Ghost with the Most
It was on a lush morning eight years ago in the Texas hills that 57-year-old Jesse Wayne Swayze, after working out on a punching bag in his garage, went for a run with the family dogs and didn’t return. Somewhere along his route, Swayze suffered a massive heart attack. He was found a short while later “lying on a mountainside in a field of flowers,” says his widow, Patsy. “Both dogs stood there guarding him. Because he died so suddenly,” she says, none of her five children “had a chance to really accept it.”
A year ago, on the set of his new movie, Ghost, her son Patrick, playing a street-robbery victim, looked down at a plaster cast created to resemble his own dead body. He saw instead the image of his late father. Before Jesse’s funeral, Patrick had approached the open coffin for a difficult gesture of farewell. “When I saw him, I couldn’t touch him,” Swayze recalls, tearing up. “But then I did, and I almost passed out because he was hard as a rock and cold. I had pushed that memory out of my life until that moment on location when it all came back-big time. There were a few scenes where something happened to me that was very scary.”
As painful as it was, that memory also gave Swayze, 37, the intensity that makes him so affecting in the role of Sam Wheat, a Wall Street investment banker who dies before his time and returns, in spectral form, in Ghost, this summer’s weeper-sleeper hit. (A modest romance in a season of big-budget movie mayhem, Ghost is the first summer movie whose second-week box office outpaced its opener—suggesting substantial word of mouth.)
During filming, “Patrick really had one of the more difficult jobs,” says costar Demi Moore, the real-life wife of actor Bruce Willis (star of another summer hit, Die Hard 2). “He was dealing with emotion that doesn’t relate to anything that most of us know in our world.” Moore came to appreciate Swayze’s inner—and outer—reserves. “He’s sensitive and has a vulnerability that’s right out there,” she says astutely. “And he also looks great with his shirt off.”
For an actor threatened with terminal typecasting as a hunky hoofer ever since his breakthrough role in the 1987 smash Dirty Dancing, Ghost‘s validation of his status as an actor couldn’t have come at a better time. Ghost director Jerry Zucker initially had little interest in casting Swayze as Sam, he says, especially after having “made the mistake of seeing some of his other movies.” But in spite of such post-Dancing clunkers as Road House and Next of Kin, Zucker was eventually won over by Swayze’s reading of Ghost‘s poignant final-farewell scene. “We all had tears in our eyes, right there in the office—and we knew how it ends,” says Zucker. “I saw a side of Patrick that I never knew existed.”
Despite his apparent invulnerability, Swayze admits that a web of insecurities and emotional conflicts have dogged him since his childhood in Houston, where an early love for acting and ballet often made him a playground outcast. Later, after hitting it big as an actor in the mid-80s, he was rattled by sudden fame, haunted by his father’s death and troubled by a drinking problem that once threatened his now 15-year marriage to actress Lisa Niemi. The wrong kind of internal energy, he believes, “is what killed Marilyn Monroe, Jim Morrison and James Dean. I’ve seen that edge and almost gone past it.”
Swayze’s emotionalism can probably be traced to his volatile, if loving, Irish-American family. His father was a chemical-plant engineer, his mother a dance instructor and local theater choreographer. “We couldn’t finish a Christmas without a huge fight,” Patrick, the second oldest, once said of the brood. “It was dessert.” Patsy, whose choreography credits would later include Urban Cowboy, instilled a love of dance and theater in her kids. Even as a youngster, Swayze, his mother recalls, showed dramatic flair, playing Tarzan in “little red satin trunks that looked like a loincloth. He and his brother would go into the woods, swing on vines, build tree houses and swim in the bayou. And he always made his younger brother Don be Cheetah.”
A natural performer, Patrick immersed himself in dance and music classes, which led, predictably, to the schoolyard hassles that his folks counseled him to ignore. “He said, ‘Well, what do you do if that doesn’t do any good?’ ” says Patsy, now 63. “His daddy and I laughed and said, ‘Well, then you take your ballet shoes out of your back pocket and beat the stuffin’ out of those guys.’ ”
On a schedule crammed with ice-skating, martial arts and every high school sport imaginable, “I was just going nonstop all my life,” Patrick remembers. “The only time I had to work to make money for dates was from 3 A.M. on, I [took on] a gigantic paper route. It was very lonely.”
After two years at Houston’s San Jacinto College, Swayze won a road-show role as Prince Charming in Disney on Parade—not long after meeting a Cinderella of his own. “We were both kind of misunderstood people,” says Niemi, who, as a 16-year-old dance student of Patsy’s, was five years younger than Swayze. “He had this terrible reputation as a Casanova, and I as this loose girl and a dope user, even though I wasn’t. Still, I had such a strong sense that something was going to come of the two of us. I was looking at him and thinking, ‘There’s pure gold in the guy, and nobody else is seeing it.’ ”
Their early dates, however, were abysmal. “She was very weird,” says Swayze. “I’d be playing Mr. Cool and she wouldn’t have it. I had dated girls with names like Angel—they would just hang all over you. And she didn’t act like other girls.”
