Sunday, March 12, 2017

In Character: Bill Paxton

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)
Chet Donnelly
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)
Private Hudson/Severen/Simon
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)
Dale “Hurricane” Dixon
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)
Fred Haise
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)
Bill Henrickson
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.

Wild Cards
Club Dread (2004)/Haywire (2011)
Coconut Pete/John Kane
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.

Other Notable Roles
in Nightcrawler

The Terminator (1984)
Predator 2 (1990)
Brain Dead (1990)
Trespass (1992)
Tombstone (1993)
The Last Supper (1995)
Twister (1996)
The Evening Star (1996)
Titanic (1997)
Mighty Joe Young (1998)
U-571 (2000)
Vertical Limit (2000)
Frailty (2001)
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)
Nightcrawler (2014)
Training Day (2017)
The Circle (2017)


  1. Beautiful post! That was such a sad beginning of the Oscar day to read what happened. Way too young to go. And by all accounts an incredibly nice man, devoted husband and great co-worker (I loved Tom Hanks' tweet about him where he said he was simply a wonderful man). I watch Apollo 13 a lot and I just love Paxton's work there - he is such a good, likable, sweet guy. And he was always so memorable in the movies he appeared in.

    1. Wonderful comment. Perfectly encapsulates my thoughts on Paxton. I loved Hanks' tweet as well. Paxton just seemed like a damn fine guy. Damn fine.

  2. Oh this makes me so sad, I used to love him in Twister too, even after i realized that movie was poo!

    1. Haha for sure! He was great in everything, even if the movie wasn't all that good.

  3. The day he died is the day my good ol' black laptop died. That was a shitty day. I love this guy and more importantly. I always saw him as a very cool and humble guy when he was a guest programmer for Turner Classic Movies as he chose 4 awesome films as one of them was Badlands and the other is California Split which I recorded the latter as it's a film that is rarely shown.

    I love his work with James Cameron as he knew what to do in those roles where he can standout no matter how small they are.

    His role in Big Love I think is his best performance while I also love him in Club Dread. I would've loved to see the band Coconut Pete was going to have. Billy Squier, Eddie Money, and Don Henley on drums. Shit, that would've been tight.

    I also love the fact that he could do comedy so naturally such as being Chet or the Dinkster in the Spy Kids movies. So long Bill, you will be missed.

    1. He will be missed indeed. I wish I could see when he was a guest programmer on TCM. I loved to listen to the talk about movies. His WTF podcast was one of my favorite episodes of that show.

  4. (from Katy Rochelle, previous comment deleted by mistake):
    Such a wonderful tribute! It was so shocking to hear of his passing. I was going to watch Training Day on CBS purely because he was in it. You're so on the money - he was just that guy who stole every scene in so many movies. He was a bad-ass screen presence by how he could take regular dudes but given them depth and nuance. He's a huge reason, especially his edgy chemistry with Helen Hunt, as to why I love Twister so much. I'd definitely recommend finishing Big Love. His work on that show is tremendous.

    1. Thanks Katy! I will definitely be finishing Big Love ASAP. Might rewatch the entire thing actually. And I agree with what you said about his work with Hunt in Twister. Their dynamic elevated the film for sure.

  5. One of my favorite character actors. I think A Simple Plan is his best effort but one that is nearly as good is his work in Frailty. Underrated film.

    1. So happy you like his work in A Simple Plan. I do love Frailty and think it is underrated, but I admire Paxton's direction of the film more than his acting work in it.

  6. Great post. He was such a talented actor and he's gone too soon. My personal favorite is Big Love. I didn't watch that show religiously, but I think I've seen most of it. And he was great in every episode.

    1. He really was one of the greats. Of the Big Love episodes I've seen, he definitely was greta in all of them.

  7. I haven't been hit this hard by a celebrity death since Robin Williams i think. I LOVE Bill Paxton. He was definitely one of my all time favorite actors. Any time he showed up in a movie it instantly made in ten times better. Picking a favorite role from him is damn near impossible, but i watched Near Dark again a few days ago and he is just fantastic in that movie. One of my all time favorite movie villains.

    But he had so many great roles under his belt. Apollo 13, Aliens, True Lies, The Terminator, Nightcrawler, One False Move, Titanic. The list goes on. Even in bad movie like Twister, Predator 2 and 2 Guns he was great. A Simple Plan is a movie from him i have not seen yet though so i will definitely have to check that one out as soon as possible. It sounds great.

    1. Man, I had no idea you dug him this much. What's not to love? I can't wait to hear your thoughts on A Simple Plan. As a die-hard Paxton fan, I'm sure you will like it for many reasons. He's so tortured in the film. Probably the most human role he played. I loved that character.

  8. I haven't seen a lot of his stuff (like a LOT) but he's quite a recognizable actor even if I don't follow his career. He definitely had a lot of great roles, and would be checking them out.

    1. He did indeed. He was in so many good films, and gave great performances in all of them. I hope you have time to check some out soon.

  9. Really nice tribute, I liked him a lot and he's gone too soon. His performance in A Simple Plan was amazing. I have to watch 'One False Move' asap and Big Love. I've been wanting to watch that series for a long time.

    1. Thanks so much. Still such a troubling loss. One False Move... wow, what a movie.

  10. RIP Bill Paxton. One False Move I’ve been meaning to watch for a while, must get to it soon. Enjoyed your piece on A Simple Plan, such a gripping and well-acted neo noir, I recently bought the dvd.

    I know I wrote a ‘goodbye’ post last year on my blog. I decided to return a few months ago. I hope you will consider re-adding me to your blog roll. Took a break, but I’m trying to reconnect with blog friends. See you around.

    1. Oh that's great man! I will definitely re-add you. Glad to have you back!

      Really glad you're a fan of A Simple Plan as well.

  11. I still can't believe he's gone. What a hugely talented guy who always brought something to even the smallest of roles.

    1. Completely agree. An immense talent that I still cannot believe is gone. So, so sad.

  12. Pvt Hudson is a hoot. Worth reminding everyone that he was the first to be killed by a Terminator, a Xenomorph and a Predator. ( Lance Henriksen is second)

    1. That's damn right! (sigh) I really miss this guy.