The Oscar ceremony is known, among other things, for its annual montage of film-industry professionals who died during the previous 12 months. This past week, however, Hollywood woke up on the day of the awards to find that Fort Worth native Bill Paxton had died at the age of 61 due to complications during heart surgery. His death came too late to be edited into the montage, but Jennifer Aniston cried as she spoke of Paxton’s death, and A-list stars from around the world took to Twitter to express their sadness and appreciation for him both as an actor and as a person. Tom Hanks called him “simply a wonderful man,” while Arnold Schwarzenegger said, “Bill could play any role, but he was best at being Bill — a great human being with a huge heart.” These were joined by younger actors who only admired Paxton from afar, as Josh Gad called his sudden death “beyond crushing” and Patton Oswalt said, “I can’t believe he’s gone.”
Paxton was born on May 17, 1955, in Fort Worth and grew up wealthy on the city’s West Side, living in his family’s large house on Indian Creek Drive next to the golf course at Shady Oaks Country Club. His grandfather was the founder of Frank Paxton Lumber Company in 1914.
A bout with rheumatic fever left him bedridden for months when he was 13 and is believed to have caused some permanent damage to his heart. Paxton told Marc Maron during a WTF podcast on February 6 that the illness is known to damage the heart valves. When Maron asked him whether Paxton’s valves were damaged, he said, “Yeah, yeah.”
Paxton participated in drama classes at Arlington Heights High School in the early 1970s and began making homemade films with buddies, including local screenwriter, director, and producer Tom Huckabee. The Paxton family’s deep pockets proved helpful to Paxton as he struggled to establish himself as an actor in Hollywood. But he remained humble, down to earth, and friendly throughout his life, even after he became a bona fide Hollywood star. People were often shocked to discover he’d been born rich.
“He was born into a family of wealth and took advantage of that, but I never saw him behave as if he were entitled to anything,” Huckabee said.
Many kids growing up in the late 1970s would tune in to the Dr. Demento syndicated radio show and listen to bizarre novelty songs on Saturday nights. Among the favorite ditties on the playlist was “Fish Heads,” recorded in 1978 by a Los Angeles-based band that including Billy Mumy, who portrayed Will Robinson on the TV show Lost in Space in the 1960s.
Paxton was living in L.A. then but having difficulty landing acting roles. He described for Bullz-Eye magazine in 2010 how he had overheard Mumy and co-writer Robert Haimer talking about making a “Fish Heads” video. Paxton volunteered to direct the video, drawing on his experiences making short films in Fort Worth, and he gave himself the lead role. The video, made for $2,000, would later appear on Saturday Night Live and in regular rotation on MTV.
It’s hard to remember now that in the 1990s, the joke going around film fans was everyone’s inability to distinguish Bill Paxton from Bill Pullman, two white guys of similar age bearing similar names who always seemed to play the guy who would woo the leading lady but ultimately lose her to the leading man. Paxton’s boyishly handsome looks, which he retained throughout his life, made him a credible threat to a romantic lead.
His early roles included a turn in The Lords of Discipline, in which he was credited as “Wild” Bill Paxton and played a military-school cadet who brutally hazes the newbies. His longtime affiliation with director James Cameron started in 1984 with a role as a gang leader in The Terminator, though he’d make a much larger impression two years later in Cameron’s Aliens as Pvt. Hudson, a Marine whose fighting swagger disintegrates after encountering the xenomorphs. To a generation of moviegoers too young to have seen the film in theaters, the line “Game over, man!” is still enough to evoke Paxton. (The role was neatly complemented by his part in 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow, playing a drill sergeant who would have squashed Hudson.)
The actor had other worthy credits, including a leading role in Carl Franklin’s highly praised but little-seen 1992 thriller One False Move. However, it wasn’t until the mid-1990s that his career started to achieve some consistency. First, Cameron cast him as the buffoonish salesman who tries to move in on a married Jamie Lee Curtis in True Lies, in which Paxton was stuck in a terrible subplot but brought Pvt. Hudson’s hysteria to a comic part for all he was worth. This was followed by a turn as one of the marooned astronauts in the Oscar-nominated Apollo 13 and then the lead role in the heavily hyped disaster flick Twister. That film wound up finishing second in 1996’s box-office race to Independence Day (which starred Pullman, ironically enough), but then that movie would be drowned out in turn the following year by Cameron’s Titanic, in which Paxton played a pivotal role in the framing story. His leading role in 1998’s thriller A Simple Plan showed him at his best, with the actor using his innate decency to demonstrate powerfully how a man’s desperate circumstances and sudden windfall could lead him to evil.
His 2002 directing debut Frailty showed great promise, though he got to direct only one other feature, The Greatest Game Ever Played (2005), an undistinguished Disneyfied golf drama. To be fair, he was busy during the ’00s giving his other iconic performance as a polygamist on HBO’s Big Love, where you believed that his quiet and cool-headed character could yet have a personality strong enough to pull three wives into his orbit. Some films of his are yet to be released, such as The Circle, where he plays Emma Watson’s father. Though his career had fallow stretches and films that didn’t merit his talents, he showed no signs of losing his unshowy energy and his knack for finding ways to make their straightforwardness into something interesting. The reaction from his colleagues, too, tells us what a fine man has been lost as well.