A Tribute To Bill Paxton: A Conversation

A Conversation between Dan Scully and Andy Elijah

Andy Elijah: Hello Dan! We are writing today to celebrate the life of Bill Paxton, who passed away at age 61 due to complications from surgery. We are also here to console each other a little bit, as I know we both loved him immensely. It’s better to mourn in company, so let’s talk a little bit about his career, his work, and the joy he brought to people like you and I. So I guess my first question is, who/what was Bill Paxton to you?

Dan Scully: To me, and I suspect to many others, Bill Paxton was the Everyman who was so good at being something more. He was a background player who was capable of carrying a movie/show, and he was a leading man who was capable of fading into the background without disappearing. He could be imposing, pathetic, dramatic, hilarious. He could really do anything — it was always clear that he put in the work and had fun doing it.

He was one of those guys who I had been watching for years without knowing it. I am unsure of when he first became a name for me because it happened so organically. Can you pinpoint that moment? What was your experience in becoming a Paxton fan?

A: I think there were three moments for me in becoming a certified Bill Paxton lover. But as you said, I didn’t really know it at the time- he was just there at some crucial moments in my formative movie loving years. I went to see both Apollo 13 and Twister in theaters, when I was just 9 or 10. As astronaut Fred Haise, he provided the salt of the earth, southern charm and comic relief. In Twister it was much of the same, but as a leading man. I loved Twister so much that for a time, I wanted to be a tornado chaser when I grew up. But then I actually had to handle a tornado warning when visiting my aunt in Texas that summer, and let’s say I found out that I was not cut out for that type of adrenaline.

Just a year or so later, I saw Aliens for the first time and it quickly became one of my favorite movies, with Paxton’s character Hudson standing out among that incredible cast, no easy feat. Aliens has is one of the most thoroughly characterized large supporting ensemble cast of any movie, and Hudson was my favorite. Once again as the comic relief, his idiotic machismo was cut with a thick layer of panic and dread when things start heading south for his team. I just loved that as a sort of wimpy little kid myself- I imagine he gave me permission to feel ok about being such a worrywart. It helped that he’s the funniest part of that movie. His one liners in it are probably my favorite movie quotables: from “Game over man, game over!” to “Fuckin A’ man!” to “Quit screwin’ around!”

What about you? What were the specific performances of his that turned you onto his craft?

D: What you said about Aliens is spot on. That cast is so densely packed with scene-chewing talent and – with kudos to all of them – none threatened to upstage another. Yet Bill Paxton stands out, even so. It’s the perfect metaphor for his entire career. Looking back at his filmography on IMDB, I guess the first time he was elevated from a ‘that guy’ to ‘THAT GUY’ was in True Lies (which remains my favorite James Cameron movie, Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, and Tom Arnold movie). In it he played Simon, the schmoozing conman who tells women he’s actually a secret agent in an effort to take them to bed. His current target is Helen Tasker (Jamie Lee Curtis), who buys into his schtick while remaining completely in the dark that her husband, Harry (Schwarzenegger) actually is a secret agent. When Harry gets wind of this, he puts Simon through the ringer, placing him into ‘real’ covert ops situations as a cruel and hilarious prank. The Simon sequences show Paxton’s range as well as his gift for comedy. And he pees himself, which few actors can pull off with dignity.

Once he was cemented into my lexicon of recognizable actors, it was easy to look back at literally anything he was in and see how brightly he shone in every role.

And he stands next to Lance Henriksen as the only actors to be killed by a Terminator, a Predator, and an Xenomorph. That’s better than any Oscar.

Having recently made an appearance on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. I was curious to see if Paxton would ultimately make the jump into our world of uber-franchises. Is there anything you wish we could have seen from Billy P?

A: He was certainly beginning to age into some roles designed for older character actors. In 2014 he had small parts in Edge Of Tomorrow (as the mustached commanding officer Seargant Farrell) and in Nightcrawler as Joe Loder, the freelance crime tabloid journalist who both inspires Jake Gyllenhaal’s character Lou Bloom to pursue this line of work, and becomes his eventual rival. Bill Paxton and Rene Russo’s presence turn the movie into a kind of Millenials v. Baby Boomers battle of wits, and Paxton plays the role stripped of his usual comic sensibility. He was the old man now, and looked upon Bloom with the heavy scorn often seen with such generational warfare. So I doubt we would have seen many more leading performances from him in films, but as you said he had found a very comfortable place on television.

This morning I’ve been watching Hatfields & McCoys, the 2012 History Channel Miniseries that he starred in opposite Kevin Costner. He plays the titular Hatfield, patriarch of a West Virginia family in the 1880’s who basically go to war with Costner’s McCoys over some land disputes and long simmering tensions. It’s also directed by Kevin Reynolds, who directed Costner in 90’s Hollywood, uh, classics such as Hollywood and Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves. So it basically feels like the kind of 90’s dress up historical drama that doesn’t really get made anymore, but has now found a perfect home on TV. So far, Paxton is quite good in it- his display of fragile masculinity, of a traumatized Civil War veteran and former POW, is the emotional entry to the story. Come to think of it, the underlying fragility and vulnerability of a tough guy exterior was a through line in his career.

