Like a lot of artists who try to make it in Hollywood, Bill Paxton spent a big chunk of his career just trying to survive. The thing is, no one was ever better at getting killed.
The actor, who died Saturday at age 61 following complications from heart surgery, had paid his dues and then some. Twenty years ago — which was 20 years after he'd moved to Los Angeles from Fort Worth to try showbiz — he'd reached the sub-stardom peak of his profession: Circa 1994-7, he appeared in, consecutively, True Lies, Apollo 13, Twister, and Titanic, each among the three biggest hits of its year. Besides huge box office, those films shared another uncommon trait: In all of them, Paxton's character was still breathing when the credits rolled.
Those movies, and several dozen others, were enlivened by Paxton's oddball presence and weirdly emphatic line readings. But more than anything else, Paxton was The Boy Who Died. By the time of that mid-90s run, when even non-cineastes started to recognize him, his legacy was already secure: He was and remains the only actor1 ever slain on screen by a T-800 (a naked Arnold Schwarzenegger flung him into metal bars at the Griffith Park Observatory in The Terminator, 32 years before Gosling and Stone danced among the stars there in La La Land), a Xenomorph (a bug dragged him under the floor in Aliens while he raved his profane epitaph), and a Predator (Paxton emptied his sidearm into the advancing beast on an L.A. subway car in Predator 2; when that didn't work, he tried a machete. And a golfball. Never say die! Even when dying is apparently your job.).
To have been walked toward the light by such a rich assortment of cyborg assassins and invasive species seems fitting for a guy who got his start in movies working behind the camera for no-budget shlockmeister Roger Corman. That's how he became fast friends with James Cameron, an even quicker study of the Corman school. Cameron would cast Paxton in four of his films, including as the panicky, motormouthed Marine PFC William Hudson in 1986's Aliens --Paxton's most memorable role, arguably.
By which I mean: If you say it was anything else, expect an argument.
Two Sundays ago, I dragged a group of friends to a double feature of Alien and Aliens at the National Air and Space Museum. (In IMAX!) This was two weeks after John Hurt died, and when his name appeared in the opening titles of Alien, there was a smattering of respectful applause. When Paxton made his entrance as Hudson two-and-a-half hours later, people hooted and recited his lines along with him, Rocky Horror-style. We were all of us on an express elevator to hell, going... down! It was, paradoxically, heaven.
"To this day, if I do a thousand movies, it'll be at the top of my obituary," Paxton told Marc Maron on Maron's WTF podcast only three weeks ago. "Weird Science!"
That John Hughes transformed Paxton into a talking humanoid turd in 1985's Weird Science is a disgusting fact. But Chet Donnelly, Paxton's Weird Science alter ego, was a bully who earned that gross penance by tormenting his little brother.
Hudson was just a cocky short-timer grunt who tried to mask his insecurity and fear with an easily punctured bravado. Hudson was us. He had to get his famous "Game over, Man!" tantrum out of his system before he could settle down and Semper Fi. But after a stern talking-to from Sigourney Weaver's Ripley, Hudson got it together. He did his part to try to keep his comrades alive. He went down shooting. It was a great movie death, maybe the very best.
Herewith, an Almost Inevitably Incomplete List of Movies Depicting the Rather Less Memorable But Still Notable Violent Demise of Bill Paxton Characters:
In Carl Franklin's superb, underseen 1992 crime picture One False Move, Paxton's character — an Arkansas sheriff — is stabbed and shot. The film's ending makes his survival ambiguous. The name of his character is One False Move Dale "Hurricane" Dixon. The name of his character in Twister is Bill "The Extreme" Harding. In the military school hazing drama The Lords of Discipline, he was credited as "Wild Bill" Paxton.
That tells you something about the screen persona of his salad days. But he gradually started landing more down-to-earth roles in movies outside of the genre stuff that had been so good to him. Sam Raimi — like Cameron, an unwashed low-budget genre filmmaker who over time became respectable — cast him in the marvelous 1998 thriller A Simple Plan. Paxton made his feature directing debut with 2001's Frailty, a psychological horror flick wherein he starred opposite Matthew McConaughey. Roger Ebert gave the film four stars. Paxton's character was killed, naturally. By his own son. With an axe.
Like so many movie veterans, Paxton gravitated in the 21st century towards television, where he died in the miniseries Hatfields and McCoys and on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. But he lived again in two of 2014's strongest features: As an unscrupulous freelance TV news cameraman in Dan Gilroy's Nightcrawler, and as the no-nonsense Master Sgt. Farrell in Doug Liman's time-loop sci-fi movie Edge of Tomorrow. It was, like so many Paxton films, brilliant but underseen.
Putting Paxton in Edge was a sort of easter egg to longtime fans in multiple ways: With him playing the unflappable sergeant forced to deal with a knock-kneed Tom Cruise, it was a sort of inverse of his part from Aliens a generation earlier. But it was also a nod to Paxton's many, many prior screen deaths: Because Edge finds Cruise's character beginning the same horrific day anew each time he is "killed," Paxton's character, along with the other soldiers in Cruise's unit, dies onscreen only once but dies by implication dozens or hundreds of times.
Paxton logged more screen hours as Bill Henriksen — a polygamous patriarch on the Showtime series Big Love — than as any other character he ever played. 53 episodes over five seasons, 2006-2011.
I'll go ahead and slap a Spoiler Alert here for those who haven't yet watched that show (though if you followed Paxton's career, you really won't need it):
In the series finale, he was shot and died.
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