When Patrick Swayze died on September 14, 2009 at the age of 57, it was a tough blow for a lot of fans. The Texas native was a natural movie star, with seemingly effortless big screen charisma.
Like Burt Reynolds, Swayze had an easy going southern charm, and like Travolta, he had an edge over many A-list stars because he was a great dancer as well. Swayze was acting in features and television since the late ’70s, but he finally broke through to the big time with "Dirty Dancing," one of the biggest, memorable, and surprising hits of the ’80s.
Then at the dawn of the ’90s, Swayze was in another smash, "Ghost," a supernatural romance that hit the zeitgeist in a big way, and made a fortune. It also featured one of the most memorable scenes in cinema history, the pottery scene with Swayze and Demi Moore, which showed that sculpting clay can be sexy.
When you look at Swayze’s career, he had a remarkably varied filmography full of sleepers, hits and misses of many genres, cult classics, guilty pleasures, and crowd-pleasing popcorn pictures. Here’s the films where he had the most prominent roles, ranked from worst to best.
31. Skatetown U.S.A.
"Skatetown U.S.A.," released in 1979, was Columbia’s attempt to cash in on the roller disco trend. Yet by the time "Skatetown,"and its rival film, "Roller Boogie," hit theaters, disco had already died an ugly death, and both movies tanked. "Skatetown U.S.A." disappeared from theaters quickly.
"Skatetown U.S.A." featured a large C-list cast including Scott Baio, Ron Palillo (Horsshack from "Welcome Back Kotter"), Maureen McCormick (aka Marcia Brady), The Unknown Comic, Billy Barty, and more. Here Swayze, plays a tough guy who always wins the roller disco competition, until a new hot shot on the block threatens to take away his crown.
While the film is indeed dreck, Swayze does a unique roller disco dance that shows he had the moves even back then. It’s a highlight in a movie that most involved would probably prefer you’d forget.
30. Christmas In Wonderland
"Christmas in Wonderland" is a long forgotten, little seen, critically hammered Swayze film. Clearly audiences and critics were not in the holiday mood for this one, a Christmas comedy that takes place almost entirely in a shopping mall. It may not be Swayze’s worst reviewed movie, but that doesn’t mean it was well received.
Like "Home Alone," "Christmas in Wonderland" is a holiday caper film, but with less than stellar results. One reviewer called it "truly execrable," and beseeched Swayze fans to "do yourself a favor and rent ‘Point Break’ instead." Radio Times also wrote that "Swayze is given little to work with," and Tim Curry took "[a] charmless turn as a Royal Mountie with an inexplicable Scot’s accent[.]"
29. Tiger Warsaw
"Tiger Warsaw" may be one of Swayze’s worst received films among fans, although it’s hard to imagine it being worse than "Skatetown U.S.A." It also apparently came out the same year he finally had his big screen breakthrough with "Dirty Dancing," showing how an actor’s career can go from the ridiculous to the sublime.
In "Warsaw," Swayze plays a drug addict who shot his father and left him disabled. Swayze returns to his hometown 15 years later, hoping for forgiveness for his self-destructive ways. The cast also featured Piper Laurie ("Carrie"), Lee Richardson as Swayze’s estranged father, and Mary McDonnell ("Independence Day," "Donnie Darko").
28. Father Hood
"Father Hood" is one of Swayze’s worst received films. "Father Hood" is a cross country comedy about a criminal and his family (with the latter point easy to infer from the title), a scenario we’ve seen countless times in countless other comedies.
The Seattle Times lamented, "Despite its best intentions, ‘Father Hood’ is destined to become leftovers in the video store." Variety called it "a train wreck from start to finish," but the LA Times noted, "you can get a real life out of the landscapes, the crisp sunlight splayed over gas stations and billboards, and the cannonade of ’50s and ’60s rock oldies."
