When I saw the news that Bill Paxton passed away from surgical complications this morning, I was completely gobsmacked. Mr. Paxton, one of the greatest character actors of the last 30 years, was far too young to be taken so suddenly. Rarely cast as a cinematic lead, he created a resume that could make other actors jealous. He was almost always the best part of the movies in which he appeared, and his costars had nothing but good things to say about him.
For the first few years of his career, Paxton appeared in such roles as “soldier” or “man”. Then, in 1984, he was cast as “punk” in the first Terminator movie. While really just a 60 second appearance, it nonetheless caught the attention of Terminator director James Cameron, and the two formed a close working relationship that lasted years. The following year, he had his first substantial supporting role in Weird Science as Chet, the bullying older brother. Then, in 1986, he re-teamed with Cameron and created what would be his defining role as Private Hudson in Aliens. In a movie full of memorable moments and characters, he stood out above them all, and a star was born.
“The world is a lesser place for his passing, and I will profoundly miss him.” – James Cameron
The next few years was full of some great acting jobs for Paxton, until 1993 when he was cast as the younger brother of Wyatt Earp in Tombstone, one of my personal favorite movies from the 90’s. While already relatively famous, his profile was on the rise and it wouldn’t be long before he had his pick of jobs.
In 1994, he worked with Schwarzenegger and Cameron again in True Lies. While strictly a supporting role, his sleazy car salesman character was the highlight of the movie. Next came Apollo 13, where he was cast alongside A-listers Tom Hanks and Kevin Bacon as one of three astronauts facing certain doom in this true story. While the movie itself received a few Oscar nominations, he unfortunately was overlooked. Yet his performance may have been the best in the movie.
1996 gave Paxton what would be his first true leading role in a big budget blockbuster. As Bill Harding, the storm chaser in the special effects extravaganza Twister, he showed he could carry a movie on his own. Many think the movie doesn’t hold up today, but I disagree. While cheesy at times, it is consistently exciting, and Paxton’s performance is a huge part of that.
Bill Paxton’s (sadly) final collaboration with James Cameron came in 1997, but it would be in what is now the second biggest movie of all time – Titanic. Even though his role is relatively small, I’d go so far as to call him co-lead. He is the star of the present day story in the film, but his role is almost as important as the lead actors.
For the next decade, everything continued as normal – smaller roles in big films, bigger roles in smaller films. Then, in 2006, he set his sights on TV. For the next 5 years, Paxton would star as Bill Henrickson on Big Love, the HBO show s about polygamists. His performance in this show would bring the many accolades and award nominations that had been eluding him most of his career. He followed this with a short, but very memorable, arc on Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD.
His final television appearance would be as the lead in Training Day, a series adaptation of the Oscar winning Denzel Washington movie. Though only having aired 4 times as of this writing, the show gives him the opportunity to play the type of character he excels at – the cocky, but kindhearted tough guy who you can’t help but love. His final film, The Circle, will be out at the end of April.
The loss of Bill Paxton has already impacted much of Hollywood. Celebrities are coming out in droves to pay tribute to their friend and costar on this sad day. The fact that he has passed on the day of the Academy Awards is truly heartbreaking, but it may finally give him the opportunity to be mentioned on the stage that he should have been standing on many times over. R.I.P. good sir.