“Nobody puts baby in a corner.”
Is there anyone on the planet who doesn’t know the famous line of Patrick Swayze’s character, Johnny Castle, in the 1987 movie “Dirty Dancing”?
But the reality was that no one could put Swayze in a corner. The star died in 2009 at the age of 57 from pancreatic cancer and to this day it is rare that one can turn on the television and not see one of his films airing or a special. programmed on him. (This month, ABC News’ “Superstar” series featured the prolific actor, dancer and action star, while Fox hosted a special celebrity dance competition series in February, “The Real Dirty Dancing,” where celebrities relived memorable dancing moments from the film in hopes of becoming the next baby and Johnny.)
Neal Fischer, host of the “Trivality” podcast and lifelong Swayze fan, has spent the past five to six years writing a tribute to Swayze craftsmanship. In “Being Patrick Swayze: Essential Teachings from the Master of the Mullet,” (published Tuesday), the resident of the western suburb of LaGrange takes readers through the late actor’s personal and professional life with behind-the-scenes stories, fun facts with Easter eggs you didn’t know you were missing, fashion tips, quizzes, an official “Road House” drink menu, tips and wisdom from roles and of Swayze’s passion for the arts.
We spoke with Fischer about why Patrick Swayze remains in our hearts and minds to this day. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Q: Was it more of a book for Swayze fans or more of an entry into his world for those who haven’t really delved into his repertoire yet?
A: It’s a bit of both. When I originally pitched him, I approached him from the perspective of just being a big fan of him, a big fan of pop culture in general, and a movie nerd. When we designed the structure of the book, we said it had to do two things: it should be something die-hard Swayze fans will love. So there are a lot of references to his movies and lines and even obscure movies. But he also has to hopefully welcome a new generation of fans who may not know much about him. I tried to distinguish between the two.
Originally, the book was titled “Feng Swayze”. He was multifaceted, a Renaissance man in his talents and there aren’t too many actors like that around. I thought it was interesting in the 80s and 90s that he had all these talents, and maybe he didn’t use them all to the best of his visibility when it came to big projects. Whenever he did something popular, he always took a huge left turn to not be that guy. When he had “Dirty Dancing” he could have done 100 more movies like that and made millions of dollars, but he was like, “No, I’m going to do different kinds of movies and different kinds of roles.” And some of them didn’t work out, but you have to respect that he tried something different every time and tried to stand out from all the other teen idols or mainstream male tropes.
Q: How did Swayze come into your life?
A: When I was maybe five or a little younger, my aunt kept me in her apartment. And I remember she had a VHS of “Youngblood” with Swayze and Rob Lowe. I didn’t particularly like hockey for some reason, but I watched this movie over and over. (Swayze) had this really dramatic turn – this guy whose only dream is to play professional hockey who gets badly injured and can’t play.
I knew him, but I didn’t know much about him. Until the beginning of elementary school, one of the girls I went to school with really liked “To Wong Foo, thank you for everything! Julie Newmar. I saw him in that movie and what I really liked about Swayze was that he was a great athlete. I was playing baseball, basketball, soccer and Aussie rules all through high school, but I also had this artistic drive. I started seeing his movies and he played a really cool villain in ‘Point Break’, but then he dances in that movie and he’s not ashamed of it.
When I was a freshman in high school, I saw auditions for a play. And I thought, ‘Well, if he can be an athlete and then play these romantic roles or be a sex symbol or dance, then I will.’ I ended up auditioning for the play and from then on I was in plays and musicals; I was all about the arts and performing and I think he opened me up to that world, which led me to where I am now, which I’m grateful for.
Q: You have a quote from Swayze’s widow on the cover of the book, was it hard to woo her about the idea for the book?
A: Chronicle Books said: “We love this idea. We just want to make sure we do him justice and if you can get his widow Lisa Niemi Swayze’s blessing, we’ll be happy to take this journey with you. I sent him the plan and all the material. She thought that was a really fun idea. I was sending later drafts to her and her sister-in-law, who were a huge help, and they loved everything in the book, which was a great stamp of approval. I wrote a heartfelt letter about how I was a fan of him. I finally got in touch with her and her sister in law, they were just wonderful and kind about everything.
