It was one of those "Is that really him? Where's that guy been?" cameos. By the time [movieperson id="100429"]Patrick Swayze[/movieperson] popped up in 2001's cult time-travel mind-frack "Donnie Darko," he'd become something of a pop culture punch line: the dude with the half-pompadour, half-mullet hairdo who popped up every so often on TBS to argue sincerely that nobody puts Baby in a corner.
And then his "Darko" turn reminded us why we'd loved Swayze for so long, from his breakout role in the inaugural Brat Pack movie, "The Outsiders," to the badassery of "Road House" to "Point Break," which was so fantastic it should have spawned an entire copycat industry of undercover FBI/surfer-dude crime flicks. As Jim Cunningham in "Darko," Swayze stole every scene he was in as an impeccably coiffed motivational speaker who delivers his inane coinages — Anger Prisoner! Fear Instrument! — with equal parts unwavering certainty and goose-bump-inducing creepiness.
A new-millennium career renaissance was not to be. Swayze surfaced in January with an A&E police drama, "The Beast," which he continued to shoot even as he struggled with pancreatic cancer. It was a battle he lost Monday night, when the actor passed away at the age of 57.
Swayze leaves behind a roster of grade-A big-screen greatness, though. The doe-eyed, clench-jawed charisma he would bring to all his film roles was on display in one of his first, 1983's "The Outsiders." "If the fuzz show, you beat it out of there," he said to his Greasers gang, which sounds beyond silly until you hear Swayze deliver the line as the mature-beyond-his-years father figure to a future generation of Hollywood stars including Tom Cruise, Rob Lowe and Matt Dillon.
A year later, the sci-fi war movie "Red Dawn" made clear that Swayze was a true action star. Ask a fanboy for his favorite Swayze roll and you're not going to hear much talk about "Ghost." "Red Dawn" is where it's at.
Which is not to speak ill of "Ghost" and its supernatural love story. No doubt Swayze and Demi Moore sizzled in that pottery wheel scene. In another classic, half-clothed moment, Swayze hosted "Saturday Night Live" in 1990 and staged a Chippendales dance-off with Chris Farley that, for better or worse, may stand as the deceased comedian's most memorable sketch.
The fanboys cherish "Red Dawn," but "Point Break" has got to be Swayze's finest big-screen effort, if only for the scene in which Keanu Reeves jumps out of a plane without a parachute to wrestle Swayze in midair. But really, that splendid, logic-defying sequence is just one gem in a sparkling thrill fest of surfer-dude coolness.
By that point in his career, Swayze had also scored winners with "Dirty Dancing," "Road House" and others. Yet a couple of poor choices later, the actor's star had dimmed and he found himself as a drag queen in 1995's "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar": terrible title, even worse movie. Still, Swayze deserves much credit for playing against sexual preference long before it was mainstream. That the choice to portray a drag queen may have come more out of career desperation than artistic courage doesn't diminish the striking sight of Swayze in high heels, sequined dress and talk-to-the-hand sauciness. He nabbed a Golden Globe nomination for the role, one of three he'd earn over a three-decade career.
In the final act of his career, Swayze became as well known for his public courage in the face of terminal illness as he had for his various romances and fist fights onscreen. When "The Beast" premiered early in the year, it seemed the actor was on the comeback trail. Another renaissance was not to be.