NEW YORK - Heading into its home stretch, A&E's drama "The Beast" will resolve several questions that have dogged freewheeling FBI agent Charles Barker all season.
But other questions loom - much larger questions about the series and its ailing star, Patrick Swayze.
The future of "The Beast" and Swayze's continued participation remain unclear, according to A&E President Bob DeBitetto, who's waiting to see how the season's final two episodes score. Airing at 10 p.m. EDT Thursdays, the series concludes its season April 23.
Since premiering in January, "The Beast" has logged an average weekly audience of 1.3 million viewers in the United States, "which gets us to second base," DeBitetto said. "We're kinda used to hitting triples here, or better."
But neither ratings nor A&E's declared pride in the series can dictate whether "The Beast" will get a second-season pickup. The overriding question mark, of course, is Swayze's fight against pancreatic cancer.
"As has been the case from day one, it is all about Patrick - in a lot of ways," said DeBitetto. "It is about his condition, and when and whether he would be up for another gruelling production schedule."
Swayze was unavailable for comment.
Swayze went public with his diagnosis a year ago. Then he threw himself into shooting "The Beast" on location in Chicago in the rigorous role of Barker, who's a rough-and-tumble undercover agent teamed up with rookie Ellis Dove (played by Travis Fimmel).
Swayze's illness had no discernible effect on his gritty portrayal.
Even so, the series arrived on a wave of publicity tied to Swayze's dim prognosis, including accounts that he was near death. These reports were further fuelled when he missed a scheduled press appearance after checking himself into a Los Angeles hospital for pneumonia.
In a televised interview with Barbara Walters about that time, he acknowledged that most patients with advanced pancreatic cancer face grim odds.
"I'd say five years is pretty wishful thinking," Swayze told her. "Two years seems likely if you're going to believe statistics."
DeBitetto hailed Swayze for having "the gumption to take on a show like this while undergoing aggressive chemotherapy."
"He has already, in a lot of ways, beaten the odds," said DeBitetto.
Known for such films as "Ghost" and "Dirty Dancing," the 56-year-old Swayze is "a beloved actor who has made movies that mattered to people's lives," said DeBitetto, who acknowledged that the future of "The Beast" need not necessarily be tied to Swayze's involvement. His character could be written out of the series, which could take a different turn with Dove and, perhaps, new characters.
Backup provisions like this were being discussed throughout the first season's shooting, DeBitetto said.
"Everybody had their eyes wide open that, after a few episodes, Patrick just might not be up for continuing: What do you do then? Fortunately, we didn't have to face that."
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