27. Tall Tale: The Unbelievable Adventures of Pecos Bill
"Tall Tale" isn’t exactly a historical film, but it’s a family adventure from Disney about a child trying to save the family farm from being taken over. In comes great western legends Pecos Bill (played by Swayze), John Henry, Calamity Jane, and Paul Bunyon.
While this sounds like a real fun premise, the movie apparently didn’t deliver on it. People wrote, "Dang if Disney’s latest for kids doesn’t seem like ‘The Wizard of Oz’ in chaps, sharing that classic’s structure but minus its imagination, charm and songs." The New York Times also lamented, "This is not the stuff of which legends are made."
26. Letters From a Killer
While Patrick Swayze has done a lot of good work, like many an actor, he’s also done films that were doomed for home video obscurity (then, after video stores disappeared, just obscurity). "Letters From a Killer" is one of those films, as you can probably guess from the hackneyed title.
In "Letters from a Killer," Swayze is on death row for a murder he didn’t commit, and he hopes to get out of jail by corresponding with people on the outside, baring his soul on tape. The tapes work and get him released, but they also make him prone to blackmail.
25. Three Wishes
In "Three Wishes," a cheerful family movie, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio accidentally hits a drifter, played by Swayze, and she takes him in to heal from the accident. After spending some time with the family, he becomes a good influence and a father figure to her children.
Reviews for the film weren’t stellar, ultimately chalking it up to a standard issue feel good movie, and not much more. Roger Ebert noted it "tugs at our hearts, but by the end, I was tugging back. The movie lays it on so thick that even with the best will in the world, I couldn’t go along on its slow and soppy ride."
24. One Last Dance
"One Last Dance" was written and directed by Lisa Niemi, Swayze’s wife, clearly as a vehicle where they could work and dance together. The threadbare plot deals with three dancers who reconnect with their passion when they get together to save their mentor’s dance studio.
The film was also notable in that Patsy Swayze, Patrick’s mother, was the choreographer, but beyond that, it remains one of a number of Patrick Swayze movies that haven’t been widely seen.
"Jump!" tackles much more serious fare than usual Swayze films. A British–Austrian co-production, "Jump!" is based on a true event about an Austrian boy on trial for murdering his father in 1928. (The real-life case was the Halsman trial, where photographer Philppe Halsman was alleged to committing patricide).
Swayze plays Richard Pressberger, a Jewish lawyer who believes the judge in the case is anti-semitic, and he must continue to defend his client or be held in contempt of court, despite the case feeling rigged. The film is clearly based on an important event, but neither the event nor the film got the attention it needed in modern times.
22. Waking Up in Reno
"Waking Up in Reno" is a comedy about two lovers played by Charlize Theron ("Mad Max: Fury Road") and Billy Bob Thornton ("Sling Blade"), who are nuts about each other. The problem is they’re married to other people, Patrick Swayze and Natasha Richardson. The foursome then end up traveling cross country, and the usual romantic comedy fare ensues.
It’s clearly a scenario that’s been done many times in previous comedies, but it didn’t come together in "Reno," which was widely derided by critics. The Chicago Reader called it a "bubba comedy," and Variety calling it "a hillbilly romantic comedy in which the hillbillies show up but the romance and comedy never do."
21. George and the Dragon
"George and the Dragon" is a story that’s been told many times, where a knight takes on a dragon. In the film, George, played by James Purefoy, is an English knight who tries to settle down after the crusades and live a quiet life, but then he’s sent to find a missing princess … which leads to him crossing paths with the titular dragon. Swayze plays Garth, the princess’s fiancé. As we’ve seen in many stories like this, he’s the typical haughty and huffy prince who ends up losing the girl to a character with a kinder heart.
"George and the Dragon" was created by the Syfy Channel. One review compared it to "The Princess Bride" and noted "[the] characters are fun and the good actors make the production standards higher than the usual Syfy fare."
