Patrick Swayze may have had the time of his life on the dance floor — but the path that led him there wasn’t always filled with such stunning lifts.
He went on to make a permanent mark in dance history in 1987’s romantic drama film Dirty Dancing with Jennifer Grey, before taking over Hollywood as one of the top leading men of the 80s and 90s, starring in classics like 1990’s Ghost and 1990’s Point Break.
But his talents were robbed from the world when he succumbed to pancreatic cancer and died on September 14, 2009, at the age of 57.
Swayze was raised in the dance studio
Born August 18, 1952 in Houston, Texas, Swayze was literally raised in a dance studio run by his mother Patsy Swayze, who died in 2013. “Didn’t believe in babysitters,” she said in a Biography special. “Took all my babies with me to work. They grew up in a playpen in the dance studio.”
By the age of three, young Swayze was already taking ballet classes — and starting to add on extracurricular activities in every realm throughout his childhood. “He wanted to do everything. He was a skater, a swimmer, involved in all the Little League sports, baseball, football, studied dancing every day, he played the violin, sang in the school choir, did the leads in the school plays from junior high up,” his mother said. “I guess you could call him hyper, but he just has to be busy all the time.”
Swayze himself attributed that drive to his mother, having said, “My mother has so many abilities on so many levels. She was an ice skater, she was a roller skater, she was a swimmer, she was a gymnast, she was a diver, she was a dancer. She wanted all of us to achieve those same levels and hopefully surpass her. We weren’t long on having much free time in my household.”
He was bullied for being a dancer
As he reached his teen years, balancing all the activities became more challenging and he especially got taunted for his dancing.
“He had his dance shoes in one hand and a violin in the other and these three boys were waiting for him,” his brother Don Swayze told Biography of a particular school incident. “[They] said something to the effect of ‘Hey, twinkle your toes for us, pretty boy.’”
His mother was always there with advice. “I said, ‘Just take the ballet shoes out of your hip pocket and beat the snuff out of them,’ so he went to the coach and went to the gym and asked to see them one by one with the boxing gloves, and I, frankly, think that ended that.”
Swayze's mother 'could be very violent'
While his mother’s advice may not have been the peaceful way to end things, that reportedly wasn’t the only incident of her tough nature.
“One thing you didn’t do was cross Patsy,” Swayze’s childhood friend Larry Ward told Biography. “When Patsy said be in by midnight, by golly, don’t make it 12:01 or she’d have this finger right here cocked and loaded.”
Her strict nature came to a peak on Swayze’s 18th birthday when she was “laying into him,” as his widow Lisa Niemi, reveals in a new documentary, I Am Patrick Swayze. While she didn’t get into the specifics of the reportedly abusive incident, Swayze’s father, Jesse, stepped in and said he would file for divorce if she ever repeated any threats like that. Niemi told People, “She never hit him after that.”
But in the documentary, Niemi does note that it was exactly what happens in “families with a cycle of abuse.” She went on to say that his mother “could be very violent, but it was nothing compared to what she endured growing up and the stories I heard about what she went through with her own mother.”
“He always thought Mom was so strict and so hard on him,” his brother Don added in the documentary. “But the way I saw it she just used that to spur him on. He was everything to my mother.” Niemi, who met Swayze as a dancer in his mother’s studio when she was 15 and married him in 1975, did go on to add, “He became very aware of the positive and the negative aspects of how he was raised...if somebody pushes you that hard, like his mom did, it could make some people cave, but it made him fight harder.”
“She was a complicated woman, intense and an amazing life force,” Niemi said to People. ”Patrick absolutely loved and respected her.”
The dancer almost had his leg amputated
The same year of the reported incident with his mom when he was 18, he suffered a major injury to his left leg during the second to last football game of his senior year. While he had been leaning toward choosing the gridiron over the arts, the incident led him to transfer his energy to gymnastics — and use dance as a method of therapy to strengthen his body.
Finding success in the dance world, he trained with the Harkness and Joffrey Ballet companies in New York City and became a principal dancer with the Eliot Feld Ballet Company.
But then another health setback came. In 1976, what started as a tooth abscess led to a staph infection in his bloodstream, which unfortunately settled right in his bad leg. There was only one week for doctors to take action before it needed to be amputated, but fortunately, he was saved. “That was a miraculous one to make it through,” Swayze said.
Having conquered one challenging setback over another, he eventually found his way to Broadway stardom and then the big screen — leaving a lasting impression as one of the greatest dancers who ever graced the silver screen.