The Nature of the Beast: Patrick Swayze's Final Act
By Gina Piccalo For Emmy.
Issue No. 3, 2009
If life were fair, Patrick Swayze’s turn as the grizzled and fatalistic FBI agent Charles Barker in A&E’s The Beast would mark something of a comeback, a return to the sort of high-profile, commercial fare that made the actor a movie star.
Instead, the real-life battle with cancer that Swayze began just after the show’s pilot was picked up has weighted his performance with something far more profound: his indomitable will to survive.
Swayze’s passion for what has become his final role was so enmeshed with his fierce determination to beat the odds — to live longer than all of his doctors predicted — that the parallels were still evident in his analysis of the role, nearly a year after production had wrapped. His insight into the show’s title sounded strikingly personal.
“The title The Beast is one of the biggest reasons I wanted to do the show,” he said in an e-mail interview earlier this year. “In the first reading, I kept on asking them to define it for me. Everyone had a different answer, such as, ‘The Beast is the Machine’, ‘The Beast is Bureaucracy,’ ‘The Beast is the World of Undercover.’ And they’re all right about it.
“But as an actor, I need to look for something deeper. And in my life, the beast is a term I’ve used forever in terms of talking about my demons inside, or a person’s demons inside.,” Swayze shared.
“It’s these demons that we all deal with and have to find a way to either live with, or a way to get around, over or through,” he continued.
“The Beast communicates lots of things: anything you resist persists. If you lose objectivity and you get too far sucked into something or get buried into a situation emotionally, you are setting the stage for your demise. You truly are.”
Swayze has demonstrated the ferocity of this belief during the year and a half he has outlived his doctors’ prognoses.
After his January 2008 diagnosis with stage-four pancreatic cancer, he muscled his way through the series’ grueling production schedule, missing just one day of the five-month shoot despite weekend chemotherapy treatments.
He never slept more than four hours a night, yet he performed some of his own stunts. The crew and fellow cast members were awed by his stamina.
“Sometimes it was very hard to remember the simple fact of pancreatic cancer,” said the series’ showrunner, John Romano. “It was sometimes hard to see what difference it made. Most of the time, you just didn’t think of it.”
At this writing, the cancer has spread to Swayze’s liver. He is spending all of his time at his ranch outside Los Angeles and is writing a memoir with his wife of thirty-four years, Lisa Niemi. For this article, Swayze declined to speak in person or over the phone. Instead, he dictated answers to e-mailed questions that were then transcribed at the office of his publicist, Annett Wolf of WKT Public Relations.
Swayze’s commitment to The Beast started with a meeting at the Beverly Wilshire. The show’s creator–executive producers, Vincent Angell and William Rotko, arrived at the hotel first.
Swayze hadn’t been the obvious choice for the role. But after reviewing some of his early films — particularly his role as the shaggy surfer who robbed banks in 1991’s Point Break — they were eager to see him as Barker.
Swayze arrived not long after, striding purposefully through the lobby with his hair slicked back, consciously channeling Barker’s fierce intensity. He spotted Angell and Rotko and tossed the script on their table.
“This is the part for me,” he told them.
“It felt like who I am,” Swayze said, recalling that afternoon. “I mean, I am this trained person who’s spent my life pulling it off, time and time throughout my life.”
“The story was so well generated off the enigmatic character of Barker,” he explained. “You don’t have any idea what he’s going to do next. And Barker’s staying alive while undercover — and being a spy for this many years — has been dependent on his intellect, his wit and level of training and skill, not to mention his ability to think outside the box, which is what makes him great at his job and can make him dangerous at the same time.”
The pilot was picked up by A&E and, days later, Swayze called Rotko and Angell to his ranch. They assumed he wanted to discuss character and celebrate the good news.
Instead, Swayze told them he’d been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. But he insisted this wasn’t the end of the line. He wouldn’t give up the role of Barker.
“What am supposed to do? Stay home?” Swayze asked rhetorically when reminded of that day. “I’ve always loved what I do. As far as I’m concerned, they couldn’t keep me away. I’m really glad I made that choice.”
Ultimately, the network shot the series without the usual cast insurance because of Swayze’s condition.
During those marathon shooting days in Chicago, Swayze would tell Rotko the show was breathing life into him. It was as if he could inhabit a different body on the set, one unencumbered by illness. Life in character as the fearless Barker gave him some remove from the hell of chemotherapy.
“What he brought with the character was the idea that you’re living in the moment,” Rotko said. “We, as an audience, apply that to Patrick Swayze the actor, the human being. And it applies very nicely to the character. I believe Patrick is aware of that.”
“In these wonderful moments through the show,” he explained, “you see that ‘I’m living for today’ existence. I’ve never really asked him one-on-one, but you notice that in playback in the editing room and it’s quite moving.”
Swayze dug into the script with the intensity he’d reserved for film roles, questioning writers on their intentions and sometimes challenging them to write something less Hollywood, more fitting, something better.
“I like going to the writer directly involved with the material I’m shooting at that moment ‘cause I know that he or she knows what they were thinking when they wrote it,” Swayze said. “If they’re going to disagree with me, I want to hear it from them first.”
Swazye’s Barker plays by his own ambiguous set of rules and has so mastered the art of undercover that his true identity is lost in the moral gray zone in which he must live.
As he immersed himself in the role, Swayze was facing his own terrifying loss of identity. He had lived so vividly for years, first as a gymnast and ballet dancer, then as horseman and actor; now his body had betrayed him.
Suddenly, he was truly living his character’s “seize the day” philosophy. So Swazye was especially sensitive to moments in the script that rang false.
“He felt he was making a statement to a public that was suddenly very involved with him,” Romano said. “And you felt that. You still feel that. What Patrick is going through has led him to feel that life just ain’t that simple.”
“When you catch the bad guy, you just ain’t done. Life remains a kind of kick in the head,” he surmised. “You need to face it down with humor and grace and agility and clever writing.
“We’re not going to wrap up the story by catching Mister Big,” Rotko said.
“When a script threatened to provide too easy a closure, I would hear from Patrick: ‘You and I know better than that, John.’ He was always pushing for ‘the grays’ as he called them. That was always his emphasis.”