Growing up in North Riverside from the late 1980s through the early 2000s, Neal Fischer had what he would describe as none other than a quintessential, family-centric Midwestern childhood.
“I loved growing up in North Riverside; I had a very full and loving household with my brother, mom and dad, grandma and grandpa and my grandma’s brother — and we always had a dog,” he said. “I always equate it to Steven Spielberg’s movies, especially in the ’70s, when characters are always talking over each other and there’s three or four conversations going on at once.”
Throughout his youth, Fischer stayed active in school clubs and athletics, especially North Riverside Little League baseball teams and Australian rules football, introduced to Fischer by teacher Jeff Norris at Komarek School and a sport all Komarek students of that generation came to know and enjoy.
Aside from sports, Fischer also grew up a pop-culture fanatic, with dreams of working on movie sets as a director. In his free time, Fischer picked up the family’s video camera and recorded short movies at home with his younger brother or throughout the neighborhood.
“Since I was a little kid, my parents always wanted me to try anything and everything,” he said. “My mom instilled in me a love of Hollywood — a love of pop culture — and we’d watch old movies together. From a very young age, I knew I always wanted to be a director and make movies.”
Entering Riverside-Brookfield High School in 1999, the budding drummer and actor decided to shift his focus from sports to music and the arts, spending all four years playing in the school band, singing in choir and performing in plays and musicals.
“I don’t think I would have done anything creative in my life if it wasn’t for the fine arts education that I got at Riverside-Brookfield,” he said. “I just don’t think I would have had the confidence and self-belief to follow my dreams.”
Swayze, the idol
In his youth, one Hollywood star in particular who always stood out as an idol for Fischer was Patrick Swayze.
Particularly, Fischer always admired that while Swayze was naturally athletic and exuded masculinity, he also tapped into his softer side by embracing his love and talent for dancing.
“The one thing I learned about Swayze was that he wanted to master every single skill that he could — he was so multifaceted with his talents,” he said.
Graduating from University of Iowa in 2007 with a degree in film, cinema and video studies, Fischer dedicated himself to learning about self-directing, jumping into various roles as production assistant, videographer, director and doing freelance film work throughout the country.
During his career, Fischer has produced and directed a micro-budget horror film, “Dead Girls,” and has directed TV commercials for national campaigns including a Super Bowl campaign for Cars.com which was shortlisted for awards at France’s Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.
He also helped produce the 2010 award-winning documentary, “10 Mountains 10 Years.” Narrated by Anne Hathaway and featuring music by Bruce Springsteen, the film focused on a team that set out to climb the world’s 10 tallest mountains in 10 years to raise awareness and funds for Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease. Fischer locally produced portions of the film featuring his uncle receiving deep-brain stimulation treatment for Parkinson’s.
Swayze, the inspiration
In 2016, Fischer and a few friends launched a podcast titled “Triviality,” a weekly, pub-style trivia show focusing on everything pop culture.
While researching pop culture books and bits of trivia for the podcast, Fischer noticed there wasn’t something he considered a “pop culture love letter” about Swayze.
“I thought, I know a lot about pop culture, I know a lot about Patrick Swayze, maybe I can prove to myself that I can write a full book — a solo endeavor — about a subject that I love,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to have a book in a bookstore that I could walk into, hold and be proud that I was able to accomplish something like that.”
Fischer hoped to write a book about Swayze but make it accessible by weaving trivia, humor and personal stories into Swayze’s biography.
While in Hollywood for business meetings, he spoke with a manager who mentioned his friendship with a book agent and told Fischer that if he ever had an idea for a book to let him know.
For Fischer, the conversion was his shot at making the Swayze book a reality. The manager told Fischer to put together a 40-page book proposal and sent to the agent friend at Chronicle Books.
While the publisher liked the idea, making the book a reality required Swayze’s widow, Lisa Niemi, to give her stamp of approval.
In 2020, Fischer heard back from Niemi and her business manager who gave him the green light. According to Fischer, Niemi was excited to see a project about Swayze that sounded different than just an ordinary biography.
‘Being Patrick Swayze’: A love letter
After years of work, Fischer’s completed book, “Being Patrick Swayze: Essential Teachings from the Master of the Mullet,” was released April 26.
The book features Swayze-inspired quizzes, trivia and stories about Swayze in bite-sized lessons to inspire readers to find his own excellence their lives.
Fischer, now a LaGrange Park resident, wrote the book throughout the pandemic, with much of the writing taking place in local spots, including Gosia’s Coffee Shop in Brookfield, Blackberry Market in LaGrange, and at RB’s auditorium while his partner, Colleen Stahnke, was directing the student production of “Clue.”
“Being Patrick Swayze” is something Fischer believes will also be accessible to those not as familiar with Swayze, who died in 2009 from pancreatic cancer and is known for hit films “Dirty Dancing,” “Point Break,” “Road House,” “Ghost” and “Red Dawn.”
With illustrations from Kyle Hilton, Fischer says the book truly makes Swayze’s personality come to life on paper.
“It’s not only a book, but it’s a design piece,” he said. “I never imagined it would be so colorful and vibrant, and I think it really speaks to Swayze and his career, because that was his personality.”
Though Swayze has been gone for more than a decade, Fischer’s book continues to speak to Swayze’s lasting star power. Its release comes on the heels of ABC News’ “Superstar” series profile on Swayze earlier in April and Fox’s February celebrity dance competition, “The Real Dirty Dancing,” with eight celebrities immersing themselves in the ultimate experience from Swayze’s box-office hit.
Fischer’s book is available for purchase at chroniclebooks.com/products/being-patrick-swayze and other online and store book retailers.
This story has been changed to correct the year Patrick Swayze died.