Bill Paxton (1955-2017): In Memoriam

Bill Paxton (1955-2017): In Memoriam

Bill Paxton passed away on February 25th, 2017.  

Paxton inhabited each character he played, giving off a natural charisma and left a lasting impression each time, no matter how small the role. He was most definitely an "Oh, it's that guy!" type of actor, but in all the best ways possible. You delighted in seeing him in Aliens ("Game over, man!") and you had the same grin on your face decades later when you saw him in Edge of Tomorrow, where he played a hard-as-nails Master Sergeant leading troops against an alien horde. While he made his mark in several genre films (The TerminatorPredator 2, Near Dark, just to name a few), he still managed to take on dramatic work with ease (Apollo 13, A Simple Plan). You couldn't be a film fan and not marvel at a Paxton performance. 

We'll miss him.

The TFS staff selected some of their favorite work from Paxton in memoriam of one of our favorite actors who left us too soon.    

Near Dark (1987)

Before the catch-all instant information of IMDB, film blogs, and so forth, finding new movies was up to instinctual video store grabs; and random recommendations. As a hungry horror movie fan gobbling up anything and everything macabre, and once everything had been watched at the video store, the “previously viewed bin” had been emptied, I was at a loss for new movies. Then one day Bravo’s 100 Scariest Movie Moments was on, and I saw footage from Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark, highlighting the infamous bar scene with Bill Paxton strutting down that bar top, smashing glasses underfoot, talking shit, swaggering like a satanic fusion of James Dean and Marilyn Manson. This sequence was solidified in my brain and Near Dark became an urgent title to seek out.

Before Big Love, Twister and Sergeant Farrell in Edge of Tomorrow Bill Paxton had a proclivity toward self-styled rebels with more dimension than most of the cast around him — in my mind "Game over, man" trumps the oft-quoted "Get away from her you bitch!" in Aliens.

Paxton is simply oozing with energy and charisma in the film, whether he’s leaning against the bar with his shades holding a sawed-off scattergun covered in blood, or slitting someone's throat with his spurs, his performance as Severan is the most memorable part of the movie. Paxton could do a lot of things, he could play a lot of characters, but as a cackling maniac vampire, he's perfect.

Before she reinvented herself as a director with elegiac verite war cinema, Kathryn Bigelow meant something entirely different to an earlier generation — she made highly stylistic modern genre films (action, sci-fi) and then there’s Near Dark. You can call it a western with vampires or a vampiric western-cum-road movie, either way, Near Dark is an original concept, and its contemporary, ultra-violent smash-and-grab aesthetic makes it a classic. I miss Kathryn Bigelow’s earlier work, and the real tragedy is that we won’t see another collaboration with she and Paxton.

- Alex Miller

Big Love (2006 - 2011)

The period between The Sopranos and Game Of Thrones was a time of change for HBO, who were under attack from a variety of cable up-and-comers challenging their title as the home of prestige TV. At the same time, the shift towards genre programming like True Blood and The Walking Dead was shifting must-see television, and smaller series began to specialize in what would attract and sustain loyal, passionate audiences.

Big Love straddles these two phases of the cable landscape, and Bill Paxton’s agile on-screen presence is a big part of what made it a great show. Paxton maintained a grounded air of a man struggling with the anxieties and comedies of a family life complicated by plural marriage. Paxton, and on-screen first wife Jeanne Tripplehorn, don’t get to be as over the top as other members of the Hendricks clan, so Paxton’s ‘Aw Shucks’ exasperation adds to his natural everyman characteristics. The series achieved its share of acclaim and a reasonable audience to allow for five seasons of TV, but its attempt to live in a post-David Chase, pre-Ryan Murphy dominated world lead to an uneven product. It hopped about between gripping crime stories in the world of Fundamental Mormon compounds and suburban palace intrigue that bordered on soap opera cartoonish. Paxton grounded the extremes of the world, and made some of the seemingly unbelievable practices of Fundamental Mormons feel authentic.

Big Love doesn’t use Paxton as the over-the-top character actor he’s most beloved for, but it keeps his everyman sensibility intact for an acting performance some might not have found possible after 30 years in the industry.

