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Remembering Crazy Swayze

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Grammy Awards - Patrick Swayze and wife Lisa Niemi back stage during the telecast - February, 1990. Image by Alan Light and used under a Creative Commons license.
The Actor-Dancer’s Self-Described Perfect Life Was, At Times, Just As Thrilling And Adventurous Behind The Scenes Of His Blockbuster Films As It Was On The Silver Screen

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By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine

Sept. 14, 2015 — On Sept. 14, 2009, actor-dancer Patrick Swayze lost his battle with pancreatic cancer and died at the age of 57. It was a shock to millions of fans who could not come to grips with the fact that the virile star would succumb at such a young age.

His sex-symbol status was underscored in such films as Dirty Dancing and Ghost and then masterfully satirized in a memorable SNL skit with Chris Farley, in which the two auditioned to become Chippendale dancers; Swayze strutin’ his stuff with his six-pack abs and Farley gyrating like a giant heap of Jello Pudding, craving another kind of six-pack.

It’s cliché to say it, but when we interviewed him in 1998, it was abundantly clear that Swayze lived life to the hilt and made the most of what would turn out to be a short life-span. Hindsight being 20-20, it’s sad how many times during our visit, Swayze joked about several close calls he had and about cheating the Grim Reaper.

If only his luck had held.

But even two decades ago we surmised that if Swayze wasn’t more careful, he would find it difficult to take out an insurance policy, even with Lloyd’s of London. Back then, the actor by his own admission had become somewhat of an insurance risk because of his fearless — and sometimes foolhardy — insistence on performing his own death-defying movie stunts. In fact, Swayze could have given motorcycle stuntmeister Evel Knievel a run for his money in the broken bones and cracked cartilage department.

“Fear is something you make your friend,” he said in a distinctive Texas drawl that’s really more of a twang when points become emphatic and his voice more strident. “It is not something to get rid of. Try to make it your friend just like your demons. If you don’t find a way to make it your friend, it will kill you.”
And Swayze’s not just blowing smoke. It was in 1997 while filming the psychological thriller, Letters from a Killer that he narrowly escaped “buying the farm” when he broke both of his legs and shoulder in a horse riding accident.

“It was just a situation that if I listened to my instincts I wouldn’t have done the shot,” he said. “But we were in a rush and we had to complete the scene before the sun went down. The horse wanted to go one way and I made him go the other way. He cut so hard it sent me off his back like a rocket, straight into an oak tree. The only thing that saved me was my gymnastic background and my instincts. I grabbed two handfuls of his mane and flipped myself and broke my legs into the tree as opposed to going in headfirst killing myself.”

Unlike most box-office stars of Swayze’s stature that leave risky stunts to their professional stunt doubles, Swayze almost always took the bet.

“The only reason I have done so many of my own stunts these past years is because in my opinion it adds power to the performance,” he said. “I’m not interested in doing stupid stuff just for my ego. Up until now I haven’t given the insurance companies reasons to screw with me. But they’re going to screw with me big time now because they have it on record. I almost died. Now any stunt I choose to do I’m going to be plagued with people in my face.”

The near-death experience did not make Swayze “gun shy” when it came to climbing back on a horse.

“I’ve fallen off horses hundreds of times in my life,” he said. “I’ve just never had an oak tree in front of me before. I’ve come off a horse and landed on top of a tin roof and slammed into a wall and into fences at rodeos…believe me, I rode bulls for a while.”

After a three-month convalescence, Swayze, at 45, proclaimed, “I’m in better shape now than I’ve been in the last 20 years because of fear – I almost died and I should have died. Honestly, that shook me up pretty good.  But as time goes on, I do get smarter and smarter. I do get less crazy. My nickname forever has been ‘crazy Swayze.’”

The star of Dirty Dancing and Ghost just doesn’t fit the mold of your typical Hollywood movie star. But despite his daredevil-may-care attitude, Swayze was far from being a loose cannon. He was warm, accessible and earthy, although often brutally candid. When we called on him at his suburban Los Angeles horse ranch, it was hard to believe that the idyllic aerie was located only a short drive away from the tinsel of Hollywood. The air is clean and the sky expansive. It’s no wonder that Swayze, born and bred in Houston, wanted to replicate a piece of the Lone Star State closer to the hub of the movie capital. Relaxed in his office, Swayze was wearing what he calls his everyday clothes – faded black jeans, black boots that appeared to have logged more rodeo miles than Buffalo Bill at his own Wild West Show and a light grey, well-worn sweatshirt.

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