ValueSpeak
A Weekly Column
By Joseph Walker

LARGER THAN LIFE

The first time I saw Patrick Swayze he was saving a man from a beating.

It was pretty heroic stuff.  See, this one really bad guy was about to lay into this other defenseless, gentle soul with a whip, and Swayze came up from behind and grabbed the bad guy’s arm just as he was swinging it forward.  Harsh words were exchanged, but eventually the whip ended up in Swayze’s hand and the bad guy cowered off into the darkness.

Then the director yelled: “Cut!”

OK, yeah.  It was on a movie set.  Actually, it was on a South Carolina plantation that was serving as a location for the production of the TV miniseries “North & South.”  But even though the dialogue was scripted and the dramatic confrontation had been meticulously staged (“Grab his arm with your left hand, Patrick – that’ll keep you more open to the camera”), Swayze seemed . . . I don’t know . . . heroic.  Courageous.  Bold.  Larger than life.

That impression was solidified later that evening, when the visiting television critics (of which I was one) were invited to a social function with the production cast and crew.  I attended many such functions during my six years as a television critic, and they were always a little awkward.  Not being a drinker, I didn’t really fit in with those who were partying noisily at the bar.  And being one of the newest critics on the press tour, I didn’t have a lot of friends with whom I could amiably chat.  So I spent the first part of the evening sitting alone at a table toward the back of the bar, sipping soda and nibbling crackers and cheese, and watching the intriguing interaction of media and Hollywood in a strained, surreal social environment.

Swayze was a little late to the event.  This was during his pre-“Dirty Dancing,” pre-“Ghost” days, so he wasn’t exactly what you would call a major Hollywood figure.  I hadn’t seen his earlier films – “Red Dawn,” “The Outsiders” – so I was only vaguely familiar with him (upon seeing him I remembered him from an episode of “MASH,” in which he played a soldier who is diagnosed with cancer), so my first impression of him was the scene we had watched being shot earlier in the day.  And like I said, that first impression was favorable.

When he arrived at the social gathering he made his way around the room, greeting cast-mates and meeting the media members.  He was charming and affable, smiling easily and conversing comfortably.  Eventually he stopped by my table and introduced himself, and we made small talk for a couple of minutes.  Then the show’s producers hurried him off to spend some time with critics from newspapers much more important and influential than mine.

What a nice guy, I thought as I returned my attention to another one of the show’s stars, who was moving quickly into a full state of inebriation and making a little commotion at the bar.  After a while I felt someone pull up a chair at my table.

“May I join you?”

It was Swayze, who smiled graciously as he slid into the chair across from me.

‘I noticed that you’re not drinking,” he said.  “Do you mind if I ask why?”

I explained that it is a tenet of my faith not to drink, and he smiled knowingly.

“I thought maybe that was the reason,” he said.  “Do you mind talking about it?”

I didn’t.  For the next 15 minutes or so we spoke about religion.  His questions were not the questions of a doubter who wanted to debate; they were the questions of a seeker who was looking for answers to life’s questions.  Several times during our conversation the producers tried to hustle him away.  Each time he rebuffed them – politely, but firmly.

“There’s more to life than making movies,” he said.  And when he said it, you knew that he really believed it.

I bumped into him at least two more times during my years as a critic.  Although our subsequent conversations were brief, it was clear that he was still searching.  Through the years I have read stories suggesting that his quest for truth continued well beyond the period of my brief association with him. Which is why I find myself smiling as I read the news of his passing.  His search is over.  He has experienced for himself the ultimate truth that we all will eventually experience as we come face-to-face with eternity.   At the very least he knows that he was right about one thing: there really is more to life than making movies.

Even when you do so heroically.  Courageously.  Boldly.

Larger than life.

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— © Joseph Walker

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