The loss of Bill Paxton this weekend speaks as much to his indelible onscreen presence as the unexpected nature of his passing. He seemed so alive every time we saw him: energized, bouncy, eyes alight with mischief and a barely disguised snicker that commanded our attention no matter what he was doing. There are no small roles, the cliché tells us. To watch Paxton – in everything he did – was to see that cliché in action.
He’d worked in Hollywood for over a decade before finally gaining traction, and was over thirty when his name first started to linger in our minds. Before that, he did a little bit of everything: kicking around in bit parts, directing the video of Barnes and Barnes’ Fish Heads, playing in a band call Martini Ranch and acting as a set director for Roger Corman’s company. That last gig brought him into contact with James Cameron, who regularly cast him in roles both large and small.
That started with the original Terminator, playing a blue-haired punk at the Griffith Park Observatory who meets a messy end at the hands of Schwarzenegger’s infamous killbot. Even in this early moment, you can sense his ability to command our attention. Faced with a fully nude Mr. Universe literally ripping his colleague’s heart out, he turns a throwaway casualty into something that grabs our attention for reasons that have nothing to do with the plot.
That trend accelerated with his next film, Weird Science: a lesser John Hughes vehicle hinging on a semi-fun gimmick doesn’t quite get it across the finish line. He plays Chet, the god-king of asshole older brothers who exists solely to make our heroes’ lives a living hell. The menace drips from every line… but he hides a manic energy behind his bluster that turns it all into the funniest moments in the film. Every time he steps onscreen, you start to giggle, and his eventual flatulence-heavy comeuppance feels just right for the tightly-contained insanity he preceded it with.
That was all prelude, of course, for the his best-known role: Private William Hudson, the braggart-turned-chickenshit from Cameron’s Aliens. Frankly speaking, the part shouldn’t be so memorable: a standard-issue military coward serving as awkward comic relief in a staggeringly grim dystopian actioner. But again, Paxton turns it into something brilliant. In a film brimming with monsters and explosions – and with Sigourney Weaver pushing her own signature character into the stratosphere – the film’s most memorable line still belongs to him. (He repeated the trick in 1994’s True Lies: stealing the show from Schwarzenegger yet again.)
That trend continued into a surprisingly varied career, including comedies, horror films, science fiction, historical dramas and westerns. He rarely tackled the same type twice and like a lot of character actors, he relished the opportunity to stretch his wings. There’s a world of difference between, say, his compromised husband in A Simple Plan and his loopy hostage-taker in Pass the Ammo. And yet his characters were always of a kind. Even the straight-laced ones flashed that inscrutable energy at the most unexpected points: promising to take the proceedings in a wildly different direction and daring us to look away.
He played out that tendency during his two forays into feature directing: first in the strange horror film Frailty and later in the historical golf epic The Greatest Game Ever Played. Both movies travel down well-worn paths, and yet both keep you focused on the central premise with the assurance that it won’t turn out quite like you’d expect. It’s a shame he didn’t work behind the camera more often: he possessed a keen storyteller’s instincts that would have served him well.
Of course, then we couldn’t have enjoyed his onscreen work, which usually arrived under the radar and brought out the best in his material. Watch him dominate Tom Cruise as an incredulous sergeant in Edge of Tomorrow, or slide effortlessly through a Pollyanna Morgan Earp in Tombstone. He acts as a glorified narrator in Titanic, and yet still elevated the placeholder role into something that no one else could have done. Even in his worst projects (Twister, we’re looking at you), that tendency kept us focused… waiting for the moment when he’d come at us from left field.
The obvious choice for his best work is Carl Franklin’s One False Move, where he plays an eager-beaver country sheriff helping to track a trio of LA criminals on the lam. It’s a great role, tailor-made for his onscreen presence, but I prefer one he played five years previously in Kathryn Bigelow’s vampire western Near Dark. Both films feature great scripts and fantastic characters, but Near Dark found the perfect focal point for that crazy look in his eyes.
Fellow Aliens alums Lance Henriksen and Jenette Goldstein score points of their own in the picture, but it’s Paxton who draws our eye every time: his cocksure bloodsucker drunk on power and perfectly happy gobbling up any lost souls unfortunate enough to cross his path. Sheriff’s badges and state trooper patches adorn his leather jacket: trophies for a hunter absolutely assured of his superiority. He fills those subtle costume details with casual throwaway lines hinting at centuries of mayhem behind him (“Remember that fire we started in Chicago?” he cackles at one point). Even when faced with the sudden end of his depredating ways, that infernal grin never wavers.
It’s the perfect signature for a career like no other… and then, just like that, it came to an end. Too soon, too abruptly and with decades of unfulfilled potential just waiting on the table. I mourn the cantankerous old men he might have shown us: their fire undiminished, their mischief unleashed. Seriously, no one could have told those punk kids to get off his lawn like Paxton might have, and at 61, his passing still doesn’t feel real. But the magic of movies left his work behind for us to enjoy, and few onscreen legacies are more unique or compulsively watchable as his. RIP Wild Bill. Where you took us, no one can ever follow.