qWhen you think of Patrick Swayze, you think of his movies, his dancing, and probably his hair. But there was more to him than just his acting and his looks; the dude had something special. He had that “je ne sais quoi” – that X-factor – that pretty much every actor wishes for.
It’s that specialness about him and the fact that we just know deep down that he was a good guy that makes his life story even more heartbreaking. It was only after his death, in the wake of the documentary, I Am Patrick Swayze, that we got to understand what really went down behind closed doors.
The Time of His Life
Before Swayze died, he got around to writing a memoir. Co-written with his wife Lisa Niemi (the dancer, actress, and choreographer), The Time of My Life was a window into his life, his childhood, and all the things he never talked about in Hollywood interviews. Swayze was so much more than Hollywood.
Still, we just couldn’t get enough of Swayze, the good-looking actor who helped turn movies like Dirty Dancing and Point Break into pop-culture classics. The point is, there is so much to know about this guy. Even after his death, interesting stories keep surfacing and they’re giving us all the feels.
How Did Patrick Swayze Die?
In early 2008, Patrick Swayze was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. He went through a year of treatment which included chemotherapy and even an experimental drug trial. In January 2009, he went into the hospital with pneumonia, which was said to be a complication of the chemotherapy.
But a week later, he was sent home to be with his wife and rest. By April, the cancer had spread to his liver. He had said publicly that he was a heavy smoker most of his life, for about 40 years. He once admitted to smoking 60 cigarettes a day.
When Did Patrick Swayze Die?
Swayze died on September 14, 2009, 20 months after his cancer diagnosis. He was 57 years old. He had his family around him, and afterwards his ashes were scattered over his ranch in New Mexico.
In the end, he “showed himself to be a true hero in how he approached his disease,” Niemi told People Magazine. “The amount of lovingness and kindness, I saw wisdom in him that was beyond anything I’d seen before.” It took ten years for his wife to open up about her late husband’s untold truth – about both the pains of his childhood and the strength he had to overcome them.
A Man With Inner Demons, Just Like Us
Swayze accomplished more than many of us regular folk, but he also dealt with the demons that most people grapple with. He suffered from alcoholism and other lingering effects of a sometimes less than ideal childhood.
Swayze grew up in Houston, and was constantly pushed by his mother, Patsy, who was a choreographer who founded the Houston Jazz Ballet Company. As an adult, he gave her credit for his own strong work ethic. But as a child, her demand for perfectionism was more like abuse.
A Cycle of Abuse
Niemi says in the documentary that Patsy “was really an example of what happens in families in a cycle of abuse.” She explained his mom could get very violent, “but it was nothing compared to what she endured growing up.”
Niemi revealed that she heard all the stories about Patsy’s own childhood and what she went through with her own mother. The story of Swayze’s 18th birthday is one Niemi knows well, as he told her personally about the time his mom was “laying into him.”
His 18th Birthday Was a Warning
His dad, Jesse, was the one who had his back. On Swayze’s 18th birthday, as Patsy was beating him up, Jesse intervened and broke it up, telling his wife that if she touched their son again, he would divorce her. “She never hit him after that,” Lisa stated.
It was only after Swayze moved out of the house and into his own that he started to “become very aware of the positive and the negative aspects of how he was raised,” Niemi shared. She knows his history in such depth and detail because she was a part of it.
She Was 14; He Was 18
Niemi was only 14 when she met her future husband at Patsy’s dance studio in 1970. Swayze was 18. From the very beginning, he flirted with her, and she always refused his advances. But he never stopped trying. It paid off because, in 1975, the two got married.
According to Niemi, his mom pushing as hard as she did is what made Swayze fight harder, as opposed to caving in. As time went on (she and Swayze were married for 34 years until he died), Niemi and Patsy came to “have a much better relationship.”
His Mom Found Out Through a Reporter
Swayze and his mother also became closer before his passing. Patsy ended up dying four years after him, in 2013, at the age of 86. Yet the mother and son never spoke of the abuse. Niemi said her husband “absolutely loved and respected her.”
Patsy only found out about her son’s diagnosis when a National Enquirer reporter showed up at her door. Swayze admitted that he didn’t tell her because she was having eye surgery and needed to keep her eyes dry for weeks, meaning no crying).
They Renewed Their Vows
Swayze’s final performance was the A&E drama series The Beast, which took place while he was undergoing chemotherapy. But before he and Niemi left for Chicago to shoot, they renewed their wedding vows.