We also can’t forget how he helped cement the golden age of television with his leading role in Big Love, as a Mormon man with three wives in modern day Utah. I only ever caught a few minutes of the show, so I can’t speak on it much. I also know he plays the lead role of Det. Frank Rourke in the new CBS show Training Day, of course based on the 2001 classic. Rourke is basically the Denzel character from the movie, and apparently the show functions as a sort of very loose sequel. By many accounts it’s entertaining but hardly connected with the original film.

Aside from the movies we’ve mentioned already, are there any Bill Paxton performances you feel are underrated, underseen, or that you would like to champion?

D: I’m surprised at how rarely this film is brought up in any cinematic discussion, but Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan is not just a great adaptation of a great (GREAT) novel, but it’s one of Paxton’s most nuanced performances. He plays Hank, a blue collar guy who stumbles across a large sum of money under dubious circumstances. The film is a morality play about the ethical flexibility which occurs in the face of huge personal gain. Hank’s transformation from a reluctant beneficiary of happenstance to a monster of unimaginable greed is anchored by a performance that is one of, if not THE best of Paxton’s career. As the protagonist and the audience surrogate, the narrative arc of the film weighs entirely upon the audience’s ability to understand and empathize with Hank’s motivations. Even as the end credits roll, the audience is forced to reckon with the idea that they too could have descended on the same path. This is a credit to the writer (Scott Smith, who adapted his own novel), but even with such good work on the page, few actors would have been able to resist the urge to explode through every scene. Paxton never dips into histrionics, which makes it easy to forget that his face is as recognizable as it is. He becomes Hank, therefore we become Hank. It should also be noted that Billy Bob Thornton got a Best Supporting nomination for A Simple Plan. I am of the firm belief that any acting Oscar is essentially awarded to the whole cast. This is most definitely the case here.

I am at this very moment just about to press play on Frailty, Paxton’s directorial effort. Are you a fan? Do you think he could have made a directing career?

A: I love that idea, that any acting Oscar is indicative of the whole cast being strong. I am looking now and the only two acting awards Paxton ever received were a Saturn Award for Aliens, and a SAG award for Apollo 13. Yet on your logic, he played a role in earning various co-stars several nominations. In addition to Billy Bob, you had Sigourney Weaver for Aliens, Ed Harris for Apollo 13, and Kate Winslet for Titanic. And Nightcrawler won for Best Original Screenplay, which I totally forgot about. He was a part of a lot of movie greatness, and always elevated the material significantly just by showing up.

I’ve actually never seen Frailty or A Simple Plan, so I can’t really speak to what else he could have done as a director. But I have seen another film he starred in with Thornton, 1992’s One False Move. It’s a southern neo noir directed by Carl Franklin (Devil In A Blue Dress), and it’s truly awesome. Paxton plays the lead role of Dale Dixon, a small town southern Sherriff who has to deal with the murderous Ray (Billy Bob, psychopathic in a way that predicted his star turn on Fargo as well as sporting a hilarious long, jangly cross earring), heading for the town to catch his runaway girlfriend, Fantasia (Cynda Williams), who Dale has a mysterious history with. Like many great neo noirs, it’s really about a lot more than just the cat and mouse details of a crime story, as One False Move delves deeply into the legacies of racism and old miscenegation laws. It’s awesome, and everyone should go watch it tonight.

Beyond that, he is the one real bright spot in Predator 2, where the producers must have basically told him “be Hudson, except you’re an LAPD cop in the FUTURISTIC YEAR OF 1997!!!!” There’s his classic appearance of being the first sad soul to encounter Arnold’s murderous terminator in James’ Cameron’s The Terminator, an early hint at his future historical dress up career as Morgan Earp in Tombstone, and some of his absolute finest work in Kathryn Bigelow’s breakout hit Near Dark. That film is basically a reunion party for the cast of Aliens, but this time turning them into a roving gang of cyberpunk vampires looking for blood in the American southwest. It features one of the tensest action sequences of all time in their raid/blood feast on a roadhouse bar. Bill Paxton as sociopathic, murderous vampire Severin, is the one who keeps escalating the situation with microagression after microagression, until he’s full on using his boot spurs to slit the throat of the bartender. He’s chewing all the scenery the whole time- but I can think of few other performances in film history where an actor seemed to be enjoying himself more, and earning it.

Do you think he’s in the lineage of any famous actors? Could anyone coming up today carry the torch of Bill Paxton?

D: GO WATCH FRAILTY, YA DINGUS.

Great line from Near Dark, in reference to the sleep schedule of a vampire: “We keep odd hours.”  Is there anyone else who could have delivered this in such the way Paxton did? I think not.