20. Forever Lulu
"Forever Lulu" is a comedy where Melanie Griffith plays a schizophrenic woman who flees a mental ward and heads to Los Angeles. Swayze is a long-lost boyfriend, with whom she finds out they have child given up for adoption a long time ago. They go on a road trip to meet up with him for his 16th birthday.
Clearly a storyline like this needs a deft touch, which the critics didn’t feel "Forever Lulu" had. It was poorly reviewed and quickly forgotten. Variety called it a "wannabe romantic comedy" that was "chock full of phony sentiment … Griffith and [the] mostly baffled Swayze develop minimal chemistry about an hour in … but the final reels sink in a morass of self-confession and tearful cuddling to Serge Colbert’s saccharine score."
19. Black Dog
Trucker stories can be hit and miss at the box office. With "Smokey and the Bandit," they were big business, and cashed in mightily on the CB craze. "Black Dog" wasn’t as lucky.
In "Black Dog," Swayze plays an ex-con who gets pushed into an under the table trucking gig, yet the truck is filled with volatile illegal weapons, and soon everyone, from the bad guys to the feds, are after him in a harrowing chase. While it sounds like a great premise for a movie, it just didn’t deliver with the public or the critics, ultimately being written off as standard issue action fare.
18. Steel Dawn
Dystopian movies have been very popular as of late in the wake of "The Hunger Games." They were also big in the ’80s in the wake of the success of "Mad Max." Swayze starred in his own version of "Mad Max," "Steel Dawn," but it didn’t drive audiences or critics mad. In fact, it practically feels like a silly direct to video action film, the kind of film that’s mercilessly mocked on "Mystery Science Theater 3000."
In "Steel Dawn," Swayze is a quasi-samurai warrior, wearing a silly costume perfect for a hair band, slicing his sword around in a post-World War III wasteland. "Steel Dawn" is notable, however, for casting Swayze’s wife Lisa Niemi as the film’s heroine and romantic interest — and it’s doubtful either regretted working together on this one, despite the results.
17. Keeping Mum
With a title like "Keeping Mum" and Rowan Atkinson in the starring role, you know you’re in for some cheeky British comedy. In "Keeping Mum," Swayze is part of an ensemble that features Atkinson, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Maggie Smith.
Here Swayze plays a golf teacher who’s seducing Atkinson’s wife away from him. Atkinson’s got other problems with his family, and then finally Smith arrives as a new housekeeper who can hopefully right the ship.
Critics found "Keeping Mum" to be neither fish nor fowl, a movie that tries to be a dark comedy, but it didn’t quite hit the target. There were critics that liked it, including Richard Roeper, who called it "one of the funniest films to come out of England in years," and The Denver Post, who called it "an endearing hoot."
16. Green Dragon
"Green Dragon" is a Vietnam war drama. Swayze plays Sargent Jim Lance, and it tells the story from the Vietnamese point of view, which clearly separates it from many Vietnam films. While some critics found the film overly sentimental, others found it a compelling look at the war from a perspective we hadn’t seen in films before.
The Dallas Morning News called it, "Earnest, unsubtle and Hollywood predictable," but that the film "is still a deeply moving effort to put a human face on the travails of thousands of Vietnamese." The New York Post called it "a lyrical, bittersweet film about what could be termed a by-product of battle," while other publications, like Newsday, felt the film indulged in too much "soapy bathos."
15. City of Joy
"City of Joy" was helmed by Roland Joffe, who directed the acclaimed film "The Killing Fields." This film stars Swayze as Max Lowe, a doctor working in Calcutta. Max tries to help people in the "city of joy," which is considered the poorest slum in the area. Max ultimately ends up helping a man after he’s been brutally mugged, and helps him restart his life when he heals.
"City of Joy" was clearly made in the Merchant Ivory/Richard Attenborough mold, but for many critics, it tried too hard. Yet Joffe clearly had enough faith in Swayze as a performer to give him a starring role in a serious story that’s not in his normal wheelhouse, and Swayze also clearly took risks with his acting when he could have safely done films like "Road House" his whole career.
