Tears streaming down his face, Patrick Swayze says goodbye to his father, who has been incarcerated in a concentration camp. It’s the most wrenching moment in Red Dawn, John Milius’ hit film ($18.5 million in its first 10 days) about a Russian invasion of the U.S. and the Colorado teenagers who organize a resistance brigade. Talking of the scene is painful to Swayze for the memories it evokes of his own father, Jesse Wayne Swayze, an engineer, who died of a massive heart attack in November 1982. “When it came time to shoot that scene, Milius said to me, ‘Okay, Patrick, this time I want you to tell your father you love him before you leave.’ When he did that, it ripped my in-sides out,” says Swayze. “That was the thing I never got to tell my dad.”
A ballet dancer and athlete turned actor, Patrick can’t erase the memories of his dad’s sudden death: “I went to the funeral home before anyone else. I had to go there with a comb and hair spray and, you know, fix him up. This weird stuff came over me. I started screaming, ‘I love you! I want you to know that!’ It was too much, his dying then. I wanted to buy him a ranch, to put him back to his roots. He never knew that was my intention.” Swayze made a vow that day that would affect the course of his career. “I decided to make my father proud of me till the day I die. Since his death I don’t take s—from anybody. I don’t care if it’s a studio head, director or producer. If you try to sacrifice my standards, if you cross that line with me, I’ll go into my Texas macho. I’ll hurt you.”
Swayze, who projects a smoldering persona onscreen and off, is nothing if not intense. From his mother, Patsy, who ran a dance studio in Houston (she now has a studio in L.A.) and who choreographed Urban Cowboy, he says he acquired a “pit-bull attitude about life. Latch onto the throat. They gotta kill you to get you off.” Although the actor is known for playing rebellious teenagers, he is, in fact, 32, and has been married for eight years to actress and former dancer Lisa Niemi, who now works in L.A. stage productions. Swayze is currently in Toronto with Rob Lowe, shooting Youngblood, another coming-of-age film, this time about two ice-hockey players. “I think I’ve finally got adolescence down and I’m ready to move on,” Swayze says.
With The Outsiders and Grandview, U.S.A., Red Dawn is the third film (and first box-office hit) co-starring Swayze and C. Thomas Howell, 17. There’s talk of their becoming the new Newman-Redford. “Tommy and I share similar backgrounds,” Swayze says. “We’re both cowboys. We teach each other a lot. He’ll say, ‘You’re being too intense. Slow down, dude.’ He’s like a little brother to me. Anybody ever tried to touch that kid, I’d hurt him.”
Swayze’s aggressive attitude stems from his Houston childhood. As a teenager he’d spend up to two months alone each summer backpacking. Both parents were superior athletes who performed trick water-skiing maneuvers together. His parents wanted only top performance from their firstborn (he has two younger brothers and an adopted Korean sister). “Nothing less than first place was accepted.”
Perhaps that pressure settled him on acting. “There is no best there,” he says. “You keep finding new depths.” In high school Patrick grew to despise competitive sports. “I hated the locker-room talk, the ‘kill that guy’ attitude.” Being a ballet dancer didn’t help. “People thought I must be gay. To keep from getting beat up, I studied fighting. I grew my hair long, in redneck Texas, mind you, then went around waiting for someone to throw a punch. I became a very angry young man.”
He accepted a gymnastics scholarship to San Jacinto College in Houston, dropping out to play Prince Charming for a year in Disney on Parade, a road show that toured North America. He returned to ballet, dancing with the Buffalo Ballet Company, then going to New York City in 1972 to perform and study with the Harkness, Joffrey and Feld dance companies. “When I came to New York I was unique in that I looked like a man onstage,” Swayze says. “I had 19-inch arms. I was the Godzilla of ballet.”
While in New York he tried to find himself through est and daredevil motorcycle stunts on the New Jersey Turnpike. Then the body started to go. A knee injury from high school football worsened. Rather than quit dancing, Swayze endured three operations. Pain became another challenge. He’d go through the agony of breaking the scar tissue on his knee each morning to keep it limber. “I was told I’d be a cripple,” he says. “But I beat the odds.”
What kept him from going over the edge, he says, was his wife, whom he met in his mom’s Houston dance classes. They are now moving to a ranch outside L.A., where they will raise quarter horses. “When we met,” Swayze recalls, “I was 20. She was 16. She was different than anyone I’d known. Like a flower. If I started my macho stuff, she’d cut me off fast. I’d be dead without her. She helped me break my self-destructive tendencies. I was an insecure little baby. I don’t ever see us apart. She’s my creative partner.”
While living in New York, trying to support his dancing and acting career, Swayze took up carpentry. When he and Lisa moved to Hollywood in 1978 (they had married in 1976), Swayze restored Hollywood homes, including Jackie Smith’s, while doing TV guest spots and the 1980 roller-disco movie Skatetown, U.S.A. Soon after, he was called to audition for The Outsiders, which launched him.
When he’s not on the set of Young-blood, Swayze is composing an electronic musical score for the movie, on spec. In the living room of his hotel suite is an open suitcase that contains his latest invention, a portable recording “studio” with a Yamaha synthesizer. Of his varied endeavors, Swayze says he’s proudest of a one-hour stage show about dancers that he, Lisa and dancer Nicholas Gunn wrote and performed in, called Without a Word. “It bears no similarity to A Chorus Line,” he says. “That only scratched the surface of what dancers go through.”
Clearly, Swayze keeps pushing, especially himself. “If you haven’t done the work and paid the dues, you’ll be a flash in the pan,” he says. “I’ve got a big motto: Back up the mouth.”