Patrick Swayze (AP Photo/Wally Fong)
For many of us who were young women in 1987, there's no romantic movie that will ever live up to Dirty Dancing – and no romantic leading man who will ever hold a candle to Patrick Swayze.
Swayze, who would have celebrated his 61st birthday today, played dance instructor/bad-boy-with-a-heart-of-gold Johnny Castle in the ultimate summer-romance flick. Jennifer Grey was Baby, his dance student and love interest, and the young woman we most wanted to be that summer. The iconic pair inspired us in so many ways: we tried new dance moves, found ourselves listening to the hits of the 1960s, cut off our jeans to imitate Baby's knee-length shorts, and – of course – dreamed of finding a guy who could sweep us off our feet just like Johnny Castle.
Movie review sites will tell you that Dirty Dancing has done better as a video release than it did in theaters. That may be, and it's great to see today's teenagers getting into the movie more than 25 years later, but those of us who were around in 1987 know it was best in the theater – and we flocked to it. Among my group of friends, I was the straggler, only going to see the movie on the big screen once. Others saw it over and over, and one of my classmates was notorious for catching Dirty Dancing in the theater more than 30 times. She might have told her parents she was developing an interest in dance, but the rest of us knew the truth… the main interest she was developing was in Patrick Swayze.
Swayze's roles before Dirty Dancing had gotten him noticed – he played tough kids in The Outsiders and Red Dawn, and a Confederate soldier in North and South – but they hadn't showcased the fact that he was more than an actor. Dirty Dancing gave the classically trained dancer his first big chance to show off his moves. But the role almost didn't go to Swayze. The casting team's first choice was Billy Zane, in keeping with the original vision of Johnny Castle as Italian. But when Zane's early tests showed just about zero chemistry while dancing with Jennifer Grey, they gave Swayze a try. His agent was skeptical, but Swayze liked the idea of a dance-driven film. And when he got together with Grey to try a dance or two, their chemistry was off the charts. The casting choice was clear.
Swayze's performance as Castle alternated tough-guy appeal with swoon-worthy tenderness, spiced by some seriously sexy dancing. With it, he won the hearts of a generation of young women. His romantic-lead cachet was further enhanced three years later when he starred in Ghost. The latter won Swayze a Golden Globe and was a memorable performance, but for those of us who love to see him dance, there was something missing. He could turn all the pottery in the world, but it's just not the same as his unmatchable cha-cha.
Swayze had a cameo in the 2004 "re-imagining" Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights – but the movie hasn't had nearly the enduring cult appeal of its predecessor, and has mostly been written off as an unnecessary sequel. Yet another reboot is in the works at Lionsgate, with a possible release in 2014. We'll excuse it if it, too, slumps in comparison to the original. It will be missing one crucial, irreplaceable element: Patrick Swayze.
Written by Linnea Crowther