“You still take my breath away. I’m still not complete until I look in your eyes,” he vowed to her. “You are my woman, my lover, my mate and my lady. I’ve loved you forever, I love you now and I will love you forevermore.” (I’m not crying, you are.)
They were very much in love after all those years, but their marriage was strained for a period.
A Cowboy’s Son
Swayze was a natural performer. “I kind of came out of the womb on stage,” he once said. Of course, with a mom like Patsy, it makes sense. His dad, though, was an engineer and rodeo cowboy (which explains his buying his own ranch later in life).
He was actually a student athlete, until he got a football injury. It begs the question: if he hadn’t gotten injured, would he have been a pro athlete instead? He wasn’t just a great dancer; he excelled at football, gymnastics, swimming, diving, and track when he was younger.
The Fight Scene He Couldn’t Master
There was this one thing, though, that he just couldn’t master, and that was style of kickboxing which pro Benny “The Jet” Urquidez tried to teach the actor for his fight scenes in Road House (he played the character James Dalton).
By the time Urquidez realized that his student was a dancer, he brought a boombox to the set and blasted Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” Swayze needed all the help and encouragement he could get for the major fight scene with Navy SEAL-turned-actor Marshall Teague. That fight scene in the river proved to be one for the history books…
That Log Wasn’t a Prop
Apparently, Teague picked up what he figured was a fake log and swung it over his head and onto Swayze’s back. The result? Swayze broke a couple of his ribs and got the wind knocked out of him. He barely had the strength “to drag myself out of the river after that fight.”
“I dropped to my hands and knees, gasping for breath, but the scene called for us to keep fighting,” Swayze noted. “When you watch this scene in the movie, the exhaustion you see on my face is absolutely real.”
The Little Dancer Was Bullied
Swayze grew up taking dance classes. In other words, he was bullied. When he was 12, five boys jumped him all at once. When his dad saw the cuts on his son, the onetime rodeo champion and Golden Gloves boxer decided to take matters into his own hands.
He taught Patrick hand-to-hand combat, which came around the same time Swayze started learning martial arts. A couple of months into his training, Jesse drove his son to school and had a word with the football coach…
He Sent Them Home Bloody and Bruised
Mr. Swayze told the coach that he wanted him to pull those five bullies out of class so they could “settle this thing” right there in the weight shack by the football field. This time, however, they would fight the young Patrick one at a time.
It was just like a scene from the movies: Swayze sent each boy home bloody and bruised. Both Swayze and his pops were proud, and now everyone wanted to fight the new “tough guy.” The fact that he would carry his ballet shoes and a violin case only made it more enticing.
I’ll Kick You’re A$$
His dad’s words were forever ingrained in his mind: “If I ever see you start a fight, I’ll kick your ass. And if I ever see you not finish a fight, I’ll kick your ass.” (Coolest dad ever?) Jesse clearly loved his son and wanted the best for him, but he wasn’t without his own demons.
Swayze spoke openly and honestly about his battle with the bottle, which lasted almost ten years after his father’s death in 1982. He said he drank “copious amounts of alcohol,” and it was the source of many fights between him and Niemi.
His Most Embarrassing Moment of All
The same year his father passed, when Swayze was filming City of Joy in Calcutta, he hardly even touched a bottle. But when the movie failed both at the box office and critically, he started drinking again. “Why couldn’t I pull in the level of projects I wanted, and that I seemed to have earned?” he wondered aloud.
Come 1993, on the set of Father Hood; the film crew had trouble waking their star actor up one morning. Swayze referred to the time when he kept passing out while shooting the scene in the back of a car as his “most embarrassing moment of all.”
From Rehab to Sobriety to a New Depression
When Father Hood wrapped, he did what he had to do: he checked himself into rehab. He managed to get out of his drunken stupor. About a decade later, he sunk into a whole new kind of depression. This time, it was fueled by a feeling that he had lost his passion and purpose.
He explained in his memoir that the overwhelming fear that he was never good enough consumed him. But rather than push those feelings away, he “tried to use them, to harness that energy.”
The Morning His Wife Walked Out on Him
For Niemi, it was too much, and she left him one morning while he was still sleeping. In the memoir they wrote, they admitted for the first time publicly that she had kept an apartment for herself. It was a 20-minute drive away from their homestead, which they named Rancho Bizarro, in California.
