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Monday, February 27, 2017

Patrick Swayze: One Last Dance

Celebrity biographer Wendy Leigh published Patrick Swayze: One Last Dance in 2009. Leigh has written other biographies of John F. Kennedy, Jr., David Bowie, Madonna, Barbara Eden, Grace Kelly, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Edward Windsor, Zsa Zsz Gabor, and Liza Minelli.
Cover of Wendy Leigh's biography
"Patrick Swayze: One Last Dance"
In 2009, Swayze was writing his autobiography, which would be published in 2010 under the title The Time of My Life. Therefore Swayze refused to be interviewed for Leigh's biography and apparently asked his close relatives and friends to refuse to be interviewed.

Despite these limitations, Leigh did manage to interview many people who knew Swayze as a young man, in particular people who knew him as an adolescent, including his first serious girlfriend. Leigh did interview Swayze's manager, Lois Zetter, and various film personnel. Leigh also read voluminously about Swayze. Leigh's biography is informative and interesting. The book's end notes refer to her published sources. Leigh knows how to write a celebrity biography.


Swayze, born in 1952, grew up dancing because his mother owned a dance studio in Dallas, Texas. (The following videos are not associated with Leigh's book.)

As a young man, he intended to become a professional ballet dancer, and in 1975 he was living in New York City and dancing in the Joffrey Ballet Company. In 1976, Because of a tooth abscess, he caught a staph infection that almost resulted in the amputation of a leg that previously had been injured while playing high-school football. Although he recovered from the infection and still was able to dance, he decided that his knee's condition now precluded a career as a professional ballet dancer.

He decided to become an actor instead and began to take acting lessons and try out for roles.

He soon was hired to play the lead role of Danny Zuko in the Broadway musical Grease. When the show closed in 1979, Swayze and his wife Lisa moved to Los Angeles to begin establishing movie careers.


Swayze's parents had been happily married and had raised him in the Roman Catholic Church. He had met Lisa when they both danced at his mother's studio. They married soon after he moved to New York, and they stayed married (and apparently faithful) to his death. She wanted to become an actress, and he tried to help her, but she could not match his extraordinary success.

He had an inferiority complex about his intellect. I got the impression from Leigh's book that he studied minimally in high school, being busy mostly with dancing and sports. In that respect he was similar to his Dirty Dancing character Johnny Castle.

A non-dancing interest that he shared with Lisa was carpentry, and they supported themselves largely by doing carpentry projects together during their first years in Los Angeles.


Swayze soon played a leading role in a teen movie called Skatetown, but subsequently turned down a series of roles that might have type-cast him as a "teen idol". He held out for more mature roles and tried, mostly without success, to get his wife cast into his movies.

In 1984 he appeared in a leading role in the movie Red Dawn, about a group of young people who resist a Soviet invasion of the USA. Jennifer Grey (later the star of Dirty Dancing) also appeared in that movie, and they had some scenes together, but they did not become personal friends.

In 1985, Swayze appeared in a leading role in a television mini-series called North and South, about the Civil War. Swayze played a Confederate officer. Swayze's career managers considered his real-life personality to be "heroic, idealistic and gentlemanly", and they tried to cast him into roles that matched that personality. The considered his role in North and South to be such a fitting match.

Swayze drank too much for many years. The problem became significantly worse in 1982, when his father died unexpectedly, and continued beyond 1986, when he participated in the filming of Dirty Dancing.


Although Swayze had played several leading roles, he did not come quickly to the attention of screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein and producer Linda Gottlieb after the MGM movie studio decided to make the Dirty Dancing movie. Swayze did not come to their attention quickly, because he avoided dancing roles and did not even mention his dancing ability on his resume.
By 1986, he had spent the last seven years of his career diligently toiling away in Hollywood, fighting tooth and nail to escape classification as either a latter-day Troy Donahue or a sleeker, less pumped-up Schwarzenegger, or even an ersatz John Wayne, and he certainly didn't want to be Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly. Moreover, he was so rigidly resolved not to hitch his shooting star to a musical that he decreed that his resume must not detail his dance training. ....

Eleanor [Bergstein] had first pitched her Dirty Dancing concept to MGM in 1984, whereupon producer Linda Gottlieb signed on board to produce it. .... Director Emile Ardolili was hired to direct, and Kenny Ortega .... came on board as choreographer. However, two years after her initial pitch to MGM, the movie stil hadn't been made, simply because she still hadn't been ale to find the right actor to play Johnny. ....

Eleanor had chanced on Patrick's picture ... [and] now knew that in Patrick Swayze she'd met her hero, Johnny Castle, i living color .... Now all she had to do was convince him to accept the part. ... Here was a relatively untried screenwriter ... virtually at his feet, telling him that she couldn't make her movie without him, exhorting him to appear in her low-budget, small-time production, playing a down-market character ....

Despite the intensity of her pitch, and even after taking a positive meeting with Emile Ardolino, he had serious misgivings about playing a dancer ... and decreed that unless he first met and approved of choreographer Kenny Ortega, he wasn't going to play Johnny.

