When Bill Paxton died last month, cinema lost one of its finest character actors. For more than three decades, Paxton stole scenes in nearly 100 films, TV shows and miniseries. He wasn’t always in great films, but any film featuring Bill Paxton was a film worth watching. He made us laugh our asses off and cry our eyes out. He was the guy, every time, every role. On a recent episode of Marc Maron’s WTF Podcast, Paxton sounded eager to keep delivering great roles. Which makes his unexpected passing that much harder to take. Paxton’s loss is such a sad one, but we’ll always have his work, some of my favorite examples of which are below.
Five Essential Roles
Weird Science (1985)
Paxton stole a scene in The Terminator as a punk leader, but his most notorious debut is as the asshole older brother, Chet, in Weird Science. Paxton owns every scene with his insane facial expressions, ruthless faux military gusto, and hilarious one-liners. As Paxton stated on the WTF Podcast, some of Chet’s lines (i.e. “How ‘bout a nice greasy pork sandwich served in a dirty ashtray?”) were actually improvised by Paxton himself. It’s so cool that writer/director John Hughes gave Paxton the freedom to make Chet as absurd as he is. It’s a wondrously ridiculous comedic debut.
Aliens (1986)/Near Dark (1987)/True Lies (1994)
Paxton isn’t the star of these three films, but he steals every single moment he is featured in all of them. James Cameron always knew how to best use Paxton’s humor, as Paxton’s hilarious work in Aliens (“Game over, man! Game over!”) and True Lies (“The ‘vet, gets ‘em wet.”) remain some of the actor’s finest comedic work. Near Dark, directed by Cameron’s future wife, Kathryn Bigelow, has Paxton as a psychotic vampire, but a damn funny one all the same. Paxton was a character actor’s character actor. Didn’t matter if he starred in the film or showed up for a just a few scenes. These three roles are a great example of that.
One False Move (1992)
I forgot how good of a film One False Move is. If you haven’t seen it, do so immediately. It’s about two fucking maniacs (Billy Bob Thornton and Michael Beach) who commit a series of brutal drug murders in L.A., then flee for Star City, Arkansas. With the LAPD tracking the criminals, they coordinate with the Star City police chief, Dale Dixon, who is one hell of a character himself. Dale is a country boy with big ambitions. He talks a mile a minute and has more ideas than any three people combined. It would be so easy for Paxton to make Dale a country bumpkin caricature, but Paxton (and co-writers Thornton and Tom Epperson) are smarter than that. They give Dale a depth and intelligence that helps make One False Move one of the best and smartest crime thrillers of the ‘90s.
Apollo 13 (1995)
One of the reasons I clumped Aliens, Near Dark and True Lies together was to make room for Apollo 13. There are a lot of “big” Paxton characters listed here. They’re loud, they’re funny, they’re imposing – they’re big. Fred Haise is Paxton playing his best everyman. Watching the film, you really believe Paxton is the Biloxi-born astronaut who almost didn’t make it back home from the Apollo 13 mission. Paxton’s dialed-back, earnest work makes him “the guy.” And playing they guy can be harder than playing a broad character. The day Paxton died, Apollo 13 was the first film I watched. That’s saying something.
Big Love (2006-2011)
Paxton had the fortune to carry a few projects during his career, but Big Love was the largest. The show, about a polygamous Mormon family in Utah, ran for five full seasons, and Paxton was the star of every one of them. I’ve actually never finished the show, but from the seasons I’ve seen, it’s surprising that Paxton didn’t garner more awards attention. He was nominated for three Golden Globes for playing Bill Henrickson, but shut out by the Emmy and SAG awards. No matter, Bill is one of Paxton’s most well rounded characters. Sure, he had 53 hours to flesh Bill out, but what a joy it was to see Paxton headlining such a large project. I definitely need to make it a point to finish Big Love.
Club Dread (2004)/Haywire (2011)
I’m putting these wild cards here for perspective. Club Dread features what could very well be the most out-and-out ridiculous Paxton performance ever. The resort-owning musician, Coconut Pete, has long hair, a stoner vibe, and remains mercilessly pissed that Jimmy Buffet stole Pete’s “Pinacoladaberg” song and turned it into “Margaritaville.” Coconut Pete is an absurd character, but it proved that Paxton knew how to have a damn good time.
Paxton’s Haywire performance is one of his simplest. He shows up briefly toward the end of Steven Soderbergh’s underrated thriller, as the ex-Marine father of Gina Carano’s character. Paxton doesn’t raise his voice above speaking level or alter his inflection, even when he has a gun pointed to his head. His John Kane is disciplined and calm, but still worried for his child. There’s an efficiency to Paxton’s John Kane that I’ve always appreciated.
The Best of the Best
A Simple Plan (1998)
I love all kinds of movies, but films that show regular people in real, desperate situations are certainly some of my favorites. A Simple Plan is not only my favorite Sam Raimi film, it contains my favorite Bill Paxton performance, and near-best work from Billy Bob Thornton. The movie is about three small town fellas who come across a shitload of money, and see their lives ripped apart because of it.
The joy of movies like these is putting yourself in the shoes of the characters. What would you do if you were Hank? Would you take the money and run? Would you lie and fight and potentially kill to keep the money? Maybe you would, maybe you wouldn’t – who knows. And here’s the kicker: if a character in these films does something you don’t agree with, it is very easy for the audience to turn on the character. Hank makes a lot of choices in A Simple Plan that I personally would never consider. But Paxton makes me believe those choices are Hank’s only options. It’s a performance so rooted in greed, guilt, and shame, that I can never take my eyes off it. Bill Paxton was a great actor who starred in a great number of roles, but I’ll always be most drawn to the reality of Hank from A Simple Plan.
The Terminator (1984)
Predator 2 (1990)
Brain Dead (1990)
The Last Supper (1995)
The Evening Star (1996)
Mighty Joe Young (1998)
Vertical Limit (2000)
Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams (2002)
Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams (2002)
Hatfields & McCoys (2012)
2 Guns (2013)
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2014)
Million Dollar Arm (2014)
Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
Training Day (2017)
The Circle (2017)