Flashback: 'Dirty Dancing' screenwriter on casting Patrick Swayze and that abortion plot line

Editor’s note: This story was originally published Jan. 27, 2017. With the film celebrating its 30th anniversary today, Aug. 21, we thought it worthwhile to revisit.

Eleanor Bergstein would like to clear something up: Patrick Swayze was the only actor ever considered for the lead in Dirty Dancing. The screenwriter of the beloved 1987 film has seen one too many listicles claiming that Val Kilmer or Billy Zane was the filmmakers’ first pick for Johnny Castle, the working-class dance instructor who falls for idealistic teenager Baby Houseman (Jennifer Grey) at a Catskills resort in the early 1960s. “Patrick was the only actor who was ever offered this, and he’s the only one we ever wanted,” Bergstein told Yahoo Movies in an interview on Thursday. “And we found Patrick because the director, Emile [Ardolino], and I were looking through photographs, and I said, ‘I want eyes that are really hooded and a little scary because you don’t know what he’s thinking. And I said, ‘Oh, eyes like that!’”

Bergstein was looking at Swayze’s headshot, but his accompanying résumé didn’t mention dancing, because a knee injury had temporarily sidelined that part of his life. Fortunately Ardolino, best known at the time for his documentaries about the New York dance scene, was familiar with Swayze’s talents. So they began to pursue him in earnest. “When I met him, we danced, and I said, ‘If you decide not to do this, it’s very hard for me to imagine that I’ll make the movie, because I can’t imagine making it without you,’” she recalled. “And I still feel that way.”

It’s a conviction that anyone who’s seen Dirty Dancing will surely appreciate. The sparks between Johnny (dangerous, but talented and passionate) and Baby (innocent, but secretly strong) are at the heart of the film’s enduring popularity. This weekend, Dirty Dancing returns to theaters in celebration of its 30th anniversary, courtesy of Fathom Events (go here for tickets and showtimes). The film is also set for a new Blu-ray and DVD release in February, including a Limited Collector’s Edition box set (which includes such fun extras as a zip pouch emblazoned with Baby’s classic line “I carried a watermelon”).

Dirty Dancing, Patrick Swayze, Jennifer Grey, 1987, (Photo: Everett Collection)
Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey in Dirty Dancing. (Photo: Everett Collection)

And to think, it all started in the basements of Brooklyn. That’s where Bergstein, as an almost-teenager in the 1960s, listened to records and learned what the kids called “dirty dancing.” She became a champion of her neighborhood’s amateur dance contests. “We did this very, very erotic dancing to this rhythm and blues and early rock music, and then we sat in a car and looked at Manhattan, where we thought everybody had sex,” she said with a laugh.

At the same time, Bergstein was learning Latin dance steps at the Borscht Belt resort where her family spent their summers. “They hit the golf course, and I would press my nose to the dance studios,” she said. “And once a week, they had a champagne contest where everybody danced with the instructors, and I was doing all these very elaborate mambo steps, so I think just seeing a little girl dance so enthusiastically made people clap for me and vote for me. And I would win the champagne, which my parents would drink, since I couldn’t.”

Bergstein would later put herself through college as a dance teacher, but it was a combination of those youthful experiences that provided the inspiration for Dirty Dancing. By the time the film was made, the moves were still scandalous enough to create controversy in the editing room.

“My signature step was my leg up around the neck of my partner, which you see in the very beginning after the credits,” Bergstein said. “And at some point the editor said, ‘I don’t know if we should use this shot. I mean, how can you have respect for a girl who dances that way?’ And there was this terrible silence, and people said, ‘Well, actually, that’s Eleanor’s step.’ So it was a little embarrassing.”

The dancing wasn’t even the most controversial element of the film. The plot point that sets the story in motion is that one of the resort’s dance instructors, Penny (Cynthia Rhodes), is pregnant, and schedules an illegal abortion on the night of an important gig with Johnny. Baby offers to get Penny the money for the procedure and to fill in as Johnny’s dance partner. When the abortion goes horribly wrong, Baby’s doctor father (Jerry Orbach) saves Penny’s life.

Dirty Dancing, Patrick Swayze, Jennifer Grey, 1987, (Photo: Everett Collection)
Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey in the final scene of Dirty Dancing. (Photo: Everett Collection)

“I used these very specific words like ‘dirty knife’ and ‘folding table,’ because I wanted a generation who just knew about Planned Parenthood and Roe v. Wade to understand how dangerous it was if you didn’t have that,” Bergstein explained. “I was very concerned that you saw how graphic it was, even in this movie about pretty clothes and true love.”

It’s hard to imagine such a frank abortion-related storyline making its way into a major Hollywood film today (much to Bergstein’s dismay; as she describes it, the standard unwanted-pregnancy plot has become “the girl decides at the last minute not to have the abortion, have the baby, and go live on Central Park West with her boyfriend”). She’s fairly certain that the plot line made it into the film because it sailed over producers’ heads: “They thought the film was such a piece of junk, and it’s like a quarter of a page in the script.” When someone finally noticed, it turned out to be a blessing. A potential sponsor, an acne cream that wanted to put its product on every single Dirty Dancing poster, saw the finished film and was alarmed enough to pull its endorsement. The studio requested that the abortion be edited out, but the movie wouldn’t have made any sense without it — so in Bergstein’s words, “The abortion stayed in, the acne cream went out.”

That poster of Baby and Johnny, thankfully free from the intrusion of any pimple products, became a fixture of teenage bedroom when the film was released in August 1987. Dirty Dancing surprised the studio by being a huge hit, making $63 million at the box office despite its small budget and lack of big stars, and exploded in popularity through home video. Thirty years later, it’s considered a classic. But Bergstein remembers when success didn’t seem at all inevitable. During filming, “We had no time, we had no money, it rained all the time, we had a very short shooting schedule, we lost a lot of our locations — everything was hard!” she told Yahoo Movies with a laugh.

Watch the final scene:

Even the film’s jubilant final scene, in which Johnny and Baby lead the resort guests and employees in a group dance to the song “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” was at times challenging to shoot. The camp structure that doubled as the Kellerman’s ballroom was packed with extras, who had to be persuaded to stay in the woods of North Carolina for additional days of filming. “It rained, and they didn’t have enough food, but we needed them so that we’d have continuity,” said Bergstein. “So I’d have to get up on a chair with peanut butter crackers in my hands and give them out and say, ‘Please, you’re the heart and soul of this movie! Please don’t go away!’”

The extras stuck around, Swayze spoke his famous line “Nobody puts Baby in a corner,” and the dancers did their routine — over and over and over. “For the next year, that song just rang in all our ears,” said Bergstein. The song is just as infectious now as it was then. And the movie can still sweep audiences off their feet.

Watch a scene from ‘Dirty Dancing:’