Bent on pursuing ballet, Swayze left Texas at 19 for New York City with $2,000 (“That lasted about 15 minutes…”) and lived for a time in a rat-infested apartment on the city’s West Side. Lisa came with him, but only in spirit. “Even if I dated other women, she’d always be in my mind,” he says. “I’d call and write her, talking about this lady and that one.”
After her high-school graduation in 1975, Lisa joined Patrick in New York, where both landed jobs with the second company of the Joffrey Ballet. “I was always in great fear, in the beginning, that I was going to lose her,” says Swayze. “She had come from the clutches of family and home to live with me. With my insecurities, if I had asked her to marry me and she had said no, it would have destroyed the relationship.” Instead, when he did ask, she accepted.
“Love is supposed to start with bells ringing and go downhill from there,” says Lisa. “But it was the opposite for me. There’s an intense connection between us, and as we stayed together, the bells rang louder.”
Their union has been tested more than once. In 1977, after Swayze had spent a year as a principal dancer with the Eliot Feld dance company, the recurrence of a nasty high school-football knee injury (“there was nothing left—I had more than 2,000 sutures in my joint”) ended his dance career. The couple moved to L.A. in 1979, with $1,500 in their pockets. Between acting classes, interviews and auditions, the two did odd-job carpentry (including a pine kitchen remodeling for Jaclyn Smith) to survive.
After a few minor TV and movie roles, Swayze’s first big break came in 1985, with a role as the dashing Confederate soldier Orry Main in ABC’s Civil War miniseries North and South. And the attention that followed was almost worse than the lean years. “With everybody grabbing at me, I started retreating,” he says. “It’s exciting that you can affect people, and you don’t want to get paranoid. But you start locking yourself in your room, never going out until 2 or 3 in the morning. You live this strange nightlife by yourself.”
For a time, fueled by a drinking habit that began at the time of his father’s death, Swayze even began to shut Lisa out. “I got it in my head that as an actor I had to suffer,” he says. “And at the same time, I was hearing that, like my father. I would have no choice over alcohol in my life. So I decided to find out. My father didn’t get violent, but, like him, just two or three would waste me. After he died I’d go up on Mulholland Drive, race cars and get crazy—pushing the edge, to see if I’d go over it and kill myself.”
Lisa found herself on the outside. “He would admit that he had a problem with alcohol,” she says, “but deny that he didn’t have control over it.” Unable to sway him, she began to attend Al-Anon, for families of alcoholics.
Finally, one night early last year, a swarming crowd at a film premiere made it impossible for the couple to get back to their car without police protection. Back at their hotel, Swayze freaked. “I was just crazed,” he recalls. “I have a nightmare version of the tiny bits and pieces I remember. But I destroyed the hotel room. And I’m just not that kind of person.”
Realizing that he was in trouble, alarmed by the growing rift with Lisa, Swayze quit drinking the next day, without outside help. Now, except for an occasional glass of champagne, he abstains. “There’s enough opportunity to live life on the edge without being self-destructive,” he says.
“There was a while when, if he didn’t have that feistiness, he felt things were going to fall apart,” says Lisa. “But he’s discovered something deeper. He’s just more comfortable with himself now.” And also, it seems, with her. “When they’re together, they’re all loving—but a lot of people are like that,” says Zucker. “What’s more telling is how much Patrick talks about Lisa when she’s not around. He credits her for his success.”
It was she, after all, who first spotted Ghost’s winning script. “It made me cry,” she says, “but I didn’t want to influence his opinion. He [read it and] came walking in afterward with tears in his eyes and said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ ”
She also played an unwitting role in the movie’s steamier love scenes between Swayze and Moore. “I used Lisa a lot,” he says, “that core feeling about the person you love. It’s there all the time. All you gotta do is call it up.”
These days, that’s exactly what Swayze is forced to do, given that he’s in Los Angeles filming his part as a surfer in Riders on the Storm with Keanu Reeves and Gary Busey. Buoyed by her blossoming career, Lisa is in Miami for her new syndicated cop show, Super Force. As soon as her six-month taping stint is over, she’ll return to their five-acre spread north of L.A., in the foothills of the San Gabriel mountains, with its seven horses, eight dogs and cats and three roaming peacocks. Soon, though, the menagerie can look forward to a human addition. “I’m dying to be a father,” says Swayze. “And I think we’re finally at a healthy point.”
For Swayze, “Ghost was about living your life for the moment, because that’s all you’ve got,” he says. “If you don’t communicate with the people you love, you set yourself up for incredible pain if you lose them.” Looking through a sunset haze at the home that he and his wife have built for themselves, Swayze, it seems, has every intention of hanging on.
Susan Schindehette, Kristina Johnson in Los Angeles