Mysteries From the Set: Behind the Scenes of Dirty Dancing

If you had the time of your life, who would you owe it to? Everyone knows the iconic song, “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” and many associate it with something else that is truly iconic. I know I will never be able to associate this song with anything other than the legendary film, Dirty Dancing.

Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey / Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey.
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This film is at the center of our nostalgic daydreams! Something about two young lovers who found each other during a summer in the Catskills is romantic and makes me think of truly simpler times. Whether you’re into the drama, the dancing, or the love story at the center, this film is undoubtedly one of the greatest of all time.

Mysteries on Set

Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey made up a power couple the entertainment world would never forget. Maybe it was their choreography; maybe it was their chemistry on-screen—we may never know. All we do know is that they starred in a film together that would inspire amazing dance moves for many years to come.

Patrick Swayze lifting Jennifer Grey like a bird on the dance floor.
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This film is filled with hidden secrets from their time on set. And it comes with drama that you’d never expect from the harmony you see on screen. Could you imagine this movie starring anyone other than Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze? Well, strap in… you’re in for a ride.

Who Were the Stars?

I could not picture anyone else playing Baby. Maybe it is Jennifer Grey’s flawless execution in her role, or maybe it’s just that I cannot picture anyone else in this film because it has been imprinted in my mind for years and years. Well, as it turns out, neither Swayze nor Grey was the first choice for their roles!

Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey hug each other in front of a curtain at the Academy Awards.
Photo by Robert Scott/Fotos International/Getty Images

Initially, Patrick Swayze’s role of Johnny Castle was given to Billy Zane, a bad boy in Hollywood at the time. However, it seems his dancing shoes were not the best fit, so producers switched to Swayze when they realized Zane didn’t have the right style for the movie’s goals. Can you guess who was set to play Baby?

Casting Miracles

Could you imagine Carrie Bradshaw playing Baby? Sarah Jessica Parker was one of the initial actresses that auditioned for the leading role of Dirty Dancing. Another actress who auditioned was Sharon Stone. Both of these talented actresses had a lot of skill and would have done a great job, but ultimately it went to Grey.

Cynthia Nixon, Kristin Davis, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kim Cattrall studio photo circa 1999.
Photo by Paramount Pictures/Handout/Getty Images

This movie took over our hearts and showed us chemistry that is truly unmatched on screen. However, in the memoir Swayze published before he passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2009, he wrote that he and Grey did not always get along – even if their on-screen chemistry told a different story.

Playing It by Ear

Everyone has a favorite scene when it comes to their favorite movie! This is certainly true for fans of the legendary Dirty Dancing. It is hard to choose what you see as the “best scene ever,” especially in a movie filled with iconic moments! Did you think that everything from this movie went according to plan?

Minutes before Baby starts getting giggly while practicing the moves with Johnny.
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Not everything from this movie was in the script. Some of the most iconic moments from the movie came from the real interactions between Grey and Swayze while filming. Those moments on screen when Baby starts giggling while they practice their moves and Johnny gets annoyed with her? Those were their real personalities shining through the cracks.

Not So “Summery” as It Seems

Dirty Dancing was the ultimate summer-loving themed movie. I grew up going to sleepaway camp myself, so watching this movie brings back all the feels and nostalgia for a simpler time. This movie took place during the summer season, but it seems that they did not film it then!

Jennifer Grey is sitting next to Patrick Swayze in a summery nature.
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This movie was actually filmed in Virginia and North Carolina in the winter! The sun may have looked like it was shining down, but that did not mean it was actually warm out. The actors were cold the entire time; could you imagine the iconic water lift scene happening in freezing water? Wow!

Sometimes, Swayze Was in Pain

Even the professionals can get hurt sometimes! Swayze was a professionally trained dancer and dealt with a long-term knee problem. Grey was a natural talent, but she had no professional training like Swayze did. Despite this, he pushed himself to make sure they had everything they needed in order to succeed.

Patrick Swayze profile headshot circa 1988.
Photo by Gary Gershoff/Getty Images

Though he loved dancing, Swayze spent time before Dirty Dancing avoiding parts with too much dancing. When this project was introduced to him, he couldn’t quite say no! He could not resist this project and felt it was necessary to push through the pain he was feeling to create the best dance movie ever.

