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Sad news to me, Patrick Swayze has passed away ...

September 14 2009 at 6:03 PM

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Patrick Swayze the gracefully macho Texan who swiveled his way to movie stardom in 1987's Dirty Dancing, died Monday at the age 57 after waging a valiant public battle against pancreatic cancer.

"Patrick Swayze passed away peacefully today with family at his side after facing the challenges of his illness for the last 20 months," said a statement released Monday evening by his publicist, Annett Wolf. No other details were given.

Fans of the likable actor have been prepared for such an outcome for more than a year, ever since the National Enquirer blared the headline, "Patrick Swayze Has 5 Weeks to Live."

He managed to defy that prediction, though he was pragmatic about his chances and candid when discussing the ordeal of fighting such a virulent illness that usually kills 95% of its victims within five years.

"You can bet I'm going through hell," he told Barbara Walters on Jan. 8 in his first TV interview since he was diagnosed. "And I've only see the beginning of it. There's a lot of fear here. Yeah, I'm scared. Yeah, I'm angry. Yeah, I'm asking, 'Why me.' "

Swayze also acknowledged time was running out. "I'd say five years is pretty wishful thinking. Two years seems likely if you're going to believe statistics. I want to last until they find a cure, which means I'd better get a fire under it."

Still, it's hard to accept that the guy with the rough-hewn features and carnal soulfulness who hoisted the likes of 1989's testosterone-heavy hootfest Road House and 1990's weeper deluxe Ghost into the category of pop-culture classics is gone. Here was someone who was man enough to dance ballet, figure-skate in a Disney ice show, croon the sap-tastic She's Like the Wind and make a cornball line like "No one puts Baby in the corner" go down in history.

It was reported in February 2008 that Swayze had "a gastrointestinal procedure" at the Stanford University Medical Center in California and was "doing fine." Later, his publicist confirmed that he was diagnosed in January with pancreatic cancer and was having chemotherapy at the university's cancer center in Palo Alto. Swayze and his wife of 33 years, dancer Lisa Niemi, who both have pilot's licenses, would fly there in their own Beechcraft.

The news of his condition summoned words of affection and best wishes from co-stars. Whoopi Goldberg, Ghost's comical psychic, declared Swayze "a man I adore" while recalling, "When I won my Academy Award for the film, the only person I really thanked was Patrick." She explained that he told the filmmakers he wouldn't do the movie without her.

Swayze, who earned People magazine's Sexiest Man Alive title in 1991, was tough enough to endure aggressive treatment and work six-day weeks to film 13 episodes of The Beast, an A&E series that premiered Jan. 15. He even attended the wrap party with the cast Nov. 23 in Chicago.

"I do find myself, at the end of the day, riding home sort of catching myself with a smile on my face," Swayze told The New York Times when discussing the series. "I'm proud of what I'm doing."

Earlier in his career, the actor had his share of health struggles, including breaking both his legs in a horse-riding accident while shooting a 1998 HBO film, Letters From a Killer. Besides a three-pack-a-day cigarette habit, Swayze was an alcoholic whose addiction grew worse after his adored father died of a heart attack in 1982.

After his sister's suicide in 1994, he entered rehab and later removed himself from the temptations of Hollywood by buying two ranches, one in California and the other in New Mexico, where he and his wife raised cattle and ran a wildlife preserve.

The actor, who was brought up Roman Catholic but studied Bahai, Buddhism and Scientology, could be spiritual in interviews. As he reflected in 2004 about his struggles with drinking: "I made a conscious decision to break away from big films when I got alcohol out of my life. I had been sucked into the blockbuster, box-office mentality, and it was destroying my sense of purpose in life. The loneliness of fame was messing with my head.

"Once you've been famous for a while and told your story, it can sound like a lie. You don't know what's true. It sounds like an article someone wrote rather than the essence of who you are."

After a fallow period early in the decade, Swayze seemed to be ready to get back in the acting game in 2007 before his diagnosis. He appeared in the family comedy Christmas in Wonderland and filmed a Crash-style drama, Powder Blue, with Jessica Biel, Forest Whitaker, Ray Liotta and his brother, Don.

He was the son of a rodeo champ and a choreographer, which pretty much set him up for his professional path. Guys dug his action-hero side. Girls swooned for his romantic rakishness. And gays thought he was, well, OK after pulling off an effeminate cross-dresser in 1995's To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar. As straight-arrow Roger Ebert observed of his diva Vida: "Swayze actually looks pretty good in drag (women around me were ooohing at his trim waist)."

Truth be told, he was never a great actor if measured by Olivier standards. But he could be awfully good in some pretty ridiculous roles and never took himself too seriously. His bouncer with a Ph.D in philosophy who stands guard over a wild Missouri honky-tonk in Road House comes to mind, lecturing rowdy customers with such bons mots as, "I want you to be nice until it's time not to be nice."

He became a cultural icon by way of his hips, grinding into the loins of sweaty dance partners and opening the virginal eyes of Jennifer Grey's socially superior Baby in the Camelot-era coming-of-age schmaltz known as Dirty Dancing.

As the man whose resort instructor Johnny Castle made females swoon to a mambo beat observed when the movie was re-released in theaters in 1997, "Dirty Dancing was what sent my career into hyper space." He also noted, "I've had mothers from all over the world happily say, 'You're the reason my daughter lost her virginity.' "

But Swayze was more than a sculpted body. He also had a kind of easygoing cool that can't be bought. Even in 2001's Donnie Darko, as a self-help guru and a closeted pedophile, his senior status lent a sort of cheesy legitimacy to the dark trip into the far-out.

He also displayed a Teflon-like resiliency both in his career and in his life. When movie opportunities became lean, he turned to theater, where he first kick-started his acting career in 1978 as Danny Zuko in Grease. He did Chicago on Broadway in 2003 and, in 2006, made his London stage debut as Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls.

In 2000, he also almost got into legal trouble after being forced to make an emergency landing in a subdivision while flying his twin-engine Cessna from Van Nuys, Calif., to Las Vegas, N.M. Witnesses reported that the actor, who delayed talking to the police for several hours, appeared intoxicated at the time and asked them to help remove beer and wine from the plane. But all turned out well when it was determined that the alcohol was inaccessible during the flight and Swayze's disorientation was a result of hypoxia during the descent.

He openly struggled against his disease, but his bounce-back ability could not rescue him this time. Fans can take some solace in the fact that, with his string of cult-inspiring performances in the '80s and '90s, Swayze built himself a resume that guaranteed his work would live on.

He will always be on DVD and on cable, in slang (Swayze means "to disappear," like his spirit in Ghost), in parodies (the B-movie mockers on TV's Mystery Science Theater 3000 sang Let's Have a Patrick Swayze Christmas on a holiday episode) and in Saturday Night Live reruns, shaking his studly stuff in a dance-off with chubby rival Chris Farley during a Chippendales skit.

He will survive in the hearts of every man who worships his Big Kahuna of surfing bank robbers in 1991's Point Break and every woman who can name all the then-up-and-coming players in the talent-rich male cast of 1983's The Outsiders. (He was Darry, the elder greaser.)

And he will always be an inspiration for anyone confronting tough odds. He faced a grim reality and kept going.

"There is probably that little bird that flies through your insides and says, 'I sure would like to make a mark in life,' " he told the New York Times in October. "I've made a pretty decent mark so far nothing to scoff at. But it does make you think: Wait a minute. There's more I want to do. Lots more. Get on with it."


 
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