For an entire year (in 2003), she lived in that apartment, yet they spoke every day. By the way, the couple never had any children. Niemi reportedly suffered a miscarriage at some point.
A Psychic Brought Them Back
Niemi and Swayze reunited while he was filming 2004’s Mines in Africa, but they were still broken. It wasn’t until a friend of theirs introduced them to a psychic for Swayze’s birthday in August of 2007 that something changed profoundly.
The psychic reportedly said that Niemi was, in her heart, already out the door. But after that psychic consultation, the couple had a breakthrough and found that same level of love they’d shared when they first married back in 1975. A year later, Swayze was diagnosed with cancer.
His and Her Pilot Licenses
On June 1, 2000, Swayze, who was an FAA licensed pilot, made headlines when it was reported that he had to make an emergency landing in his Cessna 414a. He was flying to New Mexico (from California) to try to save Rancho Bizarro from the raging wildfires that were engulfing the area.
A month earlier, Lisa (also a pilot) was flying the same plane, which started to lose pressurization (which can lead to hypoxia and death). The plane was then serviced and the reason for the problem was determined…
He Wasn’t Getting Enough Oxygen
There had been a sticky residue on the outflow valve – a result of the couple smoking in the cockpit. Now, back to June 1st and Swayze decided to fly the plane at a low altitude, assuming he was playing it safe. He put the plane on autopilot but apparently passed out, waking up a couple hundred feet above the ground in Arizona.
What happened? It was a combination of a mechanical issue, the return of the same sticky residue, and Swayze’s heavy smoker lungs not functioning at peak performance. He simply wasn’t getting enough oxygen.
Swayze’s Near-Death Experience No.1
The thing is, he shouldn’t even have woken up. Since the autopilot was on, Swayze technically should have stayed in the air until he ran out of fuel and crashed. But the autopilot somehow turned off during the flight.
He wrote later that air traffic control radar showed that he almost hit the ground eleven times. “I flew between 6,500 and 11,500 feet, narrowly missing the mountains.” His route “looked like a strand of spaghetti,” looping for about 45 minutes. Luckily, the plane eventually drifted lower until there was enough oxygen to revive him.
He Had Reportedly Been Boozing
In the end, the plane’s right wing struck a light pole, and in a miraculous way, Swayze was left unharmed. But let’s not forget that this was during Swayze’s period of alcohol abuse. Reportedly, witnesses said Swayze appeared to be drunk and even asked for help to remove evidence from the crash site.
There was an open bottle of wine and a 30-pack of beer in the plane. The police were then unable to reach him for several hours. It was later determined that the booze wasn’t in the cabin, but rather stored in external compartments inaccessible in flight.
Swayze’s Near-Death Experience No.2
On December 27, 2006, Swayze and his wife experienced another incident while flying together to their ranch. The plane lost power en route followed by a total failure of the right engine. Niemi was flying the plane and managed to land it successfully in Van Nuys.
Two near-death experiences were enough for the couple. Fool them once, shame on them. But fool them twice… and they buy a new plane. They traded their shoddy plane for a Beechcraft Super King Air, N400KW. Nothing was gonna get these two out of the sky.
Swayze on Travolta
Swayze’s feature film debut came in 1979 when he played the leather-wearing leader of a roller-disco gang in Skatetown, USA. It wasn’t the role he desperately wanted, though, which belonged to John Travolta in Urban Cowboy – the movie his mom and wife were choreographing back home.
When shooting for Skatetown wrapped, he returned to Houston to join his wife, and they hung out with Travolta. Swayze even taught Travolta a “few steps, which frustrated me even more,” he wrote in the memoir.
The Role He Was Born for Went to Travolta Instead
“Country dancing was in my DNA, and as much as I like John, I hated giving someone else tips on how to play a role I was born for. But really, what I hated was that he was so good at it,” he elaborated in the book. Speaking of Travolta, Swayze replaced him in the Broadway musical of Grease.
After suffering complications with his knee (the injury he sustained earlier on in his life), Swayze was looking for a low-impact role. So, he auditioned for and got the part of Danny Zuko in the musical.
Insider Scoop on The Outsiders
In 1983, Swayze played Darrel “Darry” Curtis in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders. Apparently, Coppola did whatever it took to bring out the most authentic emotions in his actors. Swayze recalled in his memoir how sometimes that meant orchestrating an actual fight.
