Like they did everything else through 34 years of marriage, Patrick Swayze and wife Lisa Niemi battled his struggle with pancreatic cancer the only way they knew how: side by side. “I would be happy if he’s around for a long time, and I am being whatever I need to be to help him do that,” she told PEOPLE in April. But after a Stage IV diagnosis in February 2008, the risk-taking actor – who told Barbara Walters he had lived “159 lives” – finally died on Sept. 14, 2009 at the age of 57.
'DANCING' INTO THE SPOTLIGHT
“Dirty Dancing just blew the lid off my career,” Swayze (with costar Jennifer Grey) told PEOPLE in 2007 about starring as hip-swiveling dance instructor Johnny Castle in the 1987 box-office smash. The iconic film – which grossed $170 million worldwide – made him a bona fide heartthrob to all ages. “I constantly have some old lady pinching me on the rear,” he said. “I turn around and see blue hair running back to a group of other blue hairs going, ‘I did it, Martha! I pinched him!'”
BACK IN TIME
Though he’d made his feature film debut as a bad-boy gang leader in the 1979 movie Skatetown, U.S.A., it wasn’t until starring in 1983’s The Outsiders that Swayze made his mark in Hollywood. Starring alongside a who’s who of hot young actors – including Rob Lowe (pictured), Tom Cruise, Matt Dillon, Ralph Macchio and Emilio Estevez – he formed enduring friendships in the business. “I’ve always known Patrick to be a good man, a fighter,” Cruise told PEOPLE in 2008.
Born prematurely in Houston on Aug. 18, 1952, the outgoing Swayze (circa 1960) showed an early talent for performing. As the oldest of five children, he grew up a student of choreographer mom Patsy’s ballet school and the son of former champion rodeo cowboy Jesse. “I can’t recall a time in my life when I wasn’t dancing,” he once said. Even when bullies taunted him with names like “Twinkle Toes” and “Sissy,” wrote author Wendy Leigh in the 2009 biography Patrick Swayze: One Last Dance, he refused to be intimidated – and picked up martial arts and high school football.
THE ONE THAT HE WANTED
After moving to New York City to pursue his stage dreams, Swayze replaced John Travolta as Danny Zuko in the 1978 Broadway production of Grease. Lisa (pictured rehearsing with him circa 1977, along with his mother Patsy) was Swayze’s biggest supporter. “It was always touching for me to see them together,” the show’s director, Tom Moore, later said of the pair, who had met at his mom’s dance studio and married in 1975. “They were the perfect couple.”
Drawing on his Texas charm, Swayze’s breakout role as a leading man was playing Confederate soldier Orry Main in the epic 1985 ABC miniseries North and South. Starring alongside screen legends Elizabeth Taylor and Jimmy Stewart was daunting, but so was his first real love scene with costar Lesley-Anne Down (pictured). “It’s possibly the scariest thing I do,” he later told PEOPLE, “doing something so personal and giving people out there the opportunity to see if you’re a good kisser or not.”
'GHOST' OF A CHANCE
“I started realizing this could be one of those roles of a lifetime,” the actor said of the 1990 blockbuster hit Ghost, about a murdered Wall Street investment banker who wants to help girlfriend Demi Moore catch his killer. “I needed to do it for my soul.” The movie appealed to his spiritual side – and was often tough to make because it reminded him of his father’s sudden death from a heart attack in 1982. “He’s sensitive and has a vulnerability that’s right out there,” Moore (in the film’s famous pottery wheel scene) told PEOPLE in 1990.
SHAKING THINGS UP
Swayze played it for laughs – and showed off his well-toned body – with the late Chris Farley in a skit as aspiring Chippendales dancers on Saturday Night Live in October 1990. “Once the producers saw that I was completely willing to make fun of myself and that I have no reverence about anything, then we went crazy,” he said in 2003.
That “pedestal … is a strangely wonderful and confusing place to go,” Swayze told PEOPLE about being named Sexiest Man Alive in 1991. But there was no question of why he wore the crown. “He has a very sweet, gentle, kind heart, and those Southern manners,” Demi Moore raved about her Ghost costar. “But he’s also got a very rugged, animalistic physique.”
“He fought, stomped, kicked and screamed to make sure I got the part and I won an Oscar because of Patrick Swayze,” the actor’s Ghost costar Whoopi Goldberg once said. Still devoted friends over a decade later, the View co-host spoke out about negative rumors of his prognosis in April. “He’s doing what everybody else is doing – he’s taking it one day at a time,” she told the British TV show GMTV. “He does not have an expiration on his backside.”
EARNING HIS STAR
In 1997, Swayze received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Still, stardom was often overwhelming for the actor. Just four years earlier, he had checked into rehab after years of struggling with an alcohol problem. “I played with trying to deal with fame and got stupid and drank too much,” Swayze told PEOPLE in 2007. “I feel real fortunate that I’ve come out on the other end of it all.”
Though he was undergoing chemotherapy treatment when he started shooting his role as an FBI agent in AampE’s The Beast, Swayze didn’t let it hold him back. “I’m a miracle, dude,” he told photographers and fans while boarding a flight in July 2008 from Los Angeles to the series’ Chicago set. “I don’t know why.” Staying busy on the drama – and even performing his own stunts – helped his determination. “He didn’t want anyone to pamper him,” consulting producer Michael Dinner told PEOPLE in January.
Often referring to himself as a cowboy, Swayze always found peace in nature. With wife Lisa and a menagerie of beloved animals, the actor treasured retreating from the spotlight on his 20,000-acre New Mexico ranch and his five-acre homestead in Los Angeles’s San Gabriel Mountains (pictured in December 2008). “I get on a horse and disappear in the mountains with my dogs,” he told PEOPLE in 2007.
FIGHTING THE FIGHT
Until the end, Swayze (in 2005) fought cancer with his whole being: “There is probably that little bird that flies through your insides and says, ‘I sure would like to make a mark in life,’ ” Swayze told The New York Times last 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.”