14. Powder Blue
"Powder Blue" was Swayze’s last film. Even after he went public with his diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, he kept working as long as he could — yet his last film, sadly, was not stellar.
Swayze co-starred with Jessica Biel ("7th Heaven"), Ray Liotta ("Goodfellas"), and Lisa Kudrow ("Friends"), "Powder Blue" is about a hitman trying to reconnect with his daughter, and critics thought it was a weak rip-off of Best Picture winner "Crash." The Village Voice called is "a movie full of egregiously overdramatic stupidities," and Variety felt "blue" was "another Los Angeles-set, multistrand drama [that] ‘Crash’-es and burns."
13. Grandview U.S.A.
Every actor has movies practically everybody knows, and movies that are forgotten. "Grandview U.S.A." is one of Swayze’s early career obscurities, with Jamie Lee Curtis falling for two demolition derby drivers, played by C. Thomas Howell and Swayze.
Being torn between two lovers in a demolition derby didn’t light the box office on fire, and critics weren’t crazy about it either. Creative Loafing noted that "Swayze manages to create some sympathy for his character, but everything else about this picture, from the tepid romantic triangle to the awkward music-video segments, barely rises above silly," and Reel Film Reviews called it "a forgettable bit of ’80s nostalgia."
12. Next of Kin
"Next of Kin" was a drama with a great ensemble cast featuring Swayze, Liam Neeson, Adam Baldwin, Helen Hunt, and Bill Paxton.
The film deals with a murder in a cop’s family, with two sides conflicting over how to handle the killing. The three brothers are played by Swayze, Neeson and Paxton, and when Paxton is murdered by a gangster, Neeson wants revenge (which seems fitting considering his recent action career), while Swayze wants the police to handle it. When Neesen’s character gets killed, the game changes considerably.
While "Next of Kin" wasn’t a big action hit, critics and audiences found it entertaining enough, if not stellar. Reel Film Reviews called it "erratic yet entertaining," and Blu-Ray.com noted it "isn’t a dazzling picture, but there’s personality about it that eases the blow of idiocy."
11. To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar
In 1994, audiences were delighted with "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert," a hilarious Australian comedy about a group of drag queens. In 1995 came an American drag comedy, "To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar."
Swayze clearly liked to take risks as an actor, and playing in a drag queen ensemble with Wesley Snipes and John Leguizamo was a bold career reinvention. But even with this cast and an outrageous premise, audiences and critics weren’t as charmed as they were with "Priscilla."
The New York Daily News wrote, "’To Wong Foo’ is worthwhile if only for the performances, which are surprisingly good." Janet Maslin of the New York Times, however, felt the directing was flat "even when the actors are funny," and that the script was weak. And Transgender Tapestry felt the film "had its heart in the right place," but that the film’s tone was confused.
By the time Swayze did the 1986 hockey drama "Youngblood," he was still a few years away from his big screen breakthrough, and Rob Lowe was the new heart-throb on the block.
"Youngblood" is a standard sports story we’ve seen many times. It follows a young up-and-coming athlete trying to prove himself and break through, while dealing with a dirty player who wants to see him fail. Similar to "Rocky," Lowe does some heavy-duty training for a big rematch that will hopefully set things right.
9. Uncommon Valor
While "Red Dawn" is probably Swayze’s best known war film, he also starred in "Uncommon Valor," which Paramount released in 1983. Starring Gene Hackman, Robert Stack and Fred Ward, the film deals with a Colonel who believes his son is still alive as a prisoner of war, and he assembles a crack team to find him in Laos. (The "Missing in Action" films would cover a similar theme to greater success.)
The film was not a hit with critics, with Roger Ebert noting, "The basic idea of ‘Uncommon Valor’ is so interesting that it’s all they can do to make a routine formula movie out of it. But they do." Yet years later, Brian Mckay of eFilmCritic called it a "cliched, much-maligned but enjoyable post-Vietnam war movie [with an] enjoyable ensemble led by Gene Hackman."
