“Look at all the stars. You look up and you think, ‘God made all this and He remembered to make a little speck like me.’ It's kind of flattering, really.” – Morgan Earp, Tombstone (1993)
Bill Paxton was both a low-fi schlock regular and a Hollywood player, remaining colorfully reliable throughout the entirety of his career. First officially credited for a bit part in Jonathan Demme’s Crazy Mama (1975)*, Paxton continued to pop up in the background of Ivan Reitman’s Stripes (1980), and slime up television sets in the short-lived series, McClain’s Law (1981 – 1982). Billed as ‘Wild’ Bill Paxton in The Lords of Discipline (1983), the actor embraced his Texan background, fusing it with a jock goofball persona he’d toyed with for a few scenes in the batshit trash staple, Night Warning (1982). Under the wing of skeez auteur Howard Avedis (The Stepmother ), Paxton was gifted his first meaty role in Mortuary (1983), as the demented offspring of the titular house of the dead’s owner (grindhouse regular Christopher George, in his final feature). From there, momentum built behind Paxton, as he got punched out in Walter Hill’s immortal Streets of Fire (1984), and sported a Mohawk in James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984).
Paxton and Cameron became buddies during their respective Roger Corman days, where Paxton made his bones as a set designer (after toiling away on porn shoots and low-budget Blaxploitation like Darktown Strutters ). Cameron was a Second Unit Director on Galaxy of Terror (1981), which led to the eventual King of the World penning a part for Paxton in The Terminator. From there, Paxton landed turns in another Arnold actioner, Commando (1985), and the horny John Hughes hit, Weird Science (1985). His Chet Donnelly was a flattopped, shotgun-toting, cigar-chomping nightmare person (whose look would go on to influence another Hughes ruffian – Buzz McCallister from Home Alone ). Paxton was building a reputation as a true no-holds-barred oddball, and was all the better for it.
Then Cameron cast Paxton in Aliens (1986), and everything fucking changed. His Private Hudson became an icon, screaming bloody murder as the xenomorphs laid waste to the terraformed colony on LV-426. Turned out rejecting a lead role in Police Academy 2 (1985) was a solid choice, as the unhinged gusto he displayed while wielding that pulse rifle led to legions of geeks screaming “game over man!” at the top of their lungs. It was the breakout performance Paxton needed, leading to a partnership with Cameron that yielded killer characters in True Lies (1994) and Titanic (1997). In-between, Paxton continued to be a supporting scene-stealer (Cameron’s ex-wife, Kathryn Bigelow, famously cast him as Deep South vamp Severen in Near Dark ) as well as a rather capable leading man in bottom rack horror cheapies like The Vagrant (1992) and blockbusters like Jan de Bont’s Twister (1997). But Paxton always seemed to be working best when he was part of an ensemble – be it in outer space with Tom Hanks and Kevin Bacon in Apollo 13 (1995), or in ice-cold Sam Raimi noir like A Simple Plan (1998). He was a team trouper, bringing his all to these star-studded collectives while having one foot firmly planted in the genre ghetto.
The aughts saw Paxton continue to grow into a household name while still dabbling in the weirdness that defined his career. When he wasn’t co-starring in Chris O’Donnell mountain climbing adventures like Vertical Limit (2000), he was crafting a directorial debut in Frailty (2001) that was dark, upsetting and as richly realized as any horror film released that decade. Peppered amongst parts in family films like Spy Kids 3-D (2003) and Thunderbirds (2004), he’d appear as a Jimmy Buffett knockoff in Broken Lizard’s vastly underrated slasher parody, Club Dread (2003). HBO came calling in 2006, and Paxton headed the polygamy drama Big Love for fifty-three episodes, earning three separate Golden Globe nominations for Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series. However, his action movie susceptibilities wouldn’t be lost, as he appeared in Steven Soderbergh’s art house deconstruction, Haywire (2011), the Denzel Washington/Mark Wahlberg buddy crime team-up 2 Guns (2013), and the Tom Cruise live/die/repeat opus, Edge of Tomorrow (2014).
Bill Paxton died today, at the age of 61, due to complications from surgery. His passing is a staggering loss for film fans who understood just how wonderful his presence was whenever he appeared on screen. His legacy is one of extreme joy – a rip-roaring disregard for anything resembling the pretentious notion of respectability. Even when Paxton was working within movies that would be critically revered, nominated, and win Academy Awards, seeing his face let the audience know it was more than OK to have a little fun while watching, too. As cinephiles, we don’t value that approach enough; the wanton love and respect for the art of acting that also acknowledges it’s all being presented under the guise of ‘entertainment’. Bill Paxton was a titan, a true master of his craft, and will be sorely missed.
*Though the actor’s first (uncredited) role was actually in Big Bad Mama (1974), when he was only eighteen years old.