According to Biography, Patrick Swayze was first a dancer and gymnast before joining Disney on Parade as Snow White’s Prince Charming. From there, he moved to NYC but was unable to fully pursue a career in professional dance due to a knee injury. It was during his 1978 replacement role as Danny in Grease’s original Broadway run that the television and film industry began to take notice.
His first film credit was Skatetown, USA with Flip Wilson, Maureen McCormick, and Scott Baio. The movie looks like the love child of The Warriors and Xanadu. I won’t subject you to a review of that movie (mostly because I don’t want to subject myself) but here’s a video of Swayze’s performance.
Swayze didn’t perform in another major motion picture until 1983’s The Outsiders. Between Skatetown, USA and The Outsiders, he made a handful of TV Movies, performed as a dancer in Toto’s “Rosanna” music video, and landed a guest starring role on a 1981 episode of M*A*S*H, “Blood Brothers.”
In this truly heartbreaking episode, Swayze plays an injured soldier with an even more injured buddy. Swayze spends most of the episode agonizing over whether or not his friend will pull through. Swayze and his pal are the same blood type (hence the episode’s title), so he volunteers to supply blood for his friend’s transfusion.
When he takes a blood sample, Hawkeye discovers that Swayze’s character has leukemia. Hawkeye and Honeycutt agonize over whether or not to tell him of their discovery, which is shocking to me. I didn’t grow up in the 1950s and have certainly never been in a MASH unit, but did doctors seriously not tell their patients things like that??????
The soldier becomes suspicious after a nurse takes several blood samples and Hawkeye tells him they’re moving him to Tokyo General. So Hawkeye finally comes clean.
It’s surprising that this is such an early film credit for Swayze because he seems so comfortable being vulnerable and raw in this episode. (Contrast this with Ted Danson’s fairly wooden performance on Laverne & Shirley around the same time.) And yes, Swayze certainly had a lot of performance experience from an early age in dance and, eventually, theater, but those mediums allow for a certain distance between the performer and the audience and require a different range of facial expression. That Swayze was able to transition between mediums so seamlessly, and seems utterly at rase with emoting to a camera lense in a tight shot, is truly remarkable.
Swayze’s soldier spends the entire night talking with the MASH unit’s priest and decides to stay by his friend’s bedside rather than go to Tokyo General for most-likely futile treatment. Swayze’s performance is made all the more poignant by his eventual real-life diagnosis with pancreatic cancer to which he would succumb in 2009.
Join me next week for Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders.
For further reading on Patrick Swayze’s musical theater performances, see “Patrick Swayze, Song-and-Dance Man” from NPR’s Day to Day.