Here is a story about Bill Paxton, the gifted character actor who passed away Saturday at the age of 61 after complications from heart surgery, that speaks to his character.
One of the more head-scratching revelations from the Sony leaks, internal company documents that were disseminated online after a shadowy cabal of hackers penetrated the company’s systems in late 2014, involved how Hollywood A-lister Ben Affleck went through pains to try and whitewash his extended family’s slave-owning past on the PBS program Finding Your Roots. Paxton, on the other hand, took a decidedly different approach. Appearing on TLC’s Who Do You Think You Are, another reality series tracing celebrity family lineages, the actor confronted his family’s dark past head-on. When it was revealed that Paxton’s great-great-great-great-grandfather was none other than Maj. Benjamin Sharp, a Revolutionary War hero and slave-owner, the actor remarked, “That’s unfortunate… We have a tendency to want to hide the bad parts of our history, but we have to shine a light on all of it in order to understand who we are.”
In taking stock of Paxton’s career, which spanned 65 films and numerous television shows over 40 years, it is readily apparent that there were precious few “bad parts” (that one Limp Bizkit music video notwithstanding).
A native of Fort Worth, Texas, Paxton’s first brush with the spotlight came under tragic circumstances: the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Earlier that morning, as President Kennedy emerged from the Hotel Texas in Fort Worth, a then-8-year-old Paxton saw him speak. A photo of Paxton peeking out above the crowd, taken on that fateful day, November 22, 1963, is currently on display at The Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas.
“He’d been hoisted on the shoulders of an African-American man he’d only just met, who had offered the kid a better view of the president. [Paxton] recalled having been there with his older brother, Bob, and their dad,” reported the Dallas Observer.
There was often, it seemed, a hint of tragedy behind that goofy, unmistakable grin. His death scene in the underappreciated western Tombstone, as his on screen brother Wyatt Earp (played by Kurt Russell) cradles his bloodied body in his arms to the very last gasp, is powerful beyond words; his turn as Fred Haise, the Lunar Module Pilot in Apollo 13, a master-class in quiet panic. Paxton’s aw-shucks Texanness lent embers of humanity to small-town scoundrels—such as A Simple Plan’s Hank Mitchell, the rural Minnesotan whose discovery of $4.4 million melts away his soul, or Bill Henrickson, the polygamist patriarch of Big Love.
Paxton’s range was limitless. Compare, say, the soulfulness and imprudent empathy of Henrickson to his unhinged older brother Chet Donnelly—who spouted sidesplitting witticisms like, “You’re stewed, buttwad!”—in Weird Science, and you get a sense of it. He first made an impression as a punk rocker who makes the obvious mistake of getting in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s killer cyborg’s face in 1984’s The Terminator, the first of a series of collaborations with filmmaker-pal James Cameron including Aliens, True Lies, Titanic, and Ghosts of the Abyss.
“We’re just good friends, and he’s been incredibly loyal to me,” Paxton said of Cameron. “I guess I always fantasized about hooking up with a director and doing a series of films with him. You think of the great actor/director teams, like Scorsese and De Niro…”
His Simon in True Lies, a used car salesman and PUA who unwittingly cons his way into a top-secret government operation, is a paragon of sleaze, and his frenzied, highly amusing performance as Private William Hudson of Aliens will forever be immortalized with the line, “Game over, man. Game over!” There were, of course, other fine Paxton performances—the psycho vampire Severen in Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark, as well as leading-man turns as a storm chaser in Twister and smooth Irish criminal in Traveller among them—but he was also a talented filmmaker to boot.
Paxton’s directorial debut, the 2001 film Frailty, concerning a religious-fanatic father commanding his children to smite “demons” in the name of God, is a slow-burn thriller that raises fascinating questions about religious hysteria, filial love, and the power of belief. It is not only one of the best cult films of the aughts, but to say that the first season of HBO’s True Detective borrowed heavily from it would be an understatement. It is a film that pointed to a rich second act for Paxton behind the camera—one that was sadly cut short.
He is survived by his wife, Louise Newbury, and their two children.