He may have lost his father in 1982, but Patrick Swayze never forgot him, and never stopped trying to make him proud. In that respect, the late actor’s memoir, The Time of My Life, cowritten with his wife, Lisa Niemi, is his crowning achievement. The two lessons communicated throughout the book, as well as in Swayze’s life, are the ones his father taught him: Having a gentle side doesn’t make you less of a man, it makes you a better one; and you might not always win, but you never, ever give up.
Here, 10 memorable stories from The Time of My Life.
1. Swayze grew up taking dance classes at his mother’s Houston studio – and being bullied. Around the age of 12, five boys jumped him at once. Seeing his cuts, his father, Jesse Wayne Swayze, a onetime rodeo champion and Golden Gloves boxer, finally taught Patrick hand-to-hand combat (the son had also just started studying martial arts). A couple months later, Jesse drove Patrick to school and told the football coach he wanted him to pull those five boys out of class so they could “settle this thing” in the weight shack by the football field – only this time, they’d fight Patrick one at a time. Patrick sent them each home bloody and bruised. It wasn’t the last time fists would fly. Everyone wanted to fight the new “tough guy” – especially since he was carrying ballet shoes and a violin case. His dad told him, “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.”
2. Swayze made his feature film debut as the leather-clad leader of a roller-disco gang in 1979’s Skatetown, USA. The role he really wanted, however, was John Travolta’s in Urban Cowboy, the film his mother and wife were choreographing in his hometown. “As soon as [Skatetown] wrapped, I flew down to Houston to join Lisa. One night we ended up hanging out with John and teaching him a few steps, which frustrated me even more,” Swayze writes. “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.”
3. Filming The Outsiders, director Francis Ford Coppola would do whatever it took to bring out the most realistic emotions possible, Swayze writes, whether that meant orchestrating an actual rumble (“the really interesting thing was that all of Greasers stuck together, watching each other’s backs like this was a real gang fight”) or just getting the actors’ blood to boil. “He’d talk to you and draw you out, finding your deepest, darkest secrets. Then, on set, he’d announce them over a loudspeaker for everyone to hear.”
4. Red Dawn was even more intense. Director John Milius put his actors through a training camp that culminated in a giant game of Capture the Flag with National Guard Troops. (The Wolverines won.) To lighten the mood on set – and to take advantage of all the handy explosives – Swayze would prank Milius. “One time, I rigged the toilet in his trailer with charges – M60s, which are like one-eighth-size sticks of dynamite…. When Milius went in to do his business, I detonated them – and the explosion sent him running out the door in a panic. He’d barely gotten the words ‘Swayze, you son of a –’ out of his mouth when I set off a second round of explosives, blowing two garbage cans sky-high and scaring the s— out of him.”
5. Swayze has plenty of great memories of shooting the TV miniseries North and South. He wore a woolen uniform for 18 hours a day during the South Carolina summer (he fainted once, smacking his face on a cement column on the way down and breaking his nose). The cast going out to dinner with costar Lesley-Anne Down, who always paid because, he assumed, she wanted to spend her soon-to-be ex-husband William Friedkin’s money. The best story, though, could be the one he doesn’t remember. Down invited the cast, including Swayze and David Carradine, to her penthouse suite for drinks. As she would tell Patrick the next morning, “You and David were out on that tiny ledge, outside the window, doing karate [Kata, a form of slow-motion shadow boxing, actually] with bottles of Crown Royal in your hand. I was scared to death!” As Swayze writes, “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.”
6. Finally, on page 136, Swayze writes something truly controversial while describing the making of Dirty Dancing: “I felt all along that Johnny should ultimately end up with Penny, as they were so much alike and a more realistic couple than Johnny and Baby. That change got overruled, which was probably for the best. But when some on the set suggested I tone down the dancing with Penny early on, I put my foot down. They were worried that the dance scenes between Johnny and Penny were too sexy, that they would overshadow the later dance scenes between Johnny and Baby. I knew that wasn’t true, based on my audition with Jennifer. There was no doubt we’d be able to create the heat – and we did.”
7. Swayze was a natural athlete: In addition to dancing, he also excelled at football, gymnastics, swimming, diving, and track. But there was one thing he couldn’t master: the sharp sudden moves in the style of kickboxing pro Benny “the Jet” Urquidez tried to teach him for his fight scenes in Road House. That is, until Urquidez remembered that his pupil was a dancer and brought a boombox to the set and blasted “Thriller.” Swayze needed all the help he could get for his climactic fight against Navy SEAL-turned-actor Marshall Teague. The two really went after each other in that river. Teague picked up what he thought was a prop log, swung it over his head, and down across Swayze’s spine, breaking a couple of Patrick’s ribs and knocking the wind out of him. “I dropped to my hands and knees, gasping for breath, but the scene called for us to keep fighting…. When you watch this scene in the movie, the exhaustion you see on my face is absolutely real,” Swayze writes. “I barely had the strength to drag myself out of the river after that fight.”