8. The Outsiders
"The Outsiders" was one of many great teen novels written by S.E. Hinton, and it was directed by Francis Ford Coppola, who gave us the immortal "Godfather" films. Like "The Godfather," which featured many great actors that subsequently broke through to the big time, "The Outsiders" also featured Patrick Swayze, Matt Dillon, C. Thomas Howell, Ralph Macchio, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, and Tom Cruise. Swayze was still several years away from becoming a big star, but "The Outsiders" was clearly a big step forward in his career.
"The Outsiders" dealt with young teens on the verge of adulthood in rival groups, the Greasers and the Socs, and how their rivalry eventually leads to tragedy. "The Outsiders" is also another film that has gotten better reception with time. The critical and box office reception upon its release was mediocre, with Variety calling it "Well acted and crafted, but highly conventional," and Time lamenting that "the picture never manages to reach the peaks of satisfying Hollywood melodrama."
And while Coppola was a big favorite to direct Hinton’s beloved novel, The Hollywood Reporter felt "it may be a case of the wrong man for the job, since [the] overall film plays unevenly, with a cliché and detached ambiance that robs the plotline of what passion it might have whipped up." It has since become a cult classic.
7. Red Dawn
"Red Dawn" is a better remembered film today, but it was the subject of controversy in 1984 for its perceived jingoism and right-wing politics. "Red Dawn" deals with the Russians invading the US and taking over, and follows a group of teens who gather together to fight through guerilla warfare.
"Dawn" was written and directed by the legendary John Milius, who also wrote "Jeremiah Johnson" and "Apocalypse Now," and is a well-known conservative. The film’s tone and violence took a lot of heat, but "Red Dawn" provided big featured roles for Swayze — as well as C. Thomas Howell, Charlie Sheen, Lea Thompson, and his future "Dirty Dancing" co-star Jennifer Grey as they were all breaking into the business.
Critics liked the action scenes, but had problems in other areas. The Hollywood Reporter felt "it packs plenty of rabble-rousing ammunition, but it’s sloppy execution is unlikely to win any merit badges for marksmanship." Film Freak Central called it "the stupidest/smartest movie of 1984," while another modern critic, Scott Weinberg, wrote, "C’mon: ‘The Dirty Dozen’ meets ‘The Breakfast Club’? That’s just awesome."
Despite the reviews and the criticism of the film’s politics, "Red Dawn" did well at the box office – and whatever controversy the film generated, its cast came out unscathed.
6. Road House
"Road House" was Swayze’s follow up to "Dirty Dancing," and while no one would ever confuse it with "Citizen Kane," it was a big crowd pleasing hit that delivered a lot of fun. Think "Smokey and the Bandit" without the truck convoy. In "Road House," Swayze plays one of the best bouncers in the business as he’s called in to try and bring a wild bar under control. But the bar is run by some rough folks as well, who prove dangerous in their own right. And indeed, it’s totally the kind of film Burt Reynolds would have had a big hit with in the ’70’s, similar to "Hooper."
"Road House" was not a critical darling, with many reviewers finding it dumb and excessively violent. That said, many found it a guilty pleasure that can be a real hoot if you don’t take it terribly seriously.
5. Point Break
A wild action thriller that became a cult classic from cable and video, "Point Break" is a unique crime story of a gang of surfing bank robbers led by Swayze, with Keanu Reeves as the FBI agent itching to nail them. In the film, Swayze describes skydiving as "100% pure adrenaline," and while the movie doesn’t exactly deliver that, it’s still a fun and respectable action yarn.
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, who became to first woman to win Best Director for "The Hurt Locker," "Break" has many of her trademarks as a filmmaker: A wild storyline, harsh violence, well-crafted action sequences, and unique characters.
