Swayze: 'Yeah, I'm angry. Yeah, I'm scared'

In his first interview since being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Patrick Swayze reveals his despair – and defiance
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The Independent Culture

For an actor who stole a generation of teenage hearts by gritting his teeth, unbuttoning his black silk shirt, and sternly informing Jennifer Grey that "nobody puts Baby in a corner". Patrick Swayze greeted the arrival of pancreatic cancer in typically defiant fashion.

Told by doctors that he had anything from a few months to a couple of years to live, and advised to check straight into the nearest hospital, the star of Dirty Dancing instead decided to roll up his sleeves and round off his 20-year acting career with a long waltz into the sunset.

That was a year ago. Today, as he prepares for next week's launch of The Beast, the new TV cop show to which he devoted most of the intervening months, it seems nothing will quite so become the 56-year-old heart-throb as the manner of his parting.

In Swayze's first TV interview since his diagnosis, last night he spoke candidly about his cancer, which kills 95 per cent of its victims within five years, promising to carry on fighting, and performing, until the bitter end. "You can bet that I'm going through hell," he told TV viewers. "And I've only seen the beginning of it. There's a lot of fear here. There's a lot of stuff going on. Yeah, I'm scared. Yeah, I'm angry. Yeah, I'm asking, 'Why me?'"

He told the veteran ABC chat-show host Barbara Walters at his Los Angeles ranch, in the foothills of the San Gabriel mountains, that he had first realised his health might be failing when he tried to celebrate the new year of 2008 with a glass of champagne.

"It would be like pouring acid, you know, on an open wound," he said. "Then my indigestion issues started getting constant. And then I started thinking, 'I'm getting skinny'. I dropped about 20lbs in the blink of an eye. When you see it in the mirror, when all of a sudden, you pull your eyes down and the bottom of your eyes go yellow and jaundice sets in, then you know something's wrong. I started doing a bit of research and realized this is not pretty. This is not a good thing."

Doctors diagnosed stage-four pancreatic cancer in mid-January, he said. Because it had already spread to his liver, an operation was not an option, so he underwent aggressive chemotherapy with treatment from an experimental new drug called Vatalanib at a hospital near San Francisco.

Although Swayze said he had already defied both survival rates and tabloid reports predicting that he should have "been dead a long time", he acknowledged time may now be running out. "I'd say five years is pretty wishful thinking," he said, sitting alongside Lisa Niemi, his childhood sweetheart and wife of 33 years. "Two years seems likely if you're going to believe statistics. I want to last until they find a cure, which means I'd better get a fire under it."

Swayze's comments, broadcast last night during an hour-long, prime-time special, gave a moving insight into the mentality of the Texas-born actor, whose breakthrough in Dirty Dancing made him one of the most bankable stars of the 1990s, headlining blockbusters including Ghost, Point Break, and The Outsiders.

Then in April, just a month after the National Enquirer revealed details of his illness, the actor announced that he had taken the lead role in The Beast, a 12-episode FBI drama produced by Sony. It was a bold move. To play Charles Barker, an undercover agent with dark secrets and what Swayze has described as "a death wish", he had to spend five months in Chicago, working 12-hour days, mostly in cold, night-time conditions, while foregoing the painkillers doctors prescribed as part of his treatment.

"I think everybody thought I was out of my mind, you know, thinking I'm going to pull off a TV show," he told Walters. "When you're shooting, you can't do drugs. I can't do Hydrocodone or Vicodin or these kinds of things that take the edge off of it, because it takes the edge off of your brain."

Yet in five months of filming, Swayze missed just a day and a half of work. He also managed, with the help of protein shakes, to put on 20lb after weight loss that had, in March, left him looking dangerously frail.

The launch of The Beast next Wednesday, on the A&E cable channel, is already one of the most eagerly awaited events of the new spring TV season. A pilot aired last year was described by The New York Times as a "tough, atmospheric character piece".

Swayze, who now has an appealingly lived-in look, could use a major hit. Despite having been responsible for a string of film successes, he also plumped for his share of flops, and since the turn of the century has struggled to land major roles.

Having turned down television for much of his career ("I thought I was De Niro," he once said) Swayze was at one point being reduced to succeeding reality TV star Darius Danesh in the role of Nathan Detroit in a West End production of Guys and Dolls.

Could The Beast be his crowning achievement? Stranger things have happened. Comebacks are in vogue, with Robert Downey Junior's return to form in Iron Man, and Mickey Rourke's film The Wrestler, tipped for Oscar success next month.

But Swayze is reluctant to discuss whether Barker might define his latter years. He is even less keen on questions about retirement, noting that Sony is on the verge of commissioning a second series of the show, to be filmed this year, with him still in the lead role.

"There is probably that little bird that flies through your insides and says, 'I sure would like to make a mark in life'," he said recently. "I've made a pretty decent mark so far, nothing to scoff at. But it does make you think, 'Wait a minute. There's more I want to do. Lots more. Get on with it'."