“The really interesting thing was that all of the Greasers stuck together, watching each other’s backs like this was a real gang fight,” he wrote. Other ways Coppola got the actors’ blood to boil was talking to each actor, finding his “deepest, darkest secrets” and then, on set, announcing them “over a loudspeaker for everyone to hear.”
Hilariously Serious Pranks on Red Dawn
The set of Red Dawn turned out to be even more intense. Director John Milius put Swayze and the other actors in a training camp that ended in a giant game of Capture the Flag with National Guard Troops. Swayze liked to prank Milius on set, you know, to lighten the mood.
It was also a good way to take advantage of all the explosives. One time, he “rigged the toilet” in his trailer with M60s, which are one-eighth-size sticks of dynamite. He lay in wait until nature called for Milius…
“Swayze, You Son of a –”
Eventually, Milius went into his trailer’s bathroom to do his business, which is when Swayze detonated the explosives. The blast sent the director running out the door in a frenzy. He couldn’t even finish his sentence – “Swayze, you son of a –” before Swayze set off the second round of explosives.
This time, he blew away two garbage cans “sky-high and scaring the s*** out of him.” Fun fact: Red Dawn was a reunion for Swayze, C. Thomas Howell, and Darren Dalton, as well as Jennifer Grey.
Swayze on Ice
At the age of eight months, Swayze would bob up and down, side to side, in his playpen, dancing to the music his mother taught in her dance class. Swayze himself took ballet (the source for the bullying), which then branched out into football and gymnastics.
As soon as he finished college, he toured for a year with Disney on Parade, the ice show, as Prince Charming. He was 19 when he moved to New York to pursue a career on stage. But that darn knee injury ruined that dream. Thankfully for us, he focused on acting.
Swayze on Wood
After Skatetown USA came out, Swayze was worried his career was going to enter teen idol territory. He could have accepted a multi-film contract, but it would have meant having little control over the parts he was offered. Instead, he and his wife opened a carpentry business called Nepotism, Inc.
Why the name? It employed brothers from both of their families. The thing is, of all the talents Swayze had, carpentry wasn’t one of them. He did study books on the subject, though. The business was actually successful, and the carpenter brothers renovated the kitchen of actress Jaclyn Smith, for example.
His Carpentry Business Served Him Well
According to him, the carpentry business not only kept him busy between auditions, but it provided him with some nice paychecks. With the income, he allowed himself to be more selective about the movies he appeared in.
After a series of appearances on TV, including a made-for-TV movie called The Comeback Kid (with John Ritter) and an episode of M*A*S*H, Swayze got one of the bigger roles of his career. He was cast in The Outsiders. And as we know now, it was both a blast and a tad traumatic.
“She’s Like the Wind” Was Written for Another Movie
We can’t ignore the uber hit film Dirty Dancing. The 1987 dance drama featured the song, She’s Like the Wind, a track Swayze both sang and co-wrote. But he didn’t compose it for Dirty Dancing at all. He originally co-wrote it for the 1984 movie Grandview, USA, a comedy featuring him and his frequent co-star, C. Thomas Howell.
But the production team passed on using his song, so he was free to revive it for Dirty Dancing. Thanks to the movie’s low budget, he and co-writer Stacy Widelitz maintained 100 percent of the publishing rights.
He Put His Foot Down
Swayze had some controversial things to say about the making of Dirty Dancing, like how he felt “all along that Johnny should ultimately end up with Penny.” He felt they were so much more alike and “a more realistic couple than Johnny and Baby.”
Early on, some people on the set suggested that Swayze actually tone down the dancing with Penny, but he put his “foot down.” The worry was that the dance scenes between Johnny and Penny were “too sexy” – that they would overshadow the later dance scenes with Johnny and Baby.
A Lover and a Fighter
Needless to say, Swayze begged to differ. “I knew that wasn’t true, based on my audition with Jennifer,” Swayze wrote. “There was no doubt we’d be able to create the heat — and we did.” The movie proved that he could be both a lover and a fighter.
Movie critic Carrie Rickey noted, “His hungry eyes fixed on Jennifer Grey’s, his concentration on her performance. It’s both powerfully romantic and deeply sexy.” And with that, Dirty Dancing put Swayze on the romantic-lead map.