Stuntman Swayze

Even though he almost did not take the role due to his injuries, he did go on to give a notable performance. Something else that contributed to this was that Swayze happily did all of his own stunts. Not only was he excited about it – he insisted on it!

Patrick and Jennifer are practicing moves on a tree trunk in the forest.
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He was indeed worried about aggravating his preexisting injury, but he managed to push through. The scene where the two are dancing over a log on the lake actually ended with Swayze going to the hospital when they were done filming! His knee had so much swelling that it needed to be drained. Ouch!

Naturally Gorgeous

One of Baby’s charms was her natural beauty. However, stars are people too, with concerns of their own and every right to be displeased with their appearance. Though Baby had a strong personality, her sweet looks are what won Johnny over. After the movie was a success, the actress decided to take control of her appearance.

Jennifer is wearing a red dress with a leather black belt posing for a photo at a party for the film's premiere.
Photo by Jim Smeal/Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images

She was not very comfortable with her appearance and really hated her nose. When the movie struck gold, she decided to treat herself to nose surgery. Unfortunately, the procedure did not live up to her expectations, and professionals attempted to fix it. She never looked quite the same, and many believe it ruined her career.

Age Discrepancies

Have you ever watched a movie or TV show and thought, “there is NO way that person is a teenager!” or “wow, I hope I can look like that when I’m 60.” It certainly is no secret that Hollywood actors often play characters way younger than they are in real life. Naturally, this is no different in this movie!

Jennifer Grey gives a wink and a wave to cameras as she and her co-star Patrick Swayze attend a premiere after-party.
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Not only was there an age difference between the actors and their roles, but there was a pretty significant between the two. When Grey was 26 years old, she was playing 18-year-old Baby. Swayze’s character was 24, though, at the time of filming, he was 34 years old! Not only was that a pretty large gap in age for their characters, but that was a pretty big age difference between the two actors!

Different Titles in the Works

Could you imagine Dirty Dancing having a different title? It definitely has a risqué air to it, and many movie executives (and, yes, censorship officers) felt that this title might have been a little problematic. If you just saw the title, you might think it was just some lust-filled raunchy film.

Jennifer Grey, Patrick Swayze, and publicity posters of the movie in the back.
Photo by Jim Smeal/Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images

The original title was pretty funny if you think about it. Initially, they wanted to call the movie “I Was a Teenage Mambo Queen.” Sheesh, seriously? Thank goodness they stuck with the original title. It’s such a catchy title, and it rolls off the tongue much better, don’t you think?

Meaningful Lines

Dirty Dancing is so much more than a mix of romance and dancing. This movie brought us some of the greatest one-liners of all time. One of the most memorable lines in movie history is, “nobody puts Baby in a corner,” and it came from this iconic movie. As it turns out, Swayze hated this line.

Patrick is sitting on his knees while Jennifer is crawling towards him.
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Swayze wrote in his memoir, The Time of My Life, that he wanted the line cut originally. “I could hardly bring myself to say, ‘Nobody puts Baby in a corner.’ It sounded so corny. But, seeing the finished film, I had to admit it worked. And, of course, it became one of the most quoted lines in the movie.”

Cutting It Close

In this day and age, movies often take years to come to life from start to finish. There is so much that goes into making a movie, especially a successful one. Scripts get chopped up and rewritten, actors are cast and recast, and naturally, cuts and edits need to be made. But it seems that Dirty Dancing managed to push forward quite quickly!

Songwriters Franke Previte, John DeNicola, and Donald Markowitz hold their Best Song Oscars for
Photo by John Barr/Liaison/Getty Images

The movie’s creators were short on both time and money. They needed to get the project done quickly, on a super tight budget. They managed to do everything from start to finish in less than three months! The cast only had two weeks to rehearse and learn everything they needed to; filming was completed in 43 days!

One Take Only

Wow, could you imagine learning that your favorite scenes from movies were good to go after the first take? I certainly couldn’t. One of the most iconic scenes from the film is when Johnny lifts Baby up in the air in a moment of joy for all to see. This scene was actually filmed in just one take!

