Patrick Swayze was the ultimate Hollywood heartthrob in the 80s and 90s. In his heyday, the late star led some of the most iconic films of the era: The Outsiders, Dirty Dancing, Road House, Ghost, to name just a few. But in Swayze’s own words, it was Point Break that was the “most fun” and “most painful” movie he ever filmed.
Not only did Patrick Swayze learn how to skydive for Point Break, he performed 55 jumps for real for the film’s setpiece skydiving scene. Insistent on doing all his own stunts (against the wishes of the movie’s insurers), it was Swayze’s surfing scenes – and some backstage skateboarding antics – that left the actor with some brutal injuries, however.
The son of choreographer Patsy Swayze, Patrick Swayze was always an uncommonly physical actor. Having excelled in sports at school and having practised ballet and martial arts from a young age, Swayze brought those skills to the cinema: in Dirty Dancing, he can be seen pulling off all his own dance moves; in Road House, those are Swayze’s kicks and punches.
When Swayze was cast in 1991’s Point Break alongside fellow action man Keanu Reeves, Swayze, like Reeves, was completely new to skydiving. On any normal Hollywood film, for the scene in which Swayze’s Bodhi and Reeves’ Johnny Utah leap out of a plane together, there would be no expectation for the actors to make the jump for real. Swayze, however, became determined to film his own stunts.
Working with instructor Jim Wallace, Swayze was so enthusiastic about skydiving on Point Break that Wallace had to rein him in at first. “He wanted to do free style right off the bat – flips, twirls, spins,” remembered Wallace. “I had to continually hold him down.”
Swayze soon fell in love with the sport. “Once I got over the abject terror of jumping out of a perfectly good airplane and realized that you could truly fly, it was the most alive feeling that you ever felt,” Swayze said later. Wallace remembered the actor as a ‘natural’.
The star’s background in dance – including classical ballet – helped him to master the art of falling: “Once I got into seeing it as a ballet or as a tumbling routine, fear went out.” Point Break producer Peter Abrams has said that Swayze got so into skydiving that he had to ask the actor to stop jumping in his free time during the Point Break shoot.
(Swayze did stop, after Abrams cited insurance fears – then continued jumping immediately once the shoot was over. The star ended up filming skydives for another two days after filming had officially wrapped. )
Skydiving was clearly in Swayze’s blood, as he described: “My brother Donny had gotten seriously into skydiving.” Both brothers had their first jumping experiences with California-based company Skydive Perris. Swayze ultimately did 55 jumps during the making of Point Break, whereas Don had already logged in 500 jumps.
Skydiving didn’t hold the same fascination for Swayze’s co-star Keanu Reeves, who was perfectly happy to use a stunt double. “I jumped once, just to kinda check it out, on a Saturday,” Reeves later commented. “But everybody kept jumping and eventually the company had to kind of say, ‘We’re going to sue you guys if you don’t stop jumping out of airplanes.'”
There was one moment in the skydiving scene, however, that not even the most talented skydivers could realise. The famous scene where Swayze’s and Reeves’ characters chat mid-air turned out to be impossible to film, so it was completed in a studio with rigger fans.
Point Break involved far more treacherous stunts than skydiving, and Swayze’s most serious on-set injuries were incurred not in the sky, but in the ocean.
Swayze had some basic surfing experience from childhood trips to Galveston, Texas, but he and Keanu Reeves both had surfing lessons in preparation for their Point Break roles.
“It’s very funny, because I had to battle the universe to get to do the skydiving in the movie and I never came close to dying once, but they never said one word about me getting my brains pounded in by the biggest surf on this planet and I almost died six to ten times,” Swayze noted later.
Amid a serious knee injury which saw the joint swell to triple its normal size, plus a sternum injury, Swayze was banned from certain stunts and did ultimately come to rely on his double, Scott Wilder, to cover certain surfing activities.
Behind the scenes, Swayze also tore tendons in his shoulder while joking around the film set with a skateboard. “I was dizzy with pain, but knew that if I let anyone know I was hurt, there would be repercussions with the movie’s insurers,” Swayze later recalled. “So I just acted as if everything was OK.”
These high-adrenaline antics proved addictive to Don, too. One year and one week after Point Break was released, Don Swayze made an illegal jump from a Californian skyscraper along with three other men.
He was only identified after the building’s security guard watched an Entertainment Tonight special on celebrity’s siblings, and instantly recognised Don. He was fined $300, narrowly avoiding a jail sentence. Don, also an actor, would go on to perform as a skydiver in the 1994 movie Drop Zone.
Patrick Swayze and his wife Lisa Niemi were both fully licensed pilots. In 2000, while flying a Cessna 414 N414PS with his dogs, Swayze faced a plane pressurization issue and had to make an emergency landing.
Witnesses saw him staggering around after the landing, and at first, police believed he was drunk while flying – but further investigation revealed that he had no access to alcohol. Instead, he was suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning as a result of the plane’s malfunction. This was worsened by Swayze’s use of tobacco while flying.
In 2006, Swayze and Niemi were flying an N414PS together when the right engine failed. Niemi performed another emergency landing and the couple escaped unscathed. Swayze passed away in 2009, less than two years after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
Don Swayze, meanwhile, continued to skydive and even branched out into base-jumping. One night, in a base jump that went wrong, he crashed and broke his leg in 72 places. Part of his foot required amputation and steel rods were used to replace the bones in his leg. The accident didn’t stop his hobby, however, and he remains a passionate fan of the sport.