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Bill Paxton: 1955-2017

In a way, it makes a grim sort of sense that the day of the annual presentation of the Oscars would kick off with the sad and startling news that actor/director Bill Paxton had passed away at the age of 61 as the result of complications following surgery. Although he had worked steadily in the industry for four decades, he never received a single nomination for his film work. For the most part, he didn’t appear in the kinds of film favored by the Academy and even when he did end up in projects they looked upon favorably, his performances ended up getting lost in the shuffle. And yet, his body of work did strike a chord with viewers who sparked to his considerable gifts. He soon became one of those reliable actors whose presence in a film automatically ensured moviegoers that something interesting was going to happen when he was  on the screen. As a result, his screen work is certain to continue to entertain and resonate with moviegoers long after most award-winning performances have long since faded from memory.

Born in Fort Worth, Texas in 1955, Paxton eventually headed to Hollywood and broke into the film business in the same manner as so many others before him—working for the legendary low-budget movie producer Roger Corman. In the case of Paxton, however, he started off working behind the scenes as a set decorator on such films as “Big Bad Mama” (1974), “Eat My Dust” (1976), “Death Game” (1977) and “Galaxy of Terror” (1981), the latter being an exceptionally sleazy “Alien” knockoff in which he worked for an ambitious young art director by the name of James Cameron. Eventually he began making brief appearances in front of the camera in films like “Stripes” (1981), “Night Warning” (1982), “Mortuary” (1983), “The Lords of Discipline” (1983), “Impulse” (1984) and the cult favorite “Streets of Fire” 1984). By this time, former colleague Cameron had graduated to the director’s chair and for “The Terminator” (1984), he cast Paxton in the small but memorable role of the leader of a trio of punkers who are the first people to cross paths with the title character and discover the painful things that can happen to those who threaten naked cyborgs.

Over the next year, Paxton would appear in another Arnold Schwarzenegger action extravaganza, “Commando” (1985), play the borderline psychotic older brother in the teen comedy hit Weird Science (1985) and turn up on TV on an episode of “Miami Vice,” the landmark TV movie “An Early Frost” and the mini-series “The Atlanta Child Murders” and “Fresno.” He then reunited with Cameron, whose success with “The Terminator” landed him the plum job of writing and directing Aliens(1986), the sequel to the landmark sci-fi/horror hit “Alien.” As Private Hudson, one of the Marines sent to accompany Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) to investigate the happenings at a seemingly deserted space colony that has been overrun by the titular creatures, Paxton was one of the standout elements in a film that became an instant classic virtually from the day it premiered; watching his character’s macho bluster disintegrate into jabbering terror lent an undeniably human element to the tech-heavy surroundings and his plaintive “Game over, man” became an instant part of the film geek lexicon. He then solidified his credentials among genre fans with his creepy turn as one of the members of a band of redneck vampires in Kathryn Bigelow’s horror cult favorite “Near Dark” (1987).

After a few more years of supporting performances in films like “Pass the Ammo” (1988), “Next of Kin” (1989), “Navy Seals” (1990), “The Last of the Finest” (1990), Predator 2 (1990) and a grisly turn in the demented black comedy “The Dark Backward” (1991), Paxton finally achieved leading man status in 1992 with One False Move,” a gritty crime drama in which he played the sheriff of a small Arkansas town where a trio of violent criminals are suspected of heading—his character is excited to participate in the investigation of a significant crime until he realizes that he shares a secret with one of the suspects. At one point, this film (which was co-written by the then-unknown Billy Bob Thornton, who plays another one of the criminals) was destined to go to straight to video until it attracted enough attention to warrant a successful theatrical release that was bolstered by rave reviews across the board with many of the accolades going to Paxton’s genuinely astounding performance. In his early scenes, he is excellent as the kind of cheerful good ol' boy that he could play in his sleep. But as the film goes on and we learn more about his character’s past, his work grows in terms of emotional power that helps to fuel the drama in ways that allow the film to avoid all the usual action/cop movie cliches. This really was the first performance that gave Paxton the opportunity to show what he could really do as an actor. The result would be one of the most powerful turns of his entire career.

The same year as “One False Move,” Paxton also played leads in the odd and largely forgotten dark comedy/horror hybrid “The Vagrant” and reunited with “Streets of Fire” director Walter Hill for “Trespass,” an exciting, racially charged riff on “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.” For the next few years, he was once again seen mostly in supporting roles, though the projects were becoming more prestigious. He appeared as Morgan Earp in the hugely entertaining Western “Tombstone,” a creepy lout in the kinkfest known as “Boxing Helena” (1993), a man attending a summer camp reunion in Indian Summer (1994), reuniting with Cameron and Schwarzenegger  as a sleazeball salesman in True Lies (1994), Frank James in the TV movie “Frank & Jesse” and real-life astronaut Fred Haise in the enormously popular Apollo 13 (1995). Following appearances as the first victim of a group of homicidal self-righteous liberals in The Last Supper (1996) and The Evening Star (1996), the semi-sequel to “Terms of Endearment,” Paxton would have two of the biggest hits of his career, first starring as a tornado chaser in the epically silly “Twister” (1996) and then back with Cameron to play the head of the expedition that provided the modern-day framework for the bonanza known as Titanic (1997). (Although this would be the last time that Cameron would direct Paxton in a film, the two would return to the deep a few years later for Ghosts of the Abyss (2003), a documentary that saw them diving to the resting place of the real-life wreckage of the Titanic.)

