This morning, on February 26, 2017, it was announced that the great Bill Paxton had died. His demise, due reportedly to “complications following a surgical procedure,” came at the far too young age of 61.
Based on the obituaries I’ve read thus far it seems Paxton is destined to be remembered as a “character actor,” and indeed he was quite a skilled character actor. Yet he also proved extremely potent as a leading man in both film and television, and was also a talent director. Even if you don’t recognize the name Bill Paxton, the chances are you’re at least partially familiar with his work.
Paxton’s earliest film credits were as a set decorator on anti-classics like BIG BAD MAMA, DEATH GAME and GALAXY OF TERROR. That’s has been widely reported in the media coverage of Paxton’s death, but what hasn’t been widely publicized is his work in the experimental film scene of the 1970s, with his key work of the period being the little seen TAKING TIGER MOUNTAIN. The film was initially conceived as an avant-garde kidnapping drama that was eventually refashioned into a hallucinatory science fiction account, starring Paxton as the harried Billy Hampton, a young man brainwashed by militant feminists. In later years Paxton appeared to do his best to forget about the existence of TAKING TIGER MOUNTAIN, but the film’s bizarre history effectively set the tone for Paxton’s career, which was nothing if not eccentric.
Bill Paxton first came to my attention in the mid-1980s, via supporting roles in THE TERMINATOR and WEIRD SCIENCE. In the former, you’ll recall, he played one of a gaggle of aggressive punks who confront the title character, while in the latter he played Chet the asshole older brother; Paxton’s priceless delivery of the line “You’re stewed, buttwad!” aptly demonstrates his power as an actor. Indeed, I’d say Paxton made a far greater impression in WEIRD SCIENCE than either of its its leads Anthony Michael Hall and Ilan Mitchell-Smith (in fact, the only actor in that movie who could really match Paxton was another up-and-coming supporting player: Robert Downey Jr).
Paxton’s ensuing roles, in films like NEAR DARK (in which he once again outshone everyone else in the cast), NEXT OF KIN, THE LAST OF THE FINEST and much of the post TERMINATOR filmography of James Cameron (for whom Paxton played the poorly endowed Simon the weasel in TRUE LIES) were largely of the smart-assed punk variety; it’s not for nothing that he was once credited as “Wild” Bill Paxton. That all changed with the release of the indie thriller ONE FALSE MOVE in 1992, which marked Paxton’s “big break” as a leading man. It was a strong performance that in contrast to so many of his earlier roles saw Paxton playing the straight man. Morally upright leading man roles would go on to became Paxton’s specialty in nineties-era films like TRESPASS, INDIAN SUMMER and THE EVENING STAR, much to his detriment.
Another problem with Paxton’s big screen leading man roles was, simply, that the movies they graced were by and large not very good. That includes TWISTER, a massive hit that nobody much liked, and MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, which is better left undiscussed (and unseen). Yet his talent was still evident: in 1988’s A SIMPLE PLAN, for instance, Paxton’s work in the lead role was admittedly overshadowed by Billy Bob Thornton in a much showier part, but Paxton succeeded in grounding the film with his heartbreaking portrayal of the mild-mannered family man Hank, who comes unglued after finding a massive sum of money. Plus, Paxton never quite abandoned the freaky underground movie world from which he emerged, as evinced by his roles in THE DARK BACKWARD, BOXING HELENA and THE LAST SUPPER, all of which turned up alongside his more mainstream credits.
The dissolution of Paxton’s leading man career occurred around the turn of the millennium. Paxton could have faded from view in the manner of quite a few of his former co-stars, but to his credit he never went away. His work on the HBO series BIG LOVE and HATFIELDS & McCOYS was justifiably celebrated, and his supporting roles in EDGE OF TOMORROW and NIGHTCRAWLER were, I’d argue, among the highlights of those films. Most recently he co-starred in the small screen transposition of TRAINING DAY, about which I’ll reserve judgment (from what I’ve seen of that show it doesn’t appear to contain much that’s worth judging).
Then we have Bill Paxton’s highly underrated work as a director. I’ve never forgotten the 1980 Paxton directed music video for Barnes and Barnes’ FISH HEADS, which was given generous exposure on MTV and SNL (it’s now on YouTube…just watch it!).
I also appreciated Paxton’s indie horror flick FRAILTY, a sleek and suspenseful piece of filmmaking that should have gotten a lot more attention than it did. Also deserving of praise is THE GREATEST GAME EVER PLAYED, Paxton’s only other feature directorial effort, a thoughtful and involving Disney production about golf (not the most inherently cinematic of subjects) starring Shia LeBouf. From indie horror to Disney: clearly Paxton’s directorial skills was every bit as varied as that of his acting range.
We’ll never know how Bill Paxton’s directorial career might have progressed, but I am certain he’d have delivered many more great performances. At least we still have his work as Billy, Chet, Simon, Hank and countless other roles, which as it turns out are more than enough to cement a legacy.