- Nick Issac

Frailty (2001)

Bill Paxton's directorial debut is a true gut-wrencher. It tells the story of a widowed Texas mechanic overtaken by visions of angels telling him to murder; his two young sons become involved, one of whom buys into his father's madness, while the other tries whatever he can to stop it. It's a nasty tale that only gets darker as it goes, and it's made even more so by Paxton's unflinching direction and his terrifying lead performance as the father.

Matthew McConaughey narrates as the grown-up version of one of the sons, confessing his father and brother's crimes to an FBI agent (Powers Booth). The story is told in these flashbacks where we slowly watch a good father turn into a murderer who believes he is carrying out God's will. Paxton manages this transition very well, somehow being both a convincingly sweet dad and a scary self-righteous axe murderer at once. There are plenty of twists, and it took guts to allow what ultimately happens to happen. It's not often that you ask yourself during a movie "Is it going to go there?", only then to have it go even further.

- Marcus Irving

Twister (1996)

Twister is another very dumb, ridiculous Jan de Bont blockbuster, but here is another great example of Bill Paxton in a lead role. As TV weatherman Bill “The Extreme” Harding, a guy trying to convince his estranged tornado-chasing wife Jo (Helen Hunt) to sign the divorce papers that would allow him to move on, he is swept up in an unexpected scenario against a freakish act of nature in the plains of Oklahoma. Even though Paxton does a lot of screaming in this movie that can really get on one’s nerves, you can’t help but feel some kind of love for his character even if it's not very deep. The effects have aged horribly making the cast itself stand out more (Cary Elwes! Philip Seymour Hoffman! Alan Ruck! The guy who played Faraday on Lost!), though I’d be hardpressed to think of another Paxton vehicle where he is this likeable.

- Rob Trench

Club Dread (2004)

Coconut Pete, the self-professed predecessor of “that son of a son of a bitch” Jimmy Buffett, has two steady things in his life throughout Broken Lizard’s Club Dread: a massive, Parrothead-shaped chip on his shoulder, and a private island resort that he’s running himself (badly). That Paxton manages to portray Pete as man of ambition while at the same time making him the biggest source of laughs in the film because of his inept hiring decisions is a testament to Paxton’s talent and range — look for the scene where Coconut Pete tries to impart the secret ingredient in Coconut Pete’s Paella.

Pete’s a man who realizes his ship has sailed, and with another failed hippie at the helm, to boot. But he doesn’t let that stop him from trying to make his money where he can, even if it means tricking Parrotheads into thinking they’re going on vacation with someone who ripped his songs off seven-plus years after he wrote them. He just won’t be very happy about it. Paxton’s presence elevates everyone with whom he shares scenes, and is easily the best part of Club Dread.

- Sean Beattie

Aliens (1986)

Private Hudson sure is a confident Space Marine. Equipped with lethal weaponry and surrounded by equally lethal peers, Hudson truly feels that he can handle any situation tossed at him. Of course, things go completely SNAFU and most of his Marines are wiped out by an alien threat that no amount of training could have prepped them for. Private Hudson, the cocky badass, becomes a total bumbling chicken shit coward. Trapped in a situation that goes from bad to worse with no relief in sight, we think that's all his character will ultimately be. Thankfully, director James Cameron and actor Bill Paxton knew what to do with this character and they give him a glorious career-shaping final note. You see, when Hudson is backed against a wall, he will go down swinging, teeth gnashing and guns blazing. All that arrogance and cowardice is really a mask for a guy you'd want in your foxhole when it comes down to it. Giving it all he has, even as he's being dragged away by the alien monstrosities, Bill Paxton is firing that Pulse Rifle, kicking and screaming, taking as many critters as he can with him. It is a masterful performance, full of dimension and depth, a textbook example of range. To find that wonder in a creature feature is the sign of a true talent, one that fully understands the material through and through. The ultimate example of "The Voice of the Audience", Private Hudson is my favorite Paxton performance by a country mile adding to the many reasons why Aliens is my all time favorite film. Goodbye, Bill. I'll celebrate you, always. 