Heated dancing scene of Patrick and Jennifer dancing.
Source: Getty Images

Not only did this move get pulled off seamlessly, but it turns out that the pair did not even rehearse the move! The movie was defined by this move – Jennifer Grey was so nervous about pulling it off that she refused to rehearse it. “I’d never done the lift before I did the lift at the end of the movie; I would refuse to rehearse it because I was so scared,” she told Yahoo! News.

Above and Beyond

Even though we know Dirty Dancing as one of the most successful movies of all time, people had no idea how large of an impact it would make in the cinema world. Initially, most folks anticipated this film would flop. There were even some distributors who planned to release the movie straight to video as opposed to releasing it in theaters.

Patrick Swayze, right, and his wife Lisa Niemi, left, are interviewed by the media during a party for the premiere of his film
Photo by Catherine McGann/Getty Images

Fortunately, they did release to the cinemas, and boy were they in for a pleasant surprise. This movie went on to become one of the biggest hits of all time, and they managed to do some amazing damage to the box offices. In the worldwide box office, Dirty Dancing earned $213,893,795. Talk about a wildly successful movie!

The First Role

The first person to be cast in Dirty Dancing was actually not who you’d expect! The very first actress to land a role in this iconic film was Cynthia Rhodes. Rhodes played Penny. She was the first to be cast, likely due to her parts in Flashdance and Staying Alive.

Cynthia Rhodes is doing a legs split on stage in a scene of the movie Flashdance.
Source: Pinterest

Rhodes was what is often considered “the total package” in the world of entertainment. She could act, she could dance, and she was drop-dead gorgeous. Her natural beauty had to be played down, and no one would believe her as being in pain when she was playing that part. They had to put more makeup on to make her look sweatier and paler. Naturally, she looked too healthy!

They’ve Starred Together

Did you know that this onscreen couple has acted in another film together? Though you cannot get more iconic than Johnny and Baby, these two have had roles together in other films before. Specifically, they co-starred in 1984’s Red Dawn. Every movie set has its secrets, and Red Dawn is no different!

Soldiers riding horses at a very high speed in a movie still from Red Dawn 1984.
Source: Tumblr

No surprise that their time on set was nothing short of rocky. Apparently, many of the tensions that came to light on the set of their new film together originated in their last. It seems that they both were truly great actors; we could not tell that they had very different levels of comfort behind the scenes!

She Didn’t Want to Work With Swayze

Jennifer Grey was cast in her role as Baby before producers even began to search for her male co-star. When it was decided that Patrick Swayze would be the leading man on screen, Grey was reportedly very unhappy about it. She even begged the film creators to pick someone else.

Jennifer Grey actress studio portrait.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

She was not happy about their casting choice and was happy to fight for what she believed was the right move. Swayze himself sat down with Grey, and, apparently, they talked out their problems. Afterward, she reluctantly agreed to work with him once more. Even then, these two would continue to have problems.

They Didn’t Like Each Other

It is wild to think that this onscreen couple, who could convince anyone that they were destined to be in each other’s lives with their performance on screen, actually ended up hating each other behind the scenes. The rifts between Swayze and Grey were strong; it just goes to show that these two are wonderful actors because we couldn’t tell!

Patrick is lifting Jennifer while they are dancing in the lake.
Photo by Hulton Archive/Handout/Getty Images

In Swayze’s autobiography, published years later, he revealed what the root of their problems was. “We did have a few moments of friction when we were tired after a long day of shooting,” he admitted. “She seemed particularly emotional, sometimes bursting into tears if someone criticized her. Other times, she slipped into silly moods, forcing us to do scenes over and over again when she’d start laughing.”

Tension on Set

There were a few reasons why they did not love working with each other. Not only did Grey and Swayze have noticeably different personalities, but she was much younger. This does not mean she was more immature, but rather that he had grown up a bit more and likely had less tolerance for childish behavior.

Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey.
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Grey admitted to having less confidence than Swayze. She described his demeanor as “fearless.” In an interview, she said, “his fearlessness with my fearfulness… together was like a marriage where you have two opposites. He’d do anything, and I’d be scared to do anything.”

