Following the news of Bill Paxton’s untimely death, Getintothis’ Laurence Thompson looks back at his career.
The American actor and director Bill Paxton has died at the age of 61 due to complications from surgery.
Paxton was born in Fort Worth, Texas, into a working class Catholic family. At the age of eight years old, he was present in the crowd watching John F. Kennedy emerge from his Dallas hotel the morning of November 22, 1963, hours before his assassination.
Paxton’s early interest in filmmaking consisted of making Super 8 movies with his friends while studying at Richmond College in England in the early 70s. In 1974, he moved to Los Angeles, landing a job as a set dresser for the B-movie king Roger Corman, and later moved to New York to study acting under the great Stella Adler.
His first memorable break was a role in James Cameron’s The Terminator, playing a nameless punk thug. Like much about The Terminator, Paxton’s cameo was more than the sum of its parts, and it would begin a mutually beneficial working relationship between Paxton, Cameron and the latter’s then-wife Kathryn Bigelow. A year later in 1985, he caught audiences’ attention as a villainous older brother of a lead character in Weird Science.
Paxton began to carve himself a niche as a scene-stealing character actor in 80s “cult blockbuster” movies, mainstream Hollywood features attracting the devoted attention of a loyal fanbase. His most iconic of these roles was the amusingly jockish Private Hudson in James Cameron’s Aliens.
In what should have been a forgettable side part, Paxton utilised his exceptional comic timing and expressionistic style, and his petulant delivery of relatively mediocre lines (“Game over!”) ensured they are still quoted today.
He followed Aliens with his best part, as the vicious vampire biker Caleb in Bigelow’s 1987 film Near Dark. Cast alongside fellow Aliens/Terminator veteran Lance Henrikson, Paxton again stole the show with a socipathically entertaining performance.
In the early 90s, Paxton moved into more independent projects, such as the Billy-Bob Thorton-penned thriller One False Move, followed by a turn as Morgan Earp in 1993’s Tombstone. That he was unable to steal Tombstone’s thunder as he had Aliens‘ is a testament to the eminent watchability of co-stars Kurt Russell, Sam Elliott, Powers Boothe and Val Kilmer rather than an indictment of Paxton’s waning powers, and in the following year’s True Lies he was at it again as the agonisingly funny con-man Simon, the slimy opposite to Arnold Schwarzenegger.
As if to prove his character actor credentials, Paxton failed to impress near the top of the bill in Apollo 13 or as a leading man in Twister (1996); he also seemed uninspired in 1997’s record breaking Titanic. Perhaps his career lowpoint was as the star of the now-forgotten remake of the 1949 King King rip-off Mighty Joe Young, and a period in the critical wilderness followed: U-571, Vertical Limit, Spy Kids 2 and the live-action Thunderbirds movie are unlikely to appear in anyone’s career highlight reel.
However, in the midst of these flops, Paxton also made his directorial debut for the well-received Matthew McConaghey psycho-thriller Frailty
Paxton would also receive rave reviews for his television work in HBO’s Big Love, the History Channel’s short-lived Hatfields & McCoys and in Marvel’s Agents of Shield. At the time of his death, Paxton was filming the TV show Training Day, a sequel to the Denzel Washington film.
He is survived by his wife Louise and two children, James and Lydia.