'Ghost' turns 30: How Patrick Swayze's beloved Sam Wheat entered heaven in film's emotional finale

Bryan Alexander, USA TODAY
·4 min read

For 30 years, "Ghost" has been a romantic weeper with its emotionally unchained ending.

Patrick Swayze's Sam Wheat, a ghost after his murder, professes eternal love and kisses his tearful lover Molly Jensen (Demi Moore) amid a symphonic swelling of their song "Unchained Melody." He says farewell to psychic Oda Mae Brown (Whoopi Goldberg) before uttering the immortal line, "The love inside, you take it with you" and walking into celestial lights.

Director Jerry Zucker says that for years after "Ghost" became the highest-grossing film of 1990, fans would write letters explaining how the ending helped them deal with the death of a loved one.

Yet this heaven-filled finish took even greater significance when the departed loved one became Swayze, who died at age 57 in 2009 after a battle with pancreatic cancer.

"It's that last scene that is, more than anything, comforting to people. And then you're dealing with Patrick's death and it's Patrick going into that white light as Sam," Zucker said ahead of the film's 30th anniversary celebration. The movie will be presented in theaters Oct. 24 and 25 by Turner Classic Movies and Fathom Events, and available on a 30th anniversary Blu-ray.

"It's already a spiritual movie and then the most important connection to the spiritual world, Patrick's Sam Wheat, is entering a place filled with love in the end. It feels like there are souls there waiting for him."

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To add to the moving moment, "Dirty Dancing" star Swayze was the kind of relatable superstar who broadcast his feelings. He knew true love, remaining married throughout his superstardom for 34 years to Lisa Niemi, whom he had met when he was 18.

"Patrick had a lot of love and tremendous heart that he wore on his sleeve, which is part of what made him the movie star," Zucker says. "He and Lisa were a great pair, truly in love. That was a good model for the role in his relationship with Demi. They were each other's rocks."

Because Swayze was playing the luminescent spirit, the final "Ghost" scene required that he and Moore shoot their emotional farewell separately, brought together in editing.

Oda Mae Brown (Whoopi Goldberg) and Molly Jensen (Demi Moore) look on as Sam Wheat (Patrick Swayze) departs for good.
Oda Mae Brown (Whoopi Goldberg) and Molly Jensen (Demi Moore) look on as Sam Wheat (Patrick Swayze) departs for good.

"He just kind of kneeled down in front of a green screen," says Zucker, who recalls that Swayze didn't hold back when filming his closed-eyes kiss solo on location in New York. "It seemed very strange to be shooting such an important and emotional scene this way. But Patrick wasn't spooked by that kind of thing, no pun intended. It's amazing how he rose to the occasion."

Moore shot her scenes back on the Los Angeles set and was able to muster impressive tears on command, as she did in other "Ghost" moments.

"Demi would go off by herself for a few minutes and then she'd give me a little signal that she was ready," Zucker says. "I wouldn't say 'action' to start the scene. I'd tell the camera operator to turn the camera on and the sound guy to roll sound and Demi would step in."

Her tears would come at "at exactly the right time in the scene and they would flow," Zucker says. "She could do this take after take."

Moore shot her kiss in precise position to match Swayze's pucker. Industrial Light & Magic edited the two actors' kiss, with Zucker weighing in.

"I'd say, 'Maybe a little closer – no, further apart' before it was finally, 'Yeah, that's great,'" Zucker says. "And then they'd drag me out of the editor's room."

Wheat's ascension into white-light heaven was actually Swayze walking up a mylar platform toward a green screen, with actors who played the waiting souls shot separately. The scene was transformed with cutting-edge special effects overseen by special effects cinematographer Richard Edlund, using a new "very big machine" called "The Harry," Zucker says. The digital video-compositing system created the brilliant, heavenly destination.

"It's really one of the first uses of CGI," Zucker says. "Because it's this ethereal scene, we could get away with the quality not being that crisp."

But the director believes what makes the scene work, even 30 years later, is Moore and, of course, Swayze.

"It doesn't matter what other nifty shots or special effects I could have had, or if we had today's CGI for that scene," Zucker says. "In the end, it's all about those two people and their journey. I lucked out really, because 'Ghost' had the perfect cast."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Ghost' 30th anniversary: Patrick Swayze's ascent to heaven, explained