Body and Soul
IF HOLLYWOOD WERE RUN LIKE THE OLYMPICS, Patrick Swayze would never lose. Who else can rope a calf, swan-dive into a pool, parachute from a plane, cry on cue—and turn a mean pirouette? And there’s one other category that Swayze would win hands down: Trying Hardest to Dodge Typecasting as a Romantic Leading Man.
First, after Swayze proved in 1987 that a sultry mambo could be the most arousing aphrodisiac, the actor forsook a much-clamored-for Dirty Dancing sequel and went roughneck instead as a cop with a grudge in Next of Kin and a bouncer with an attitude in Road House. (Both flopped.) Now, while tears are still flowing for his romantic, unearthly yuppie in last year’s blockbuster Ghost, a current video hit, Swayze turns scoundrel again in Point Break, as a scruffy, bank-robbing surf bum. Though he looks great in a wetsuit and manages to seduce Keanu Reeves‘s FBI agent into conspiracy by whispering sweet Zen nothings into his ear, Point Break is not exactly the kind of amorous tale his fans will swoon for.
Fortunately for Swayze, he’s one Hollywood hunk whose image has always been greater than the sum of his (sometimes awful) movie parts. Despite turkeys like Youngblood (1986), Steel Dawn (1987) and Tiger Warsaw (1988), Swayze, 39, has repeatedly shown up other screen heartthrobs by simply showing his heart. “He knows he’s just an ordinary, down-home Texas kid,” says his mother, Patsy Swayze, a Simi Valley, Calif., dance instructor and film choreographer (Big Top Pee-wee, Urban Cowboy). “He doesn’t think that his job deserves all that idolatry—if you want to call it that.”
Perhaps not, and to keep it real, he’s no wimp on the set. Proud of his brawn, he wouldn’t dream of asking a stuntman to step in for a brawl while he lounged in his trailer. His Texas macho is tempered, however, with 10-gallon emotional sincerity. He has confessed that his greatest fear is of losing his wife, actress-dancer Lisa (Super Force) Niemi, 34, to whom he has been married for 16 years.
It is Swayze’s sexy-but-sensitive, tough-but-tender duality that allures his costars as well as his fans. “He has a very sweet, gentle, kind heart, and those Southern manners,” says Ghost’s Demi Moore. “But he’s also got a very rugged, animalistic physique.” Echoes Swayze’s Road House lover, Kelly Lynch: “He’s strong, but he has grace and agility. He’s not just this big thug throwing his muscles around out there.”
Female flutters aside, some of Swayze’s most fervent admirers are men. Roland Joffe, director of the forthcoming The City of Joy, in which Swayze plays an American doctor in poverty-stricken Calcutta, says, “He has the sexiness of a person who is from the tip of the toenail to the top of the head involved in all the passions and fires and energies and fears that life throws up.”
The bottom line in Hollywood, though, is Swayze’s screen presence—and the grosses it garners ($400 million total for Ghost and Dirty Dancing on film and video). Ghost director Jerry Zucker initially doubted that rough-hewn Swayze could cut it as a romantic leading man. Says Zucker now: “There’s no one who can deliver a heartfelt line like Patrick.”
If Swayze is both a woman’s fantasy and a man’s man, his longtime friend and fellow former dancer Nicholas Gunn suggests a reason: As a child in Houston, Patrick was “trying to please everybody”—especially his mom and his dad, Jesse, a chemical-plant engineer, whose death in 1982 Swayze still mourns. Patrick studied ballet—and eventually danced with major companies in New York City—but he also played football at Waltrip High School, practiced martial arts and set state records in diving, broad-jumping and track.
His jock pursuits wrought havoc on his body—his ankle and all 10 fingers have been broken, and his left knee has been operated on five times. Still, Swayze calls himself “an adrenaline junkie. I’ve always loved putting myself in a position where, if I don’t pull something off, I’ll die.”
Preparing for Point Break’s action scenes, Swayze refused to let his infirmities get in the way. He learned to surf and sky-dive, and several of the film’s spectacular aerial jumps are his own. Though Swayze had to use an oversize chute to ease the impact on his knee, instructor Jim Wallace says, “He was a natural. He wanted to do freestyle right off the hat—flips, twirls, spins. I had to continually hold him down.” For good luck during his daredevil exploits, the spiritually minded Swayze—a former devotee of est, transcendental meditation and Buddhism—often kept a silver, crystal-studded wand nearby.
But jumping out of a plane, says the star, is tiddlywinks compared to filming a love scene. “It’s possibly the scariest thing I do,” he says, “doing something so personal and giving people out there the opportunity to see if you’re a good kisser or not.”
Patrick’s wife, Lisa, says she is un-fazed by his celluloid seductions. In fact, when she saw his high-temperature romp with Lesley-Anne Down in the 1985 miniseries North and South, she recalls, “When it really started cooking, I thought, ‘All right! Baby, you really nailed that one.’ ”
The couple blissfully retreats to their self-renovated five-acre ranch in the San Gabriel mountains whenever filming is finished. Patrick sometimes picks up dinner from their favorite restaurants and schedules quiet nighttime horseback rides. “We go through phases like anybody else,” says Lisa. “The worst things that can happen do, but then the best things get even better.”
The worst, perhaps, occurred in the late ’80s when Patrick was struggling with newfound fame and was drinking excessively. “I’m not a pretty drunk,” admits Swayze, who trashed a hotel room before he began practicing moderation in 1988. Patrick’s younger brother and look-alike, Don, 33, credits Lisa with rescuing Swayze from his destructive urges. Says Don, also an L.A. actor: “Lisa’s very stable and sensible and sweet and practical—everything that a wild man like my brother needs.”
Today, with their six horses, four dogs, three cats and several peacocks, life is almost perfect. “It’s like kids are the one thing that’s missing at the ranch,” says Patrick. Lisa had a miscarriage on Valentine’s Day 1990, which “just broke their hearts,” says Patrick’s mom, but the Swayzes are keeping their hopes up. Says Lisa: “I just think he’s going to be a mush of a father.”
Patrick and Lisa also hope to create another joint production—a film version of Without a Word, an award-winning drama and dance piece they staged with their pal Gunn at the Beverly Hills Playhouse in 1984. Based on the trio’s lives, Swayze says the film would fulfill his long-standing dream of dancing with his wife on the big screen.
In fact, Patrick, it might also fulfill the dreams of your fans, who are dying to see you back on the dance floor, wearing your heart on your sleeve—where it belongs. Meanwhile, those videos of Dirty Dancing and Ghost aren’t getting older, they’re getting better.
KRISTINA JOHNSON and NANCY MATSUMOTO in Los Angeles