- Rockie Juarez

Titanic (1997)

Bill Paxton was a mainstay in almost every James Cameron film released throughout the 80’s and 90’s, the result of a long lasting friendship between the two. Paxton is the first actor audiences see in the mega-blockbuster Titanic, the second-highest-grossing picture of all time. His character, Brock Lovett, is essentially a modern day treasure hunter, exploring the wreck of the Titanic with his team, much like the real life James Cameron would do many times over the years. He's a conduit for Cameron to tell the story of the ship's sinking through modern eyes, and Paxton plays the role with his trademark snark and charm. Both relatable and hilarious at times, Lovett is one of Cameron's better supporting characters and Paxton continued his streak of giving a pitch perfect performance in a Cameron film.

Having seen Titanic at least five times during its original theatrical run, and twice when it was released in 3D in 2012, it's safe to say that I'm a fan. There's a reason Titanic made all of the money; it's an epic romance, astounding in its scope and ambition, and filled with memorable performances and characters. And Bill Paxton was our entryway to this tale.

- Matt Curione

The Vagrant (1992)

This bizarre horror-comedy about a yuppie who finds a homeless man haunting his newly purchased home starts off as a sort of message about gentrification, but soon takes off into far weirder territory, leaving any pretense of a statement behind. It twists and turns and twists again, the premise stretched so thin that the story has nowhere to go but total chaos. Paxton's performance is the anchor in the storm, engaging in a way that only he could be – always able to swing between goofy and sympathetic effortlessly, playing characters too weird to be real but grounding them with a sincerity that made it possible for the audience to connect with him. Here, as violence and paranoia consume him and he gradually becomes unhinged, the fabric of reality ripping right along with his sanity, we're always compelled to cheer for him. His stuck-up jerk routine is often funny but never overwhelms the heart of the character. He's scared, he's lost, he's confused, a human stuck in a cartoon nightmare. The Vagrant is an imperfect but wildly entertaining experience, and as with so many other movies it's Bill Paxton that takes it from fun to unmissable.

- Sydney Wegner

A Simple Plan (1998)

A compelling yarn of a tale that feels inspired by the Coen Brothers’ Fargo (friends of director Sam Raimi), A Simple Plan is a tense thriller that snowballs out of an idyllic scenario. Brothers Hank and Jacob (and friend Lou) encounter $4 million dollars laying out in the wreckage of a small airplane, and attempt to keep the fortune for themselves. What transpires is a grim, bleak scenario where good people trying to make the best of an unexpected event results in them caving into to the pressures of greed that lay before them. As Hank, Paxton is less wild and unrestrained as we’re used to seeing him, more of an everyman to say the least. Here he demonstrates the dramatic range that his roles in the blockbusters which made him a household name could never express, subverting the audience’s preconceived notions of his usual type of performances, in what is ostensibly his best work as a leading man.

- Rob Trench

   

Tombstone (1993)

Because of how multi-faceted Bill Paxton was, it's hard to nail down a performance that I'd consider a personal favorite. There were too many. He often took supporting roles and he absolutely knew how to make the most out of every second he was on screen. He was in The Terminator for one scene and managed to make the most of what could've been a throwaway role. In Tombstone, Paxton plays Wyatt Earp's brother Morgan, the wide-eyed, sometimes goofy, straight arrow who finds himself against a band a thieves. Tombstone is Wyatt Earp's story, Kurt Russell plays the legendary gunslinger in one of his best performances. But it's Paxton's heartening take on Morgan Earp that gives the film it's emotional throughline. The Earp brothers are looking for a place to settle down and Tombstone, Arizona turns out to be the worst choice. There's nothing Morgan Earp wants more than to be out of law enforcement business, but there are no easy breaks for legends. The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral plays out with them the victors but the brothers aren't out of the woods yet. History plays out in Tombstone and we see the assassination of Morgan Earp. Watching it now, it's painful to Paxton act out Morgan's last breathes, but what's on display is a performance so strong that it leaves a thunderous effect on both Wyatt Earp and its audience. Paxton knew exactly how to bring that out in people.

- Marcelo Pico

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