Aware that Patrick was due to fly from New York to L.A., and determined to snare him for the movie, Ardolino booked Kenny a seat next to Patrick on the same flight and instructed im to convince Patrick to accept the part of Johnny.

Toward the end of the fight, "Patrick pointed his finger at me ... and he said, 'I'm going to do this movie, Ortega, and don't let me down. This is a really important time in my life. Right now, these choices that I'm making right now are really important. I'm excited by what you have to say, what Emilio and Eleanor have to say. Come through for me, don't let me down,'" Kenny remembered.
The crew and actors assembled at the Mountain Lake Resort in Giles, County, Virginia, in late August 1986. After rehearsing for two weeks, they began on September 5 the 43 days of filming.

Because Swayze already had played several leading roles, he had the confidence to argue for his own artistic visions strongly and persistently.
Early on they shot the first scene, in which Baby watches, mesmerized, as Patrick and Cynthia Rhodes (Playing his first dance partner, Penny) dance together. Cynthia, a seasoned dancer, was immediately impressed by his dancing. .... Patrick and Cynthia were both such brilliant dancers that the director and producer were afraid that their dancing would throw the movie off balance.

"Everybody kept telling me to tone it down, that we were too hot together, and it was going to overpower my later scenes with Jennifer," Patrick remembered. He knew what everyone wanted, but sure of his artistic vision, his own abilities, he fought back, insisting that the hotter his dance with Cynthia, the more the audience would wonder why they weren't romantically involved, but to not avail.

But he was now no longer the wide-eyed greenhorn ... with little power over the production. He was the star of North and South and now the start of Dirty Dancing as well, with the success of the entire movie resting primarily on his square, manly shoulders. Aware of his own power, he made a stand.

"I refused to shoot it unless they did it my way, because I knew what I planned to do later with Jennifer would blow the relationship with Cynthia away. So I fought and fought for that, but I really didn't have to fight too hard because everyone was willing to at least hear me out," he said.
Of course, Swayze turned out to be right about how that dance scene should be performed. The audiences watching it were delighted.

On the other hand, Swayze's stubbornness caused some trouble. On September 23, he refused to allow a stunt double perform any of the scene were Swayze and Grey danced on a log. He fell from the log several times. Although he fell onto rubber mats, the repeated impacts aggravated his old knee injury.
Forever, the stoic, this time Patrick had pushed his body too far. The following morning he awoke with a swollen and painful knee ... his left one. An exasperated Linda Gottlieb, silently cursing Patrick's obstinate refusal of a stunt double, drove him to the hospital. There he gritted his teeth while -- at his request -- the doctor drained 80 ccs of fluid intermingled with blood from his knee. Afterward, the orthopedist gave him a strict warning to avoid any strain on his knee.

But ... he knew the show had to go on, no matter what. And 24 hours later he was back dancing with, as Linda put it, "all his usual charm and energy. I can only imagine the pain he was feeling." ....

In the last days of shooting, as Jennifer and Patrick prepared to shoot the lake scene, the temperature dropped to 40 degrees. Both of them stripped down to the minimal, then they plunged into the ice-cold water. ....
"My knee was filled with fluid and killing me," Patrick later ruefully recalled. "Suddenly, I have to dance with Jennifer and look like I'm the happiest guy in the world when I probably belong on crutches.
During the filming, Swayze had to deal with what he considered to be Grey's excessive emotions and clumsy dancing.
"I remember Patrick Swayze complaining that Jennifer was just too nervous and emotional," Linda Gottlieb recalled. ... "She would burst into tears at the drop of a hat. This duo that had such terrific chemistry on screen didn't get on and would frequently fight, frequently argue off screen. ... Patrick and Jennifer hated each other. Jennifer didn't want to do any of the love scenes. She would stand there saying, 'I don't like the way he kisses.'"

However, Patrick's manager, Lois Zetter, has a different recollection of his on-set relationship with Jennifer and remembers it being cordial.

"They got on well, except it was hard on him that she wasn't a professional dancer and had no experience. Which was difficult for hm as he had a bad knee and had to dance twice as hard to compensate for her inexperience."

"I remember he was very thoughtful around Jennifer Grey because at that point it was still early in her career," said George Baetz, Dirty Dancing's sound recordist. "He was a very considerate person, which is unusual on a film set, and he was really nice to Jennifer between takes. He worked really hard and did his own stunts. .... He was very easy-going, very professional, joked a lot, was well-prepared for his scenes and was enjoyable to be around."
As usual, Swayze had tried to arrange for his wife Lisa to play a role.
.... his dearest wish had been that Lisa costar in the movie with him, not as Baby, but as Penny. Instead, Lisa's only involvement with the movie would be the visits she made to the set.
I don't understand why Lisa was not cast as Penny, because she dances well.