"Point Break" is one of those films that has grown better with time, and has a sizable cult following today. Critical reaction was certainly better than "Road House," but similarly, you’re advised not to take it too seriously.
The Hollywood Reporter noted, "While the critics may yammer, ‘Point Break’ delivers the thrills, spills and crunches its action-hungry audience demands," while Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader quipped, "We might as well be watching a blissed-out Bill and Ted caper." As if that’s a bad thing.
4. Donnie Darko
You may have forgotten that Patrick Swayze was in the bizarre cult classic "Donnie Darko," but he did indeed have a juicy cameo in the film as a heavy-handed motivational speaker. The AV Club called "Darko" "the quintessential cult movie of the last 20 years," and it took some time to find its audience after it flopped in theaters.
Ever since John Travolta had his big comeback with "Pulp Fiction," many major actors have done irreverent low budget films, sometimes to start over and hopefully revive their career. Some actors love to play crazy roles in smaller films where they can go over the top, and some actors do smaller indies to stay hip with younger audiences. In "Donnie Darko," Swayze plays Jim Cunningham, who’s clearly a shyster, lecturing teens about the evils of drugs and how to navigate growing pains.
A bizarre debut film written and directed by Richard Kelly, similar to the dark oddness of David Lynch, "Darko" has gained largely good reviews in recent years when initially critics didn’t know what to make of it. Film critic Nick Schrager noted that the film "Defines itself through sustained mood, otherworldly intrigue and deep, abiding humanism."
"Rashomon" is a classic Akira Kurosawa film that shows a crime from three different perspectives, and the viewer has to figure out which version is true. "11:14" had a similar theme, with an accident happening at 11:14, shown from five different points of view.
Swayze was part of a strong ensemble cast that included Henry Thomas, Barbara Hershey, Hilary Swank, Colin Hanks and more. Reviews were largely positive, with Combustible Celluloid noting "the solid screenplay satisfyingly clicks everything together, unraveling little mysteries as it goes and leaving nothing hanging," and the San Francisco Chronicle calling it "an inventive black comedy." It also has Swayze’s highest tomato score on Rotten Tomatoes.
2. Dirty Dancing
The film that finally broke Swayze through and made him a big screen star, "Dirty Dancing" was a surprise hit. Swayze and co-Star Jennifer Grey had dynamite onscreen chemistry, where a good girl and a bad boy get together through the sensual power of dance.
When asked about the film’s enduring appeal, Swayze told AFI, "It’s got so much heart, to me. It’s not about the sensuality it’s really about people trying to find themselves, this young dance instructor feeling like he’s nothing but a product, and this young girl trying to find out who she is in a society of restrictions when she has such an amazing take on things."
Reviews were mostly positive, if often backhanded, with The LA Times calling it "smart and funny, touching and unabashedly sensual," while Variety noted that "good production values, some nice dance sequences and a likable performance by Grey make the film more than watchable."
"Ghost" is probably the best reviewed and most successful Patrick Swayze hit, and the drama with a spiritual bent that hit the zeitgeist in a big way upon its 1990 release. In the clever script written by Bruce Joel Rubin ("Deep Impact"), and deftly directed by Jerry Zucker ("Airplane!"), Sam (Swayze) dies, but is still stuck on earth. While his spirit is still here, he helps solve a crime, has a romantic pottery session with his widow, and finally gives their relationship closure when his spirit is ready to move on to the next level.
"Ghost" deftly combined many genres together into a pleasing box office hit. It has great moments of comedy, horror, and romance, all melded into a wonderfully crowd-pleasing mix. In addition to the strong storyline, "Ghost" also had a great featured performance from Whoopi Goldberg, who plays a fake medium who suddenly realizes she can actually communicate with Swayze’s spirit.
The Philadelphia Inquirer called it "remarkably appealing on a purely personal level," and Empire called it "one of the finest (and weepiest) love stories ever to hit the big screen. Ghost is a fundamental human tale that touches the hardest part."