Not long ago, I found myself, through no fault of my own, at the stage version of Dirty Dancing. As expected, the auditorium was oestrogen-heavy, and as the rough-diamond dance teacher, Johnny Castle, got to grips with the artless Frances ‘Baby’ Houseman and helped her unleash her inner twerker, the women around me responded with shining eyes, flushed faces, and the occasional whooped exhortation (there may have been hen parties present). The deathless line “Nobody puts Baby in the corner!” was greeted with a tumultuous cheer, and the climactic mass singalong suggested that, yes, the punters had had the time of their lives, and they owed it all to… whom?
“Let’s not kid ourselves,” my companion said, towelling herself down in the lobby afterwards. “The guy playing Johnny was fine, but everyone in that audience had the image of Patrick Swayze in their mind’s eye.”
She was right, of course. The 1987 movie made Swayze’s name as an actor who brought a kind of loopy intensity to unpromising B-movie material, elevating it into pop-culture immortality, whether it was Dirty Dancing’s hackneyed coming-of-age story or the bonkers F.B.I.-rookie-infiltrates-surf-dude-bank-heist-gang set-up of 1991’s Point Break. It didn’t hurt that he’d studied at the Joffrey and Harkness ballet schools in New York before turning to acting, and exuded physical grace in all his roles, whether he was quick-stepping, brawling, or wave-riding. It also didn’t hurt that, with his tousled coif, sharp cheekbones, nutritious demeanour, and penchant for denim jackets with rolled-up sleeves, he could have been the fourth member of the wholesome Nordic pop trio A-ha. But it was his ability to deliver ironic T-shirt-ready lines like “Pain don’t hurt” (Road House, 1989) or “It’s not tragic to die doing what you love” (Point Break) completely deadpan, without a trace of self-consciousness or a knowing wink, that was really winning. While his peers got tangled up in Method madness or phoned in their performances, Swayze exuded a kind of artless sincerity with every take. And in an era when most actors who rose to the bedroom-poster level of fame played either to the girls (Rob Lowe, Michael J. Fox) or the guys (Arnie, Stallone, et al), Swayze’s appeal transcended gender. Women could fantasise about mambo-ing with him at the Sheldrake (and obviously still do), while men could imagine him as a clued-up, hard-knocked but Zenned-out big brother. “People don’t identify with victims,” he once said in an interview with the Associated Press. “They identify with people who have the world come down on their heads, and who fight to survive.”