Billy P appeared on WTF with Marc Maron a few weeks ago, and if you can stomach all of his talk about life and death (it’s haunting to know that he was just a few weeks shy of the end), it’s a great interview which speaks to his lack of ego and his willingness to work hard and enjoy it. In their conversations, he speaks about how he was attracted to filmmaking and acting because to him, its the last great collective project. One person cannot make a film it must be a team effort with multiple craftsmen/women operating at their fullest. Only when the entire collective does his or her job does the film truly succeed. No matter what one may think of his filmography, he absolutely cannot ever be accused of giving less than his all. His final moments in Nightcrawler are very indicative of that. Just the look on his face as he peers up at the monster he’s created is a perfect snapshot of how he took simple character acting and elevated it to high art.

In this way, I’d say he’s right in line with Paul Newman. Shame we’ll never get a Road to Perdition or The Hudsucker Proxy out of him. Nonetheless, I think it would be very appropriate to mention them in the same breath. I do wonder if Paxton would have Newman’s knack for creating a delicious ranch dressing. I’m serious. Newman’s Own is the best one available and I’m a damn connoisseur. I’d also say that Paxton is of the same school as my all-time favorite actor, Kurt Russell. Both are willing to be the butt of the joke, AND can throw a mean punch if needed. They both make great cowboys too. It’s not easy to rock a moustache like they do.

Currently, I’d say that Thomas Jane is a slightly more cartoonish version of a Paxton, because he runs the same gamut of silly to dramatic while being a plain, er, Jane.

I will absolutely watch One False Move. I’ve actually never even heard of it. Another one to look out for is Brain Dead, I. Which he stars opposite Bill Pullman. And anyone who can’t distinguish Pullman from Paxton is dumb and asleep.

A: From what you’ve said, he seems like a guy who never wanted to be above his co-stars, merely just be a part of something greater than himself. And it shows because, he really has never gotten his due award wise. I doubt he really cared.

I agree with your Kurt Russell comparison, and he even played his little brother in Tombstone. If Kurt Russell was sort of a descendant of John Wayne, then perhaps Bill Paxton is a descendant of a George Kennedy (Cool Hand Luke, The Naked Gun)  or a Warren Oates (The Wild Bunch, Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia), both of whom were actors who thrived in ensemble environments. I had to look up some lists of famous character actors to jog my memory, but those rang really true for me. Plus, had Paxton been born earlier and active in the mid century, I could totally see him as part of the prison gang in Cool Hand Luke or helping to man the gatling gun in The Wild Bunch. He would have put the story first, but still found ways to make it special with his little Bill Paxton tics.

That’s about all I’ve got. Any final thoughts? BY THE WAY, I just read on his Wikipedia that he was actually in the crowd when JFK was assassinated in Dallas. He was eight years old, and there are even pictures of him there. That’s like the most Bill Paxton thing ever.

D: I hate to burst the novelty bubble, but according once again to his interview on WTF, he was indeed in attendance during Kennedy’s speech, but left before the motorcade departed. It wasn’t until he reached school that he found out about the assassination. He did, however, stay up late the night before to witness the motorcade into town.

Still totally a super Paxton-y piece of trivia. Apparently he was working to produce an HBO docu-series about the assassination but it never came to fruition. Maybe now? I’d definitely watch it!

In closing, all I can offer is my heartfelt surprise and sadness at the news of Mr. Paxton’s death. I will also offer my gratitude for the work of an actor that, whether we expressly acknowledge it or not, is a huge part of film history – certainly for film nerds like us. Bill Paxton is a testament to the concept that if one works hard and hones their craft, they needn’t seek fame. Success is a foregone conclusion. If we look back at his filmography, it’s one to be extremely proud of. He’s worked with EVERYBODY, and has seemingly done EVERYTHING. Very few people can accomplish in a full life what he did in just 61 years.

I’m probably misquoting here, but whenever loss occurs and grief sets in I always think back to a great Dr. Seuss quote: Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.

I think that applies here.

RIP Bill!!

A: I couldn’t agree more. Bill Paxton brought such joy to my life and to the lives of many. So even though there are many more roles we won’t get to see, he did so much already we can be thankful for, with three decades of consistently good work. He seemed like in the end, a regular kind of guy who put all of his energy into his craft, not into seeking fame.  The many testaments pouring out from his co-stars today affirm that. He was a comforting and familiar presence to people in our generation whenever he was onscreen, like that down to earth and kind of eccentric uncle or older cousin you just can’t wait to spend time with. I wonder if that’s the purpose of a character actor- by showing up so regularly and not asking for much attention, they get through to our hearts by feeling more like a friend than an actor in a movie.

Our hearts go out to his family. We love you Bill!

Author: Andy Elijah

I am a musician and music therapist who loves movies too. Raised in Maryland, I have been proud to call Philadelphia home for five years. Sounds can be heard at Baker Man and Drew. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd

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