Remembering Bill Paxton: A good guy in life, and a moral tangle on screen
Sincerity. Earnestness. Decency.
These are the core qualities of Bill Paxton, both as a man and an actor. They are the elements rooted in almost every character he played, no matter where that person ultimately landed on the spectrum of morality or bravery. These are the starting points, and every man he played either held fast or strayed from that center.
In real life, the actor, who died Sunday at age 61, was as genuine as they come. A true-life good guy. Curious, kind. Always reaching out.
The last time I crossed paths with Paxton was at Comic-Con this past summer, where I hosted the Q&A for the Aliens 30th anniversary panel. Almost the entire cast was there, and he seemed as electrified as the thousands of fans in Hall H to relive the movie in which he died so spectacularly.
As delighted as he was to bellow Private Hudson’s plaintive wail of “Game over, man!” to the crowd, Paxton was also characteristically humble. He recalled a day during the making of Aliens when the roof of the set started to collapse during one of his scenes.
“I thought, ‘God, I must really be sucking here,'” the actor said. “When I played this character, when I got the call to do this, I was so thrilled, but at the same time, I was very nervous. It’s hard to sustain the guy that’s always scared. In retrospect, 30 years later, I’m looking and going… you know… yeah, it’s okay.”
Sigourney Weaver took umbrage on the panel. “You were brilliant!” she declared, stoking cheers from the crowd: “He was brilliant, right?”
Paxton grinned. “I thought the character was just gonna wear out his welcome and people were going to go, ‘When is this guy going to die already?'” he said. “Jim used the Hudson character and me in the role as kind of a pressure release valve.”
“That’s exactly what it was,” director and writer James Cameron interjected. “It’s a measure of the tension of the film on the audience. You give them the ability to laugh, and that releases the tension so it can build up again.”
“I just wish I coulda laughed more,” Paxton said.
“Then you gave him a heroic ending, saving us,” Weaver said to the filmmaker.
“That’s right. It’s actually one of the things that’s not in the script. You went down fighting,” Cameron told Paxton. “And you made up your own dialogue on that. The thing is, Bill made up different dialogue on every take, and he was yelling it over a machine gun, so none of it actually recorded! We spent about four hours in ADR one day trying to figure out what he said.”
“I still don’t know, Jim,” Paxton said, shamefaced. “Is it too late?”
As an actor and filmmaker himself, Paxton often explored the push and pull between the dark and light side of human nature. He was mesmerized by the attraction of savagery, of cruelty, of the lost perspective that allows someone to become unmoored, tumbling headlong into unspeakable behavior without ever realizing (until it’s maybe too late) how far they’d gone.
Paxton directed and starred in a dark little gem of a horror movie called Frailty (2001) about a man who thinks demons walk among us. The character he plays, the father of two boys he’s indoctrinating into his bizarre gospel, is definitely crazy. But he may also, possibly, be right.
When Paxton and I spoke this summer before the Aliens panel, I may have geeked out on this movie a little bit, asking/urging/nudging him to get back behind the camera. He said it had been so long since Frailty came out, he was just glad someone remembered it. Then he said he was hoping to direct another movie. Fingers crossed. “We’ll see,” he said. “I really hope it happens.”
Now we know it won’t. We’ve lost another great storyteller. But he leaves behind roles both large and small that are unforgettable: The blue-haired punk in Terminator. The literal pile-of-crap big brother in Weird Science. Cowardly (then heroic) Private Hudson from Aliens. These parts may have disappeared without an actor of his charisma. Then there were his lead roles as an everyman in Big Love, Twister, and A Simple Plan, where his earnest decency helped him play against type as a good man who breaks very bad.
“You’ve gotta remember how people see you,” his Lady MacBeth-style wife, played by Bridget Fonda, says in the film. “You’re just a normal guy, a nice, sweet, normal guy.”
“They’re gonna know,” Paxton responds, the blood on his hands invisible, but the broken expression on his face confessing everything.
“No, they won’t,” she assures her once-wholesome husband. “Nobody would ever believe that you’d be capable of doing what you’ve done.”
Bill Paxton was a utility player. A leading man who never let ego get in the way of incredible supporting parts like Apollo 13, Tombstone, and Predator 2 (a not-very-good film in which he was valiant, as always.)
He’ll be remembered for bringing sincerity to every role: hero, villain, coward, monster, and lost soul alike.
The internet is currently flooded with stories of his generosity to fans. The screenwriter Lila Byock (WGN’s Manhattan) shared one such encounter from her early days trying to break into this business, when she and Manhattan creator Sam Shaw ended up having an impromptu dinner with Paxton at a sushi restaurant.
I was fortunate to witness to some of that, too. This summer, a lifelong Aliens fan proposed marriage to his girlfriend at the end of the Comic-Con panel, and Bill was charmed beyond belief by that, practically ready to be their best man if called upon.
A few years before that, two longtime EW readers and First Row commenters who own The Alter Ego comic book shop in Marion, Iowa, Erin and Jeremy, were at the annual geek gathering, and I knew they ADORED this guy. They liked him so much, they even named their pug Paxton.
So, after one interview with Paxton in the EW video suite, I asked them to swing by the hotel and found a way for Bill and them to run into each other in the hallway. He was so sweet, so grateful for their support, and as a comic book fan himself (who had been promoting the Western graphic novel 7 Holes For Air), was plenty interested in their work, too. At the end, he posed for this photo. I wish we had a picture of his face when he found out Paxton the pug was a girl!
Today, those two fans are among many who are grieving. Erin sends this addendum to the story: “I remember that it was his first time at Comic-Con and he was so jazzed to be there, was taking in every moment. Later that night, we met him again at a bar and he told us about how Tom Cruise made him say his iconic ‘Game over, man!’ while in Hall H and the crowd went wild. His face held genuine joy and appreciation. In the short time I spent with him, he made me feel like the most appreciated fan he’d ever met. My logic knows otherwise, but that was part of his talent.”
But she’s wrong about that part.
Bill Paxton was a talented actor, but being a good guy in real life was something he never had to fake.
Follow on Twitter: @Breznican.