in the mid-70s. In his 30s, he began being cast as a teen heartthrob, in such films as The Outsiders, Red Dawn and the prequel to Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights.
Swayze’s on-screen persona, like his offscreen trajectory, was that of a minor but distinct American archetype: the jock who takes ballet. It’s easy to occasionally snort at the seriousness with which he committed his body to silly-looking pursuits—I seem to recall something with a pottery wheel?—but mostly there’s a calm authority to his movements (Dana Stevens has an excellent appreciation), a lack of defensiveness. And, because he wasn’t above it, a winning wink at the audience— as in the SNL “Chippendales” sketch, where it’s hard to tell who’s working harder at self-parody there, the earnest fat guy or the too-earnest, too-fit guy. (He also memorably went all-in as the pervy motivational speaker charlatan of Donnie Darko: many of his scenes were shot on the grounds of his California ranch; he also wore his own clothes, and frosted his own tips.)
In Kathryn Bigelow‘s Point Break, Swayze, then at the peak of his fame, played Bohdi, the leader of a gang of bank-robbing extreme surfers. (You can stream the movie on Netflix, and I would very much encourage you to do so.) Bigelow’s immersion in the masculine appetite for destruction (and early-90s zeitgeist) is muscular, focused, absurd, and winningly unafraid of looking ridiculous—never more so than in Swayze’s high-kicking action scenes, and athletic delivery of lines like “They only live to get radical”. As an actor, Swayze was above all one hell of a dancer, putting his body and ego on the line for our judgment and enjoyment; now, as he paddles out to that last wave, we say, “Vaya con dios.”