Was the Set Cursed?

Tensions ran high on set for many. As previously mentioned, this movie was filmed very quickly – likely calling for some late, sleepless nights and stressors beyond comprehension. There were so many hiccups on set that some believed the set was cursed!

Patrick and Jennifer movie scene on the dancefloor at nighttime.
Photo by Hulton Archive/Handout/Getty Images

The set was filled with accidents. Rainy weather caused flooding around the set, set decorators got injured by falling off ladders, an assistant director broke her wrist, and Jennifer Grey was attacked by a swarm of wasps! The mere fact that she was able to come out in one piece is a miracle in itself. No wonder they didn’t have high hopes for the film’s success!

Countless Mistakes

People who love the film see it as a flawless film. You might see it as movie perfection (I know I do!), but it was not created without some bumps in the road. The film was made quickly, leading to some inevitable errors and hiccups on set. Their small budget forced the cast and crew to roll with the punches.

Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze are striking a pose as if dancing on the 60th Annual Academy Awards.
Photo by Jim Smeal/Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images

One of the main issues was that the film took place in the 1960s, although they were filmed in the 1980s. That usually would not be a problem, especially in Hollywood and the entertainment industry, where they can make anything seem realistic, but there are points when you can see characters sporting ’80s hairstyles and fashion. You can even see Grey wearing sneakers from the ’80s at some point – those shoes were not even invented yet!

Natural Setting

As we know, this movie was not filmed in the famous mountain range it is set in. The storyline takes place in the Catskill Mountains, which span 700,000 acres across four counties in upstate New York, between Albany and New York City. If you are a nature lover, you can see the differences in wildlife and shrubbery in the background.

Site of Historic Catskill Mountain House with View over New York Landscape.
Photo by Matthew Lovette/Education Images/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

The movie was filmed in Virginia and North Carolina. Nature-obsessed fans might have been able to look closely and see that the bushes and trees around the “resort” in the film are not native to the area. The brush found in the background displays greenery that would typically be native to the Midwest, as opposed to the New York area.

The Film’s Hidden Success Story

Even though there were tons of issues on set, Swayze was not surprised that the film became so universally adored. Maybe it was the inclusion of bloopers that seemed like natural parts of the movie, or maybe it was the theme of the film – something that took this movie and turned it into a major success.

Movie poster with Jennifer Grey, Patrick Swayze, and Cynthia Rhodes.
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Swayze believed the movie did so well because “it had heart.” He told AFI, “It’s got so much heart, to me. It’s not about the sensuality … it’s really about the fabulous, funky, little Jewish girl getting the guy because [of] what she’s got in her heart.”

Stirring Up Commotion

You might think that the theme of the movie was enough to cause a commotion just from the title and content of the movie. It turns out there was something way bigger for people to get angry about. The most controversial part of the movie is the storyline about Penny’s unplanned pregnancy.

Cynthia Rhodes's headshot from the movie.
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Many executives asked the team behind the movie to just remove the scene. In an interview with Cosmopolitan, the writer of the film, Eleanor Bernstein, told her interviewers why removing the scene just would not happen. “If I take it out, everything will fall apart. There’s no reason for Baby to meet Johnny, for Penny not to be able to dance, for Baby to learn to dance with Johnny, for her to make love with Johnny—there’s no story without that.”

Take the Win

It might make sense to go for a sequel as quickly as you can if you’re part of the team behind a successful film. Somehow, however, it seems that unless it is done really well, a sequel has the potential to ruin a film! The movie execs behind the original film wanted to cash in on their successes as soon as they saw them, but luckily Patrick Swayze saw the potential harm and stepped in.

Patrick Swayze is entering a room, and a confused Jennifer is following him.
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Swayze refused to appear in the sequel and turned down a wild $6 million. He made it clear as day that making another movie to follow would ruin the movie the world came to love. Years later, Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights premiered in 2004. Swayze had a minor role as a dance instructor, but his instinct was right; it never came close to the original!

Party on Set

Watching this movie feels like you’re in the middle of a fiesta! The whole movie feels like a party, so it should not come as a surprise to learn that despite intense conditions on set, they were encouraged to socialize and keep the party going both on and off set.

