Gregory Hines was a choreographer, a director, a producer, a respected movie actor and a Broadway star. Still, whenever he was asked what he did for a living, Hines offered the same response. "I always think of myself as a tap dancer," said the entertainer, whose 52-year career garnered him an Emmy, a Tony and a reputation as the greatest hoofer of his generation. "That's what I do. And I'm going to do it until I can't."
For Hines that moment came on Aug. 9, when he died of liver cancer at a hospital near his Los Angeles home at age 57. Diagnosed a year ago, Hines kept his condition from the public, says his friend and business manager Bruce Lagnese, because "it never occurred to him that he was not going to get better." Determined to keep working (he last performed onstage a few months ago) and to share life with his fiancée, Negrita Javde, his daughter Daria, 32, his stepdaughter Jessica, 31, his son Zach, 20, and his grandson Lucian, 8, he tried "both traditional Western and Eastern" treatments, says Lagnese, who was by Hines's side with Jayde when he died. "He was into the fight."
As he had been since he and his brother Maurice Jr., now 59, first performed at New York City's Apollo Theater when he was 6. Life was not always as smooth as his dance moves: There were bitter family fights (his late mother, Alma, guided ; his early career; his father, Maurice, 81, played drums until 1973, when Hines quit the act); a time of cocaine use; two divorces; and the hurdles he faced trying to popularize tap in an age of rock and roll. To survive, Hines told PEOPLE, "you have to be aggressive, inventive and resilient."
He was. "But his greatest gift," says Camryn Manheim, who briefly dated Hines after they met making The Tic Code in 1998, "was making the people around him happy." A romantic, recalls his second wife, Pamela Koslow Hines, "he'd leave me notes around the house saying, 'You're my life.' " Two days before he died, his friend Yvette Glover called Hines at his home to say goodbye and offer thanks for the 22 years he acted as friend, mentor and father figure to her son, 29-year-old tap sensation Savion Glover. "He was too weak to talk," she says. "But I had to tell him how much it meant for him to be in our lives. He'll never leave us, but he sure left something for us."