He played soldiers and punks, cowboys and cowards, good ol’ boys and good, honest men. Bill Paxton could personify bygone ideals of American masculinity — he was born and raised in Fort Worth, Texas, so Texan that he was related to Sam Houston — but he also exuded a wild-eyed comic spirit: his heroes half crazy, his villains strangely lovable. He’d play the most regular of guys—who would invariably turn criminal or marry three wives. “He could do a wild character that a lot of people wouldn’t be able to pull off,” says Big Love costar Chloë Sevigny. “I think it’s because he was so rooted, such a good person.”
Paxton died in L.A. on Feb. 25 at age 61 due to complications from heart surgery, leaving behind his wife of 30 years, Louise Newbury, and their children, James, 23, and Lydia, 19. In the wake of his death, the outpouring of grief from collaborators spoke, more than anything, to his decency.
Arnold Schwarzenegger, who tormented him in The Terminator and True Lies, posted a video declaring him “one of the greatest actors… and also a very, very good friend.” Fellow Apollo 13 astronaut Tom Hanks tweeted that he was “a wonderful man.” And Twin Peaks co-creator Mark Frost, a close friend, tells EW, “He made every set he was on a better place, and he made every picture he was in a better picture.”
Like many young men with filmmaking aspirations, Paxton first found steady work with cult film legend Roger Corman, doing odd jobs in the art department and debuting on screen in Crazy Mama, a 1975 film produced by Julie Corman, Roger’s wife. It was through Roger Corman that Paxton met his friend James Cameron, who would later cast him in a slew of films, including 1984’s The Terminator and 1986’s Aliens, in which he played Private Hudson, a wannabe badass dissolving into flop-sweating terror.
Paxton didn’t immediately play heroes, and his characters weren’t guaranteed a happy ending: He was the rare Hollywood actor killed on screen by a Terminator, a Predator, and a Wahlberg. Cameron in particular loved to cast Paxton as a goofy thug deserving swift comeuppance. That was the initial gag in 1992’s One False Move — the actor played a country policeman, as excitable as a kid and as cornpone as a rooster—but that transformative role let Paxton reveal his tricky emotional depth and moral toughness.
“One False Move was the movie Ron Howard had seen me in that led to Apollo 13,” Paxton told EW in 2015. “It was also the movie Jan de Bont saw me in that led to me being cast in Twister.” For the ’90s moviegoer, Paxton was a steady presence and a trusted friend, whether he was lost in space, chasing tornadoes, or (in Cameron’s megahit Titanic) exploring the ocean floor.
That trustworthy persona went beyond acting. “Everything positive you felt about him from what you saw on the screen is true of him as a person,” says Frost. While his films rose up the box office charts, Paxton became a father, the model collaborator now a happy family man. Perhaps that’s why his role in the dark 1998 masterpiece A Simple Plan feels so insidiously personal. He played a regular-as-they-come new dad who finds a lot of money that doesn’t belong to him. Temptation makes him a monster—but Paxton, always bringing depth and complexity where another actor might not, suggested the desperate monster in every man. (That’s also the key idea of 2002’s Frailty, Paxton’s incisive directorial debut, in which he played a father gone murderous with religious fervor.)
“He was a gentleman in the best sense of the word,” Frost says. “He had this wonderful, almost 19th-century [idea] of what a friend should be. He wrote beautiful, handwritten letters.” Paxton’s interests were diverse: He loved Southern gothic literature, collected art, and was half of the new-wave duo Martini Ranch (James Cameron directed a music video for the band in 1988). He also directed the adaptation of Frost’s golf-history book, The Greatest Game Ever Played, starring Shia LaBeouf (and Paxton’s son, James), in 2005.
In what we now have to cruelly refer to as his “later years,” Paxton found the perfect project for his diverse sensibility, playing polygamist Bill Henrickson for five seasons on HBO’s Big Love. “He was already a staple as this great character actor,” says Sevigny. “What he got to play on Big Love was a leading man, which he had never really done before.” A devoted TV husband, he purchased beach cruisers for his leading ladies—Sevigny, Ginnifer Goodwin, and Jeanne Tripplehorn—emblazoned with their character’s names.
Thankfully we haven’t seen the last of Paxton quite yet: He’ll appear in April’s The Circle, and he completed work on the first season of his CBS series Training Day in December. The show aired a dedication this week, but the fate of the series has yet to be decided.
“[Bill] believed in entertainment being transportive and transformative,” says Sevigny. He surely transported us and transformed every project he worked on, with wit, grace, and genuine humanity.
— Additional reporting by Clark Collis, Jeff Jensen, and Lynette Rice