Jennifer and Patrick are dancing among other dancers in a party scene.
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The film’s director, Emile Ardolino, encouraged his cast and crew to keep up the party vibes. They played music on set, drank and danced after a long day of filming, and did whatever they could to keep the party going. If that doesn’t sound like a good time to you, what does?

Supporting Surprises

Can you believe that there are so many minor characters who had roles in Dirty Dancing that went on to have bigger careers later? When you’re watching the movie, you’re probably just noticing Patrick Swayze, Jennifer Grey, and Cynthia Rhodes – obviously. What about the others?

Wayne Knight is attending a press tour.
Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images

Supporting roles were played by Wayne Knight, known for his starring roles in Seinfeld and Jurassic Park. Any Gilmore Girls fans out there? Well, you might be surprised to learn that Kelly Bishop, the actress behind the beloved Emily Gilmore, played the role of Baby’s mother in Dirty Dancing!

A Different Role for Mom

Initially, Kelly Bishop was not going to play Baby’s mom, but rather a smaller part in the film. Producers felt that she was a better fit as Baby’s mother instead of Vivian Pressman, an older woman who attempts to seduce Johnny. Luckily, a series of events would lead her to fill the role she was destined to play.

Movie still of Baby’s parents eating breakfast.
Source: Tumblr

The role of Baby’s mother was supposed to be played by Lynne Lipton. Lipton suffered a fall not long before filming and had to drop out of the movie, so Bishop was there to take her place. Even though it was not what they planned, we could not imagine the role going to anyone else!

The Main Attraction

So many people love traveling to see the sets of their favorite movies in real life. Fans of Dirty Dancing just could not get enough, and many still travel to the resort where the movie was filmed. The original venue, Mountain Lake Lodge, continues to draw thousands of customers annually to experience their own star-studded summer.

Female fan posing next to Patrick Swayze wax statue at the Dirty dancing area at Madame Tussauds Berlin.
Photo by Jens Kalaene/picture-alliance/Getty Images

Mountain Lake Lodge continues to host several Dirty Dancing-themed events throughout the year. Naturally, superfans are ecstatic about that. The hotel’s general manager, Heidi Stone, told The Sun that guests come from all over the world for their Dirty Dancing weekends. “It is amazing how many thousands of Dirty Dancing fans we meet every summer. We have guests come from all over the world just for these weekends!”

Soundtrack Symphony

Have you had the time of your life? The most famous song from the movie is the classic “I’ve Had the Time of My Life.” The entire soundtrack became a hit in itself. Want to hear something as crazy as Swayze? The ballad we know this movie for almost wasn’t included in the film!

Close up on Jennifer and Patrick in an iconic dancing scene of the movie.
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Another hit song was nearly included that was also written by Swayze. The gorgeous piece, “She’s Like The Wind,” was written by Swayze for the movie Grandview U.S.A. though it was eventually dropped. Maybe more directors should have enlisted Patrick Swayze to create their soundtracks!

The Story of the Song

We almost lived in a world without “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” and that just makes me so sad to consider. No closing scene comes close to of the one in this legendary film. Bill Medley nearly turned down the opportunity to sing the movie’s ending song, and for a reason you might not expect.

Singer Bill Medley of The Righteous Brothers attends the 16th Annual American Music Awards.
Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images

Medley was worried about the film’s title. He thought that the movie had an adult nature simply from the title, and he did not want to be associated with it. Fortunately, after months of trying to convince him, he agreed to sing for them. He and Jennifer Warnes sang their way into our hearts.

Singing From the Heart

When singing his legendary anthem, Bill Medley put every bit of himself into making it a beautiful and successful song. Medley later opened up about making a song to embody the relationship of Baby and Johnny, making it as if the words are coming from the couple themselves.

Singer Bill Medley poses for a portrait circa 1977.
Photo by Harry Langdon/Getty Images

He told Rolling Stone, “I’m kind of supposed to be Swayze on the record, and Jennifer’s voice kind of fit Jennifer Grey’s character… We sang to each other and to the movie. When he raised her up in the air, I knew it had to be joyful, and that’s why there’s a real spirit and joy in the vocals. That’s not fake. We were having a good time.”

