Bill Paxton and Jake Gyllenhaal in 2014's Nightcrawler.
News broke this morning that character actor Bill Paxton had died in hospital after complications from surgery. He was 61 years old.
Paxton, who broke out as a panicky Marine in James Cameron’s 1986 blockbuster Aliens and spent the next three decades racking up credits in every genre and medium available to him, was the quintessential utility player: you could cast him as a hero or a villain, as a sidekick or a leading man, as a genius or a fool, and he’d make it work.
Born in Fort Worth, Texas, Paxton started out as a set dresser in Roger Corman’s B-movie shop, where future director Cameron was working in the special effects department; when Cameron made The Terminator, he cast Paxton as one of the punks Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cyborg assassin encounters on his arrival in 1984.
Paxton quickly became a key member of Cameron’s repertory company, returning for Aliens, True Lies and Titanic – all major hits, each one featuring him in a completely different role. Cameron knew the guy could handle anything.
In between True Lies and Titanic, there were Apollo 13 and Twister – big effects movies, one considerably better than the other. Both were huge hits that ended up in constant rotation on cable TV, which meant a generation grew up watching him barf in zero-gravity (a moment Ron Howard said he kept in the film because of the little flash of confusion that crosses Paxton’s face afterward) and yell at digital tornadoes.
As with most actors, Paxton did his best work on smaller, more intimate projects that gave him time to think and play. He’s phenomenal in Kathryn Bigelow’s 1987 horror sleeper Near Dark as a pissed-off vampire roaming the American Southwest with his Aliens co-stars Lance Henriksen and Jeanette Goldstein, for instance.
And the two films he made with Billy Bob Thornton – Carl Franklin’s One False Move in 1992 and Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan in 1998 – make an exquisite double bill about responsibility, crime and punishment.
He worked just as easily in television, anchoring HBO’s Big Love for five seasons; when I interviewed him just before the release of Edge Of Tomorrow in 2014, he talked about how he’d enjoyed being a series lead, but was enjoying the shift back into character parts even more. “Being the guy supporting the guy” was how he put it, and that’s just about perfect.
And when he was cast in a CBS adaptation of the movie Training Day, that was perfect too: Paxton would be front and centre as a morally unreadable cop – but still essentially supporting Justin Cornwell’s performance as the rookie trying to figure out his new partner. I could see how that role would appeal to Paxton, just as I could see how he’d be able to maintain the character’s ambiguity over a season of television rather than blow it all out in two hours as Denzel Washington had done in the original movie.
He worked behind the camera, too: he directed a very odd music video for Barnes and Barnes novelty single Fish Heads, and even made a couple of features once he’d built up enough juice.
His directorial debut Frailty was a flawed but effective 2001 thriller starring Matthew McConaughey and Levi Kreis as brothers charged by their father (Paxton, in flashbacks) to slay demons disguised as ordinary humans which, in hindsight, it feels like the inspiration for the long-running TV series Supernatural. He followed it with 2005’s The Greatest Game Ever Played, a pleasant but pretty forgettable golf drama.
What have I left out? Dozens of things. His small role as an obnoxious bartender in Streets Of Fire; his great slow burn as a suburban homeowner persecuted by a malevolent homeless man in The Vagrant; and recently his unshowy but perfect appearances in Nightcrawler and Million Dollar Arm and underrated work as a turncoat on Marvel’s Agents Of SHIELD. And last year he turned up as Sophie Nélisse’s father in Nathan Morlando’s Mean Dreams, which premiered at Cannes, played TIFF and wound up in Canada’s Top Ten.
Oh, and if you want to see Paxton being unexpectedly solid when he didn’t really need to be, dig up 1990’s Brain Dead, which pairs him with his pop-culture doppelganger Bill Pullman in a hallucinatory thriller about a scientist inserting himself into people’s memories, or the forgotten 1993 cable thriller Monolith, which casts Paxton as a swaggering cop struggling to wrap his head around a murder investigation that’s opened up into a pretty ludicrous alien-artifact conspiracy.
There’s plenty more, and there surely would have been more to come. That’s the kind of career he had, and there was no sign of it ending. This just sucks, pure and simple.