In Dirty Dancing, Swayze had to dance deliberately below his ability.
"From a dancer's point of view, Dirty Dancing was a very frustrating experience," he said. "Fighting my ego was the most difficult thing because I'm a much better dancer than Johnny Castle is. Johnny had trained at Arthur Murray, but Joffrey. My level of training went far beyond his. But in order to be true to the character, I couldn't allow myself to be too technically proficient. .... 
My mom called me up and said, 'Patrick, I know you can do better than that,'" he recalled. But as he firmly pointed out to her, Johnny was a Catskills dance instructor, trained by Arthur Murray and not by Patsy Swayze.
However, Swayze did insist on performing one expert dance move in the movie.
"I got away with one moment, very technical, at the end, when I come off the stage, do a double pirouette, then go down on one knee. That's the one time I got to throw in something that required real technical proficiency," he said. ....

John Mojjis witnessed the double pirouette scene being filmed and noted afterward that before Patrick made the jump -- wary of injuring his bad knee - he insisted that a pile of mattresses be laid on the floor for him to land on. Nevertheless, it took Patrick, the quintessential perfectionist, more than 25 times to get the jump exactly the way he wanted it.

Leigh writes at length that the movie's huge success subsequently affected Swayze's private life. Here are some excerpts:
Dirty Dancing would make him rich, famous, and successful beyond his wildest dreams, but the price would be high. .... His days of dancing at clubs, free and untroubled by fans, were already well and truly behind him. .... Swayze mania was now in full throttle and he was mobbed wherever he went. When he made an appearance at a Sam Goody record store, five thousand screaming fans were on hand, desparate to catch just a glimpse of him. ....

Lisa was now in the nightmarish position of having to cope with the tidal wave of female attention that came in the wake of Patrick's stardom, with love-struck women literally knocking her off his arm in the haste to get at him. ....

In general, his life was completely decimated by the tsunami of mass adoration that flooded over him. .... Now condemned to play the part of Patrick Swayze, the Hollywood icon of masculinity, for all eternity, he began to live the role in all its darkest and most dramatic extremes. ....

He also suffered from low self-esteem, which caused him to think that he didn't deserve all the attention. "I don't fee famous. I feel like I'm the same jerk I've always been! People say your'e special, but that's not true," he said, later describing himself as a "driven individual, wrapped up in suffering and paying my dues. Because of what I look like and what I could do with my body, I wasn't sure there was anything inside of me."

On a deep level, he felt he was unworthy and then, and through the years, perhaps unconsciously set out to sabotage himself by drinking too much, risking his life in death-defying stunts, and proving himself.

Two movies that Swayze had made before Dirty Dancing were released after Dirty Dancing -- "thus confusing and slightly alienating some of the fans." Leigh's description of Swayze's experiences during those two earlier movies sheds some light on his state of mind while making Dirty Dancing.
The first was Steel Dawn, a futuristic movie set in a post-nuclear world in which he played Nomad, a mysterious warrior. According to [his manger] Lois Zetter, he took the part primarily because Lisa would be co-starring s his love interest, and it had always been his dearest wish for them to work together. ....

In herrole as Kasha, Lisa was strong, proud, and suitably somber. Patrick, his hair long and blond, gave a credible performance as Nomad, although fans and critics alike would later dismiss the movie out of hand when it was released just three months after Dirty Dancing.

I wonder (pure speculation) if problems happened related to Lisa during the filming of Steel Dawn that caused her not being cast as Penny in Dirty Dancing. Since he was able to drive a hard bargain to agree to play Johnny Castle, it seems to me he should have been able to require that Lisa play Penny. I note also that Lisa visited the Dirty Dancing set only occasionally, although he needed her presence to curb his drinking.
The second movie he made before Dirty Dancing, which was released afterward, would also perplex and irritate a public infatuated with his Johnny Castle persona, particularly because in that movie, Tiger Warsaw, he played the part of a violent, sociopathic drug addict. ....

"Tiger Warsaw is the most hardcore, emotionally demanding film I've ever done," he said. .... "but also the most destructive for me personally." ...

Drink was the outlet for his excessiveness, and his danger point, particularly when he was on location in Pennsylvania, without Lisa by his side to curb him. With classic honesty he confessed .... "While I'm making films I get very hyper because my brain is racing all over the place. I survive on two ours sleep a night, and I sit in my hotel room drinking beer and vodka, which can't be good for anyone. I'm an excessive person in every way, and I have to fight to control my drinking. ...."
On November 6, 1988, Steel Dawn was released, both shocking and somewhat disappointing Patrick's adoring public, not to mention the critics. Since the film came so closely on the gilded heels of Dirty Dancing, many of Patrick's fans were appalled by it. The movie opened and closed within two weeks, taking in a paltry $526,000 ....

I did not read Leigh's biography of Swayze beyond his Dirty Dancing experiences.

Not associated with Leigh's biography but related to this first part of Swayze's life are the following webpages:

* the Bio website has an excellent video about Swayze's early life here.

* The Den of the Geek website has an excellent article titled Dirty Dancing at 30: how it nearly fell apart.

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