On top of that, Lisa is very involved in the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network which helps people with pancreatic cancer or family members who are trying to fight it. My sister-in-law lost her mother to pancreatic cancer just before I started writing the book. She had a very hard fight, but she fought for a very long time. And she was a big fan of Swayze in the way he fought disease. I also wanted to do my part to help his legacy because I feel like he was very inspirational to people with cancer.
Q: Did you do your own Swayze tour across the country?
A: I hope to visit them (Swayze spots) this summer. Speaking of “Dirty Dancing,” you can stay at Mountain Lake Lodge in Virginia, and you can actually stay in Baby’s cabin that they shot the movie in. They have the gazebo where Baby talks to his father and they have a rock memorial there with an inscription for Swayze by the pond, where they did the dancing elevator, in his honor. It’s a place I want to go.
There’s a huge community in Tulsa, Oklahoma where they filmed “The Outsiders.” You can go there, it’s a mini-museum. They have a lot of memories. They have a wall where all the townspeople who were in the movie, including big stars like Rob Lowe and Matt Dillon, all signed the wall and they have movie screenings there. C. Thomas Howell will be playing country music. I’m really excited to go because Tulsa has kind of become SE Hinton’s extended universe because she’s written a lot of books that take place in Tulsa and she’s still there.
I happened to find out on Instagram just by typing Patrick Swayze that there was a bar in Nashville called the Centennial Inn, they have a huge mural of Swayze on the side of their bar. I contacted the owner of the bar, who said, “Come on, you have to take a picture every August 18th, it’s Swayze’s birthday, we’re having a big Swayze party at the bar with drink specials and everything.”
Q: Were there any surprises or secrets you uncovered while walking Swayze’s path?
A: The biggest thing that I found really fascinating was his fight against injuries… how well he overcame adversity with injuries. When he was in high school, he aspired to be a football player, then he suffered a terrible knee injury. Once he healed that, he thought to himself, I might want to do some gymnastics when he hurt the same knee again. He had all these aspirations of being an athlete, but then he focused it all on dancing. The rigorous work schedule in New York, the various ballets he was in, his knee had to be drained every day. You follow your dream and you do everything you can to focus, your mind is sharp, you do your best, and then your body lets you down. Every movie he’s done, every movie we love, his knee has always pissed him off or hurt him in some way. In “Dirty Dancing,” the famous scene of him on the log, he talks about his cartilageless knee, bone rubbing against bone. When they did the water lift, his knee was killing him, but he had to keep doing it and it was very cold. That’s why there are no close-ups in this photo because their lips were blue. Throughout his career, he escaped death several times.
He was doing a movie later in his career where he was on a horse at full speed and it threw him into a tree where he probably should have died on the spot but he was able to move his body and he ended up breaking both his legs and tearing the tendons in his shoulder. He had it all and yet he went on. Most people hung up and said, “OK, I’m going to do something a little less intensive or I’m going to do something a little easier”, but he kept pushing and trying to be the best in everything he did. The other thing was his relationship with his wife. They have been creative partners throughout their life together. They pushed themselves to be better. I loved the parallel of him trying to make the best career possible. His wife was also super creative, and she was a dancer and an integral part of his process as an actor.
I’ve seen this parallel with me and my partner Colleen – you can be in a relationship where both people are very ambitious or very creative and support each other and it’s not a competition. It’s how can we navigate this world together and help each other so that we can both succeed and do it together.
Q: Swayze’s secret sauce, if you could sum it up in three or four words. What would they be?
A: Drive would be one because I think what set him apart from everyone else was kind of his relentless drive to succeed.
Passion would be another. He was so passionate about so many different things. He was a musician. He wrote “She’s Like the Wind”: it took them forever to put it on an album and he finally got it on “Dirty Dancing” when he was actually supposed to come out on the soundtrack of “Grandview, United States”. He is a passionate husband. He is passionate about animals, passionate about his career in the arts. So that would be the second word.
The third word would be humble. At the height of his powers, he was always humble. He knew who he was. He was just a guy from Texas who was good at dancing, who loved acting, but he never got a big head about it.
The last words would be a tender force, which really sums it up. He could make movies where he was the strong, muscular, tough guy, but he could also make movies where he was tender, romantic, and sentimental. That’s kind of what sets him apart from a lot of different actors.