Bill Paxton had the kind of star quality that Hollywood was never able to entirely utilise. When his popularity soared on the back of standout bit parts (The Lords of Discipline, 1983; Streets of Fire, 1984; The Terminator, 1985) and movie-stealing support characters (Weird Science, 1985; Aliens, 1986; Near Dark, 1987), the studio suits shoehorned him into leading man parts that failed to do his unique talent justice. We are grateful for his blockbuster hits, but no one will cite Twister (1996), Titanic (1997) or Mighty Joe Young (1998) as the films that capture what was engagingly ‘wild’ about ‘Wild’ Bill Paxton.
Having passed away at the age of 61, the always-in-demand actor was working up until his death. The cult success of his HBO drama Big Love and the role of Randall McCoy opposite Kevin Costner in the mini-series Hatfield & McCoys ensured that he was always welcome on the small-screen; his latest role was the lead in the series, Training Day. As an industry that respected and a fan base that adored him begins to mourn their loss, we recall his fearless, soaring, often unhinged big-screen performances...
Private Hudson in ALIENS (Dir: James Cameron; 1986)
Cameron met Paxton when they were both working for pennies on the set of a Roger Corman shoot over three decades ago. The director gave the manic young Paxton an on-screen shot as the nameless punk who incurs the merciless wrath of Schwarzenegger’s killing machine in The Terminator (1984). The young actor earned enough industry credibility to secure the role of Chet, the hilariously unhinged militaristic older brother in John Hughes’ Weird Science (1985). When Cameron was casting his sequel to Alien, he called upon his friend to drop the comedic ‘bigness’ of Chet and give full flight to the ‘unhinged military’ side. Paxton stole every scene as Private Hudson, the tough-talking but increasingly terrified marine whose on-screen meltdown and last defiant act of heroism gives the classic sci-fi action-thriller a crucial and soulful human warmth, as well as some of genre cinema's most quoted lines ("Game over, man"; "Stop your grinnin' and drop your linen"; "Why don't you put her in charge!?"; "Hey Vasquez, have you ever been mistaken for a man?"). The director and the actor would remain lifelong friends, working together on True Lies (1994), in which Paxton gives one of his funniest performances as the con-man Simon, and as salvage expert Brock Lovett in Titanic (1997). In a statement released overnight, Cameron said of his late friend, “"It was a friendship of laughter, adventure, love of cinema, and mutual respect. He was a good man, a great actor, and a creative dynamo.” (Pictured, above; Paxton, with co-star Michael Biehn, in Aliens)
Severen in NEAR DARK (Dir: Kathryn Bigelow; 1987)
Bigelow and Cameron were romantically linked at the time; she had seen the character work that Paxton had put into creating Hudson and the audience empathy his presence engendered. When casting her modern-western/vampire-noir horror film Near Dark, Bigelow realised his ballsy swagger and imposing masculinity was perfect for the role of sadistic predator Severen, the most heartless of the roaming band of bloodsuckers. She also knew that the chemistry between the Aliens cast was something special, casting Paxton’s co-stars Jenette Goldstein and Lance Henriksen. The film failed to catch on at the box office (it was late to the party in terms of cool vampire pics, with The Lost Boys premiering only two weeks prior), but quickly became a must-watch VHS favourite and remains a cult classic. The bar room bloodbath, during which Paxton utters the line, “I hate it when they don’t shave,” as he feasts on the jugular of an unkempt cowpoke, is unforgettable.
Gus in THE DARK BACKWARD (Dir: Adam Rifkin; 1991)
Adam Rifkin’s putrid, magnificent take on celebrity culture could not have come at a worse time for Bill Paxton. In the four years since the industry buzz generated off Aliens, he had starred in critically acclaimed work that no one had seen (Near Dark; Pass the Ammo, 1988) and commercial efforts that had underperformed (Slipstream, 1989; Next of Kin, 1989; Navy Seals, 1990; Predator 2, 1990). In hindsight, an occasionally sickening but inspired satire co-starring Judd Nelson as a man who grows a third man out of his back only to be exploited for fame by Paxton’s slimy, grimy garbage man was not the most thought-through career move. But fans of the film (including yours truly, who penned a wordy appreciation in 2014) cite it as the stuff of legend and absolutely crucial to one’s understanding of the appeal of Paxton as an actor. From his Fellini-esque romp with obese prostitutes to his devouring of a rotten chicken leg to his amorous nuzzling of a garbage tip corpse, Paxton is mesmerizingly disgusting yet entirely sympathetic.
Dale ‘Hurricane’ Dixon in ONE FALSE MOVE (Dir: Carl Franklin; 1992)
Hank in A SIMPLE PLAN (Dir: Sam Raimi; 1998)
Dad Meiks in FRAILTY (Dir: Bill Paxton, 2001)
Paxton was a born-and-bred Texan and, as this trilogy of films connected by their rural settings reveal, he never shied away from representing the darkly shaded complexities of life on the land. In Carl Franklin’s indie crime thriller One False Move, Paxton played Sheriff Dale Dixon, the Arkansas lawman whose thrill at working with LAPD investigators is muted when secrets from his past merge with revelations about the case. In A Simple Plan, Sam Raimi’s snowbound tale of mistrust and doublecrosses, Paxton plays the outwardly decent man Hank, whose crumbling morality and descent into a life of compromised principles represents one of the actor’s best roles. By the time he directed and co-starred with Matthew McConnaughey in the chilling religious-themed Frailty in 2001, Paxton was deep inside the minds and hearts of country folk and the angels and demons that occasionally drive them to unforgivable acts of devotion. Roger Ebert recognised Paxton as “a gifted director”, calling Frailty “a complex film that grips us with the intensity of a simple one.”
Astronaut Fred Haise in APOLLO 13 (Dir: Ron Howard; 1995)
Perhaps because his most beloved and successful roles were slightly off-center or perhaps because he just never actively sought them out, Bill Paxton rarely got to play the ‘everyman’ (one exception was Jan de Bont’s blockbuster Twister, though his performance suggests he was a bit disinterested in the thinly-drawn lead role). When afforded the opportunity by Ron Howard to play the beaming young astronaut Fred Haise in Apollo 13, Paxton revealed a glowing goodness of character and sturdiness of spirit that came to represent the inherent heroism celebrated in the film. If Tom Hanks’ Jim Lovell was the embodiment of good ol’ USA derring-do and Kevin Bacon’s Jack Swigert was the square-jawed non-doubter of the new technology, Paxton was the rest of us, the one for whom space travel was a mystical, soul-enriching journey to the heavens. Not for the first time in his film career, Paxton was the perfect conduit for viewer empathy and engagement. Howard recognised that the actor possessed that rare quality that instantly ingratiated him to audiences. It was an asset that probably cost him A-list fame – stars need to construct an air of mystery and ambiguity about their true character – but it ensured he was and will remain much loved.