The Legendary Move

There is no denying that everyone on this planet knows “the Dirty Dancing lift.” There are so many references to “the lift” in pop culture that everyone seems to know what it is from originally. So, when other movies like Crazy, Stupid, Love starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling (among others) attempted the lift, Grey was flattered.

Patrick is lifting Jennifer high above his head in an iconic dance move.
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“I’m just such a fan of Ryan Gosling,” Grey told Yahoo! News. “And all of a sudden he’s saying my name… I’m just in the theater with my husband, and I look at him like, ‘Oh my God, Ryan Gosling just said my name. What’s going on?'”

Inspired by Childhood Summers

Dirty Dancing may be a fictitious story, but it is still loosely based on the screenwriter’s real-life experiences. Despite the incredible dance moves and a significant love scene, this movie has aspects that would make anyone think they could have the same magical summer themselves!

Jennifer standing still portrait from the movie.
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Screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein based much of the film’s storyline on her summers with family on vacation in the Catskills. She learned how magical it was to dance at the parties she would attend when she was not spending time with her family. Who knows – maybe she even had her own Johnny!

L’Chaim, to Life!

Much of the movie was based on Eleanor Bergstein’s experiences during her summers growing up. She made many references to her own Jewish upbringing, bringing in many cultural references. They also referenced many of the traditions from her faith.

Eleanor Bergstein's headshot.
Source: Tumblr

One of these traditions was spending a summer at a Catskills vacation resort. Jewish-American families in the region would pack up for the summer and head to the mountains. Some famed comics even got their start performing at these resorts – Joan Rivers and Jerry Seinfeld among those. “It’s a Jewish film,” Bergstein once told Tablet magazine. “If you know what you’re looking at.”

More Than a Movie

This movie was more than just an ode to Eleanor Bergstein’s summers growing up. This movie was far more than just a recollection of her favorite memories from her youth, and it was more than her dreams of summer loving from back in the day. Some of it was fiction, while some of it depicted her best memories.

Jennifer dancing outdoors going down the stairs.
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Some of the characters of the film were based on people Bergstein knew throughout her life, mostly in her dancing experiences. There was one major character believed to be an inspiration – a dance teacher she encountered at some point in her life. Can you guess the character he inspired?

Here’s Johnny!

If you guessed that Patrick Swayze’s Johnny was the character inspired by a real dance instructor, you’d be right! Though it is a rumor, Johnny was said to be inspired by a dancing instructor she had back in the day named Michael Terrace. I don’t know about you, but someone has to be pretty special to me to create a character based on them!

Dance studio scene, Patrick is playing a song while Jennifer awaits.
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There was, however, a big difference between who Johnny was supposed to be versus how he ended up being depicted. In the movie, he seems like a bad-boy-gone-good. Initially, his character would have both had a different personality, as well as a different look altogether!

Polar Opposites

When you look at Patrick Swayze, there is a chance you see him as the Irish beauty he was. He’s strong with fair skin and beautiful light hair. The initial character was supposed to have looked like a tall, dark, and handsome Italian. It seems like they didn’t miss out much by casting another tall and beautiful man like Swayze!

A young Patrick Swayze portrait with long blond hair.
Photo by Aaron Rapoport/Corbis/Getty Images

When casting for the movie, they were looking for the opposite of Swayze. However, his audition blew them away, and they could tell he was so clearly perfect for the part. They decided to rewrite his part and change his ethnicity in the script (again, why?) and created Johnny Irish.

Havana Nights

As we have said so many times before, there is no way that any sequel would live up to the original film. Though Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights was not a bad movie, it wasn’t great either. The film took place in 1958 when a young girl and her family moved to Havana, Cuba, not knowing that their lives were going to change forever.

Lead actors from Havana Nights dancing in a bar surrounded by other dancers.
Source: MovieStillsDB.com / Copyright: Vestron Pictures

Starring Romola Garai and Diego Luna, this sequel does not even come close to serving the original movie in a complimentary way. Nothing would ever live up to the original, and while we applaud the attempt, their attempt certainly fell short!

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