“Nobody puts Baby in a corner.”
Is there anyone on the planet who doesn’t know the famous line Patrick Swayze’s character Johnny Castle utters in the 1987 movie “Dirty Dancing?”
But the reality was nobody could put Swayze in a corner. The star died in 2009 at the age of 57 from pancreatic cancer and to this day, it’s rare that one can turn on the television and not see one of his films airing or a TV special about him scheduled to run. (Last month, ABC News’ “ Superstar “ series profiled the prolific actor, dancer and action star, while Fox in February ran a special celebrity dance competition series, “The Real Dirty Dancing,” where celebrities relived the film’s memorable dance moments in the hope of becoming the next Baby and Johnny.)
Neal Fischer, host of the “Triviality” podcast and a lifelong Swayze fan, spent the last five to six years writing an homage to Swayze’s savviness. In “Being Patrick Swayze: Essential Teachings from the Master of the Mullet,” the west suburban LaGrange, Illinois resident takes readers through the late actor’s personal and professional life with behind-the-scenes stories, fun trivia with Easter eggs you didn’t know you were missing, fashion tips, quizzes, an official “Road House” drink menu, advice, and wisdom gleaned from Swayze’s roles and passion for the arts.
We talked with Fischer about why Patrick Swayze has remained in our hearts and on our minds to this day. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Q: Was this more of a book for Swayze fans or more an entry into his world for those who haven’t really delved into his repertoire yet?
A: It’s a little bit of both. When I originally pitched it, I was coming at it from the angle of just being a big fan of his, a big pop culture fan in general and a film nerd. When we designed the structure of the book, we said it has to do two things: It should be something that die-hard Swayze fans will love. So, there’s a lot of references to his movies and lines and even the obscure movies. But it also has to hopefully welcome a new generation of fans that maybe don’t know a lot about him. I tried to toe the line between both of those.
Originally, the book was titled “Feng Swayze.” He was multifaceted, a Renaissance man as far as his talents and there are not 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 all of them to the best of his visibility as far as huge projects were concerned. 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 other movies like that and made millions of dollars, but he’s like, “No, I’m gonna do some different types of movies and different types of roles.” And some of them didn’t work, but you have to respect that he tried something different every time and tried to set himself apart from every other teen idol or leading man trope.
Q: How did Swayze come into your life?
A: When I was maybe five or a little bit younger, my aunt would babysit me in her apartment. And I remember she had a VHS of “Youngblood” with Swayze and Rob Lowe. I wasn’t particularly into hockey for whatever reason, but I watched that movie over and over again. (Swayze) had this really dramatic turn — this guy whose only dream is to play pro hockey who gets severely hurt and can’t play.
I knew of him, but I didn’t know a lot about him. Until early grade school, one of the girls I went to school with really loved “To Wong Foo, Thanks 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 doing baseball, basketball, soccer and Australian football all throughout grammar 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’s in this movie dancing and, he’s not ashamed of it.
When I was a freshman in high school, I saw auditions for a play. And I was like, “Well, if he can be an athlete and then go do these romantic roles or be a sex symbol or dance, then I’ll do it.” I ended up auditioning for the play and from that moment, 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 got a quote from Swayze’s widow on the book jacket, was it hard to woo her on the book idea?
A: Chronicle Books said: “We love this idea. We just want to make sure that we do it justice and if you can get the blessing of his widow Lisa Niemi Swayze, we’ll gladly go on this journey with you.” I sent her the outline and all the materials. She thought it was a really fun idea. I would send subsequent drafts to her and her sister-in-law, who was a huge help to me, and they loved all the stuff in the book, which was a great seal of approval. I wrote a heartfelt letter about how big of a fan I was of his. I finally got in touch with her and her sister-in-law, they were just wonderful and gracious about everything.
On top of that, Lisa is very involved with the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network that helps those afflicted with pancreatic cancer or the family members who are trying to battle with it. My sister-in-law lost her mother to pancreatic cancer right before I started writing the book. She had a really hard struggle, but she fought for a really long time. And she was a big fan of Swayze in the way that he fought the disease. I wanted to do my part to help his legacy too because I feel like he was very inspirational to people suffering from cancer.
Q: Have you done your own Swayze tour across the country?
A: I’m hoping to visit them (Swayze spots) this summer. Just speaking of “Dirty Dancing,” you can stay at the Mountain Lake Lodge in Virginia, and you can actually stay in Baby’s cabin that they shot the movie in. They have the gazebo there where Baby talks to her dad and they have a memorial rock there with an inscription for Swayze near the pond, where they did the dancing lift, in his honor. That’s one place I want to go.
There’s a huge community in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where they filmed “The Outsiders.” You can go there, it’s amini-museum. They have a bunch of memorabilia. They have a wall where anyone in the town who was in the movie, including the big stars like Rob Lowe and Matt Dillon, all signed the wall and they hold screenings of the movies there. C. Thomas Howell will come and play country music. I’m really excited to go there because Tulsa has sort of become the S.E. Hinton extended universe because she wrote a lot of books taking place in Tulsa and she’s still a local there.
I happened to find on Instagram just by typing in 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 reached out to the owner of the bar, who was like, “Come on down, you got to take a picture every Aug. 18, that’s Swayze’s birthday, we do a huge Swayze celebration at the bar with drink specials and everything.”
Q: Were there any surprises or secrets that you found out when you were walking the Swayze path?
A: The biggest thing that I found really fascinating was his struggle with injuries … just how much adversity he overcame with injuries. When he was in high school, he had aspirations of being a football player, and then he hurt his knee terribly. Once he healed that, then he was like, I might want to do gymnastics when he hurt the same knee again. He had all these aspirations of being an athlete, but then he focused everything on dance. The rigorous schedule of working in New York, the different ballets that he was in, his knee would have to be drained every day. You’re following your dream and you’re doing everything you can to focus, your mind is sharp, you’re trying your best, and then your body is letting you down. Every movie that he did, all the ones that we love, his knee always bugged him or he got injured in some way. On “Dirty Dancing,” the famous scene of him on the log, he talks about his knee having no cartilage, bone rubbing on bone. When they were doing the lift in the water, his knee was killing him, but he had to keep doing it and it was freezing temperatures. That’s why there’s no close-ups on that shot because their lips were blue. Throughout his career, he escaped death many times.
He was doing a movie later in his career, where he was on a horse going full speed and it threw him into a tree where he should have probably died on impact, but he was able to move his body and he ended up breaking both of his legs and tearing tendons in his shoulder. He had all that and yet he continued. Most people would hang it up and say, “OK, I’m gonna do something a little less intensive or I’m gonna do something a little easier,” but he kept pushing and trying to be the best at everything he did. The other thing was his relationship with his wife. They were creative partners all throughout their lives together. They pushed each other to be better. I loved the parallel of him trying to make the best career he can. His wife was also super creative, and she was a dancer and integral to his process as an actor.
I saw that 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 isn’t a competition. It’s how can we navigate this world together and help each other out so that we can both succeed and do it together.
Q: Swayze’s secret sauce, if you could summarize it 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 sort of his relentless drive to succeed.
Passion would be another one. 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 get it onto an album and he finally got it on “Dirty Dancing” when it was actually supposed to be released on the “Grandview, U.S.A.” soundtrack. He’s a passionate husband. He’s passionate about animals, passionate about his career in the arts. So that’d 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 happened to be good at dance, who happened to love acting, but he never got a big head about it.
The last words would be tender strength, which really encapsulates him. He could do movies where he was the strong, muscular, tough guy, but he can also do movies where he was tender, romantic, and sentimental. That’s sort of what sets him apart from a lot of different actors.