Although Paxton could have used the heat he got off of those movies to make his way into any number of blockbusters, he shifted gears to a couple of smaller projects that resulted in two of his most affecting performances. In “Traveller” (1997), which he also co-produced, he played a member of an American Romani Gypsy family of grifters who takes a cousin (Mark Wahlberg) under his wing to show him the ropes even as he himself yearns for a different life. The role allowed him to show a quieter and more vulnerable persona that kept the film as a whole honest and true even when it threatened to slip into cliche. 

The next year, he starred in A Simple Plan (pictured above) as an ordinary guy who, along with his brother and a mutual acquaintance, stumbles across millions in illicit loot in the wreckage of a plane crash. The three decide to keep it for themselves but find the pressure of trying to keep their discovery a secret causes them to grown paranoid and distrustful in ways that lead to shocking results. Although Billy Bob Thornton earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination for his supporting performance as Paxton’s slower, sadder brother, it was Paxton who not only deserved to get a Best Actor nomination but who by all rights should have taken home the prize. Simply put, this was the finest performance of his entire career—playing an ordinary guy who makes one shady move in order to make a better life for himself and winds up paying for it endlessly as his once-happy life disintegrates before him, his work is agonizingly real and relatable. His final moments with Thornton are as heartbreaking as anything you will ever see.

After roles in the remake of Mighty Joe Young(1998), the cable movie “A Bright Shining Lie” (1998), for which he earned his first Golden Globe nomination, the empty-headed mountain-climbing thriller Vertical Limit (2000) and the WW II drama U-571 (2000), Paxton made his feature directing debut with Frailty(2001), a spellbinding blend of psychological drama and gut-churning horror. He plays a man who, as seen in flashback related by his now-adult son (Matthew McConaughey), not only began to commit grisly murders at the behest of the supposedly divine voices in his head but made both of his young sons assist him in the killings. Although not a particularly big hit at the box-office, those who did see the film were almost uniformly blown away by how impressed they were with how Paxton took the elements from any number of familiar genre elements and transformed them into something truly unique and undeniably freaky. Based on his work here, he could have easily left his regular job and gone into directing full-time but he would only direct one more feature, the decidedly lighter golf drama The Greatest Game Ever Played (2005). One of the projects he was apparently working on at the time of his passing was “The Bottoms,” a drama which he was slated to direct from a screenplay from “Frailty” writer Brent Hanley.

During the next couple of years, Paxton appeared in small roles in the kid-oriented films “Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams” (2002), "Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over" (2003) and Thunderbirds(2004) and did an absolutely hilarious turn as a second-tier Jimmy Buffett-like music star in the cheerfully gory and sadly underrated slasher movie spoof “Club Dread” (2004). In 2006, he would have another big personal success playing a member of a polygamist community trying to juggle his relationships with his three wives while keeping his secret safe from the outside world in “Big Love,” an HBO series that ran from 2006-2011 and earned him three Golden Globe nominations for Best Actor. After that show left the air, he returned to the big screen for a small role in Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire (2011) and earned an Emmy nomination for playing Randall McCoy in the highly praised miniseries “Hatfields & McCoys" (2012). He was the bad guy in the action-comedy 2 Guns (2013), the tough-as-nails Master Sergeant in the should-have-been-a-hit sci-fi mind-bender Edge of Tomorrow (2014) and a sleazy news photographer hell-bent on exploiting misery for profit in Nightcrawler (2014) and turned up on television for a few episodes of “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D” (2014) and as Sam Houston in the miniseries “Texas Rising” (2015).

At the time of his passing, Paxton was still hard at work. Earlier this year, he returned to series television with a spinoff of the Denzel Washington drama Training Day." Later this spring, he will be seen playing Emma Watson’s father in “The Circle,” James Ponsoldt’s adaptation of Dave Eggers’ paranoid drama about the goings-on inside a mysterious and powerful tech company. Though his time may have been unexpectedly cut short, he still left a considerable body of work to look back on and made considerable contributions to a number of classic films along the way. And if you need something to smile about in the face of this news, I implore you to check out “Club Dread”—his rant where he decries Jimmy Buffett as “a son-of-a-son-of-bitch!” should do the trick nicely. This was an actor who will truly be missed.

Peter Sobczynski

Peter Sobczynski is a contributor to and Magill's Cinema Annual and can be heard weekly on the nationally syndicated "Mancow's Morning Madhouse" radio show.

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