Patrick, the New Fragrance
Dirty Dancing turned Swayze into a household name. With such success, he was getting all kinds of offers. He told People in 1988 about people who wanted him to do a cologne. “They want to call it Patrick.” Hilarious? Of course.
Even more amusing were the other offers on the table, including exercise videos, posters, and “all kinds of stuff” that he could have made a fortune on. “It’s insanity. I’m not going to do any of it,” he said at the time. Instead, he chose his next film, 1989’s Road House.
Swayze in the Sky
In 1991’s Point Break, Swayze played Bodhi, the Zen master of a bank robber. He prepared for the role by going on about 50 skydiving jumps, leading the production’s insurance company to ask him to stop. Swayze was confused because he always considered surfing to be far more dangerous than skydiving.
“Skydiving has become one of the safest sports around,” he told the Morning Call that year. “It’s safer than driving your car to work.” Swayze shared how, when surfing, he would slam into coral reefs and get held under water. Yikes.
Swayze in the South
When shooting the 1985 miniseries North and South, Swayze had to wear a woolen uniform for 18 hours each day in the heat of South Carolina’s summer. He actually fainted once, falling flat on his face on a cement column and breaking his nose.
The cast would frequently go out to dinner together and co-star Lesley-Anne Down always paid the bill (Swayze assumed she liked spending her soon-to-be ex-husband William Friedkin’s money). One day, Down invited Swayze, David Carradine, and the rest of the cast to her penthouse suite for some drinks…
Swayze Could Have Been No More
One of the most memorable stories from the making of the show happens to be one Swayze doesn’t even remember. Down told Swayze the morning after: “You and David were out on that tiny ledge, outside the window, doing karate.”
She told him they were holding bottles of Crown Royal and that she “was scared to death!” Swayze wrote in his memoir, “Thank goodness, even with alcohol in our bloodstreams, our balance was good enough to keep from tumbling to the beautiful cobblestones of Charleston twelve floors below.”
The Time He Told Onlookers to Shut the F*** Up
In the Ghost scene, when Sam discovers that his friend Carl (played by Tony Goldwyn) betrayed him, director Jerry Zucker filmed each actor separately, later making it look like Swayze’s punches were going right through Goldwyn with good ol’ computer magic.
That meant that Swayze had to shoot the sequence in front of a curious crowd in New York who only saw him yelling and screaming like a true maniac. They laughed. Swayze yelled, “Shut the f*** up!” at them, his “adrenaline pumping from the emotion of the scene.”
The Crowd Shut Up
In his memoir, he recalled the crowd looking at him dumbfounded. “You want to get out here and do this yourself? You think this is easy?!” Obviously, people were startled, but it worked. They shut up.
Then, when they went on to shoot the scene again, “you could hear a pin drop.” Swayze wrote that no one made so much as a peep until they finished the whole take. Finally, when Zucker yelled “Cut!” the “whole crowd broke into applause.”
Drag Queens and Motivational Speakers
Swayze was a bit of a chameleon when it came to his film roles. Remember when he played a drag queen in To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything Julie Newmar? He was also a noble doctor in the movie City of Joy, and who can forget his role as the annoying motivational speaker in Donnie Darko?
Those roles showed the actor’s restless spirit. “The only plan I have,” he said in 1989, “is that every time people have me pegged, I’m going to come out of left field and do something unexpected.” But those independent film roles weren’t noticed much by the critics.
He Wasn’t the First Choice for Ghost
The role of Sam Wheat in 1990’s Ghost was perfect for Swayze, and we can’t picture anyone else portraying him. But director Jerry Zucker revealed that Swayze wasn’t his first choice for Wheat, considering his two action roles just a year prior: 1989’s Road House and Next of Kin.
Things changed, though, when Swayze read a key scene in Zucker’s office. “We all had tears in our eyes, right there in the office… and we knew how it ends,” Zucker shared. “I saw a side of Patrick that I never knew existed.”
His Last Threat
Swayze happened to cheat death numerous times, including the airplane incidents, motorcycle and horse accidents, including one that broke both of his legs while filming 1998’s Letters From a Killer. We can’t forget that night on the ledge with David Carradine, either.
However, cancer was just too big of a threat to beat. The 2009 documentary on him really made a mark, earning a total of two million viewers. That alone made it the most-watched cable personality documentary of the year. If anyone had the ability to do that, it’s definitely Patrick Swayze.