8. Some fight scenes only hurt Swayze’s feelings. For the scene in Ghost when Sam discovers that his friend Carl (Tony Goldwyn) betrayed him, director Jerry Zucker shot each actor separately, then made it look like Swayze’s punches were going right through Goldwyn by synching the footage later with computer magic. Swayze shot the sequence in front of a curious crowd in New York’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood who only saw him yelling and screaming like a maniac. They laughed. “ ‘Shut the f— up!’ I yelled, my adrenaline pumping from the emotion of the scene. ‘You want to get out here and do this yourself? You think this is easy?’ People looked startled, but they shut up. And when we went back to shoot the scene again, you could hear a pin drop. Nobody made a peep until we finished the whole take. When Jerry yelled ‘Cut,’ the whole crowd broke into applause.”
9. Swayze speaks honestly about his battle with the bottle. For a period of almost 10 years after his father’s death, he drank “copious amounts of alcohol.” He and Lisa fought about the issue. He hardly drank at all while filming 1982’s City of Joy in Calcutta, but when that movie failed at the box office as well as critically (“Why couldn’t I pull in the level of projects I wanted, and that I seemed to have earned?”), he started drinking again. The crew on 1993’s Father Hood had trouble waking him up one morning, but he refers to the time that he kept passing out while filming a scene in the back of a car as “my most embarrassing moment of all.” When the film wrapped, he checked into a treatment facility in Tucson. Roughly a decade later, Swayze sunk into another depression fueled by the feeling that he’d lost his passion and purpose and the fear that he was never good enough. Instead of pushing those dark feelings away, he “tried to use them, to harness that energy rather than denying it.” It was too much for Lisa, and she left him one morning while he slept. For the first time publicly, they admit in the book that she kept an apartment a 20-minute drive away from their California homestead, Rancho Bizarro, for a full year, though they spoke every day. They reunited while he filmed 2004’s King Solomon’s Mines in Africa, but it wasn’t until a friend bought them a psychic consultation for Patrick’s birthday in August 2007 – and the psychic said that Lisa was already out the door again in her heart – that they had a breakthrough and felt the same level of love they’d shared when they wed in 1975. He received his cancer diagnosis in January 2008.
10. Remember June 1, 2000, when Swayze made an emergency landing in his Cessna 414a? He was flying from California to New Mexico to try to save Rancho Bizarro from raging wildfires. A month earlier, while Lisa was flying, the plane had started to lose pressurization (a situation can lead to hypoxia and death, as happened to golfer Payne Stewart). The plane had been serviced (a sticky residue on the outflow valve that was a result of the couple smoking in the cockpit was to blame). But Swayze decided to fly the plane a low altitude, thinking he was playing it safe. He remembers putting the plane on autopilot – and then waking up a couple hundred feet above the ground in Arizona. A mechanical issue, the return of the sticky residue, and the fact that Swayze’s three-pack-a-day lungs weren’t functioning at peak performance led to a crisis. He wasn’t getting enough oxygen. In fact, he shouldn’t have woken up. Since he’d had the autopilot on, he should have just stayed in the air until he ran out of fuel, then crashed. But somehow the autopilot was hit off during the flight, and, Swayze writes, “Air traffic control radar showed that between Needles and my landing in Prescott Valley, I almost hit the ground eleven times. I flew between 6,500 and 11,500 feet, narrowly missing the mountains. And my route looked like a strand of spaghetti, looping around with no purpose for about forty-five minutes. Fortunately, as I approached Prescott Valley, my plane had gently drifted lower until there was enough oxygen in the air to revive me.”
Swayze knew he had cheated death many times — surviving that flight, motorcycle accidents, horse accidents (including one that broke both his legs while filming 1998’s Letters From a Killer), that night on the ledge with David Carradine. But his final battle with pancreatic cancer was the biggest challenge. He describes his fight from the moment he felt his first symptom to the moment his mother, Patsy, found out about his diagnosis from a National Enquirer reporter who showed up at her door (he hadn’t yet told her because she was having eye surgery and needed to keep her eyes dry for a few weeks after it, so no crying), through to his struggle to film his final performance, the A&E drama series The Beast, while undergoing chemotherapy. Before he and Lisa left for that shoot in Chicago, they renewed their wedding vows: “We have ridden into the sunset on a white stallion, countless times. We’ve tasted the dust in the birthplaces of religions. Yet you still take me breath away. I’m still not complete until I look in your eyes,” his concluded. “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.”