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Patrick Swayze: Actor best known for his roles in 'Dirty Dancing' and 'Ghost'

Most actors are fortunate to get one signature role, one part for which they are fêted or idolised. Patrick Swayze, who has died aged 57 from pancreatic cancer, found two. His career may have been short on the critical approbation that he craved, but his most memorable and successful performances, first in the nostalgic musical drama Dirty Dancing (1987), then in the Oscar-winning Ghost (1990), made him a superstar, and gave America one of its few leading men who were unafraid to play vulnerable. However, he remained ambivalent about his screen persona as a sex symbol.

"It's good for the career," he said, "but it's not good for the head... I want to make a mark as an actor. I'd like to think that my career isn't about things like swinging my ass in Dirty Dancing. I'm looking for the spiritual. How far can it take me? How far can I go? What are our emotional limits?"

He was born Patrick Wayne Swayze in Houston, Texas, to Jesse, who was a Texas state champion cowboy, and Patsy, a choreographer who ran a dance academy that Swayze himself attended as a teenager (and where he met his future wife, Lisa Niemi). His childhood was difficult due to the demands that his perfectionist mother placed on him and his three siblings, Don, Sean and Vicky.

"Our mother made us feel that we were never good enough," he said. "If I did anything, I had to be the best because that's what my mother expected of me. It was hard to deal with. All the love we got came from our father."

Swayze described himself as a boy filled with a "self-deprecating rage" and maintained that between kindergarten and high school he was picked on because of his artistic tendencies. From an early age he showed an enthusiasm and aptitude for dancing, and later took up the violin, but the taunting that these interests attracted led him to become increasingly violent. He channelled this aggression into martial arts training and quickly became accomplished in aikido, tae kwon do, kung-fu and others, all the while focusing on the goal of becoming a professional dancer.

Swayze spent four years in New York from the age of 20 dancing with the Harkness Ballet and the Joffrey Ballet Company, and working as a professional figure skater. He notched up early professional dance experience in Grease on Broadway before landing some brief film and television roles, beginning with his movie debut in Skatetown U.S.A. (1979), about which the Los Angeles Times wrote: "Not since Valentine did his tango in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse has there been such a confident display of male sexuality. Patrick Swayze sizzles."

In the early 1980s the actor came to the attention of cinema audiences with appearances in Francis Ford Coppola's ensemble teen drama The Outsiders (1983), alongside other up-and-coming stars like Tom Cruise, Rob Lowe and Matt Dillon, and in a brace of right-wing, gung-ho action movies: Uncommon Valor (1983), one of that decade's numerous back-to-Vietnam adventures, in which that troublesome war was re-fought (and won this time) on some spurious pretext; and John Milius's laughable Red Dawn (1984), about plucky college kids fighting off a Communist invasion.

Swayze was fast becoming a recognizable supporting player in mainstream US cinema – which meant being cast more often, and more prominently. His most significant early role was in the 24-part TV mini-series North and South, about the American Civil War, which aired in 1985 and made Swayze a household name in the US. He has said that people in the industry advised him against taking the part of Johnny Castle, the 1960s dance teacher who has become a plaything for wealthy vacationing women in Dirty Dancing. But Swayze recognised the spark in the film's cornball love story between Johnny and the wide-eyed teenager nicknamed Baby (Jennifer Grey), and welcomed a movie that would give him the chance to showcase his dancing skills. The modest, low-budget film became a box-office smash – its eventual earnings were estimated to be around $300m – and it spawned a television series, a sequel (in which Swayze made a cameo appearance) and a stage musical.

It also turned Swayze into a bankable star and a bona fide musical performer (he recorded the top 10 hit "She's Like the Wind" for the soundtrack). He later confessed that he found the attention difficult to handle, and referred to the post-Dirty Dancing years, during which he drank heavily and took drugs, as his "Crazy Swayze" period. But he was determined not to become a Hollywood tragedy. "I would allow myself to be physically destructive only up to a point. I didn't put in all those years to build a career and then destroy it with something stupid."

For a while it looked like Swayze would be unable to capitalise on his success in Dirty Dancing. His next films, including the action thrillers Next of Kin and Road House (both 1989), were either ignored or derided. Swayze was enthusiastic when he read Bruce Joel Rubin's script for Ghost, an unorthodox and sentimental mixture of supernatural fantasy, thriller and love story. Despite initial objections from the director Jerry Zucker, who promised that he would only cast Swayze "over my dead body", the actor won him over. He proved impressive as Sam Wheat, a murdered man who returns in spirit form with the collusion of a bogus medium (Whoopi Goldberg), to warn his fiancée (Demi Moore) that she is in danger. (Swayze also pushed personally for the casting of Goldberg, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance.) The actor's sex-symbol status was only enhanced by the iconic, gloopy "potter's wheel" love scene with Moore, played out to the Righteous Brothers' "Unchained Melody."

Like Dirty Dancing, Ghost was a "sleeper hit" – Hollywood parlance for an outside bet that becomes successful against all expectations. It grossed $500m worldwide and elevated Swayze to the industry A-list. He never came close to repeating its success and searched in vain for a role that fitted him so well. "Word went out that Patrick Swayze can open a movie and that people want to see his movies," he noted of his career after Ghost, "or so the studios thought. I was in the place I'd always dreamed about, but I was also in the same place I'd always been in, trying to find something worth a hill of beans to do. For months I read at least 10 scripts a week and I got very frustrated."

Nevertheless he found some interesting roles and refused to be limited by genre: he played a serenely spiritual surfer-cum-bank robber opposite pin-up du jour Keanu Reeves in Kathryn Bigelow's inspired Point Break (1992); in City of Joy (1992), directed by Roland Joffe (The Killing Fields, The Mission), he was a disillusioned doctor working in Calcutta; and, going boldly against type, he camped it up as Vida Boheme, one of three drag queens in the comedy To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (1995).

In 1994, he was deeply affected by the suicide of his sister Vicky, who had battled with depression. He had already started drinking heavily again, and declared himself disillusioned with the film business –"I got completely fed up with that Hollywood blockbuster mentality. I couldn't take it seriously any longer." But Vicky's death moved him to try to regain control of his life. "The only thing you can do in those circumstances is to find some kind of meaning. You have to take that moment and make a promise to yourself that you will honour the spirit of the person you have lost for as long as you live. I have made my life better so Vicky's death doesn't seem quite so pointless."

He spent some time at a rehabilitation clinic and acted only intermittently thereafter, preferring to breed Arabian horses at his ranches in New Mexico and California. During the making of the 1996 HBO film Letters from a Killer, his career suffered a further setback when he broke both legs in a horse-riding accident.

The years since brought a handful of movies, including the cult favourite Donnie Darko (2001) and the British comedy Keeping Mum (2005). Swayze made a popular return to the stage, appearing in the US touring production of Chicago in 2003, and in the revival of Guys and Dolls in London's West End in 2006. In 2008, Swayze filmed a series of The Beast for the cable network A&E, in which he played an FBI officer. Tana Nugent Jamieson of A&E described the role as "a tough, darker character that needs some likeability, and [Patrick] definitely has that." The show was cancelled in June because of Swayze's illness. The same month saw the release of his last film, Powder Blue, co-starring Forest Whitaker, Jessica Biel, Lisa Kudrow and Swayze's brother Don.

Ryan Gilbey

Patrick Wayne Swayze, actor: born Houston 18 August 1952; married 1975 Lisa Niemi; died Los Angeles 14 September 2009.