The actor, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer earlier this year, was brought out on a darkened stage during the opening segment. When the lights came up, he received a standing ovation. Even Jennifer Aniston, who was in the middle of a phone call, stood up to pay tribute to Swayze.
"He looks amazing," former basketball player Charles Barkley told PEOPLE. "For me, seeing Patrick Swayze, someone who is actually fighting this disease, was the best part of the show. Seeing him in person was amazing."
Off camera, Swayze smiled and danced, holding his wife, Lisa Niemi. He even managed a moment of solo air guitar as Melissa Etheridge and Sugarland crooned the closing song. Afterwards he approached Barkley and the two had an animated conversation.
"He just came up to me and said, 'Hi,' " said Barkley. "We talked about how he was doing. He said he's doing well. He said that he's even gone back to work."
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Swayze stayed on stage long after most of the crowd had thinned out – chatting with Fran Drescher and other cancer survivors. But no one was more impressed than Noreen Fraser, one of the show's producers and a stage-four breast cancer survivor.
"I just had to thank him for his appearance. His appearance put this event over the top," an emotional Fraser told PEOPLE. "He told me, 'There was no way I was going to say no to this.' "