Critic's Notebook: Bill Paxton Was A Mainstream Team Player With A Wild Cult Side

The Texas-born star of 'Aliens', 'Titanic,' 'Twister,' 'Apollo 13' and 'Big Love' leaves a much deeper legacy than his James Cameron connections may suggest.

Long before Apollo 13, Titanic, Twister and Big Love made him into a global screen star, Bill Paxton blew my tiny teenage mind.

Paxton was still an unknown aspiring actor when he directed and starred in a notorious 1980 music video by the eccentric Los Angeles comedy-rock duo Barnes & Barnes, "Fish Heads," a trippy milestone in post-punk surrealism that feels like one of David Lynch's more WTF epics condensed into five reality-warping minutes. A friend of the band, Paxton succeeded in getting the clip aired on Saturday Night Live, and curious British TV networks picked it up from there, beaming it into my brain. It left quite a deep impression.

Paxton, whose unexpected death at 61 was announced on Sunday, leaves a rich legacy of work ranging from mainstream blockbusters to distinctive cult movies. He was, after all, one of only two people in movie history to be killed by a Terminator, an Alien and a Predator. But he played it much straighter than that for most of his career.

Born and raised in Fort Worth, Texas, he always retained something of his folksy southern demeanor onscreen, often playing wholesome but conflicted characters. His businessman father John was an occasional actor, and Paxton picked up the bug. "My dad should have been an actor," he said in an HBO documentary in 2008, "I wanted to fulfill my father's dreams."

On the big screen, Paxton was best known for playing second-string roles in the shadow of A-list stars. Boyishly handsome and relatable, he specialized in small-town heroes, good neighbors, reliable friends. That said, he was always much more than a blank slate. He had a way of backing into the limelight and quietly stealing scenes from more famous co-stars, bringing stage-actor subtlety and indie-level integrity to even major studio projects. His role as fractious astronaut and engineer Fred Haise in Ron Howard's tense space saga Apollo 13 (1995) is a case in point, a secondary character but totally crucial to the dramatic chemistry.

Paxton's fortuitous meeting with director James Cameron almost 40 years ago struck a chord that reverberated through pretty much his entire career. The two men first met as unknowns doing grunt work on low-budget Roger Corman movies, and Cameron went on to cast him in several of his own projects: he had a cameo as a blue-haired punk lowlife in The Terminator (1984), blazed with comic energy as trigger-happy loudmouth Private Hudson in Aliens (1986) and acted Arnold off the screen as slimeball car salesman Simon in True Lies (1994). For all his aw-shucks Texan charm, Paxton gave great douchebag.

But it was his understated eight-minute appearance in the present-day set-up scenes of Cameron's planet-conquering blockbuster Titanic (1997) that will stand forever as Paxton's most-viewed screen appearance. Four years later, the two friends explored the wreck of the real Titanic in a Russian submarine, a trip they recorded in the documentary Ghosts of the Abyss (2003). Paying tribute to Paxton in Vanity Fair earlier today, Cameron wrote: "He took good care of his relationships with people, always caring and present for others. He was a good man, a great actor, and a creative dynamo."

On the few occasions when he scored top billing, Paxton showed a special flair for playing small-town innocents overwhelmed by evil big-city forces beyond their control. One of his finest performances was as Arkansas Sheriff Dale "Hurricane" Dixon in director Carl Franklin's neo-noir chase thriller One False Move (1992), which was co-scripted by his co-star Billy Bob Thornton. Six years later, he played opposite Thornton again in Sam Raimi's deep-frozen thriller A Simple Plan (1998). Paxton gives a career-topping star turn as Hank Mitchell, a conscientious family man from the Minnesota backwoods whose well meaning attempt to share out a surprise windfall of stolen mob money ends in bloodshed and betrayal.

Between the two he gave the most straightforward action-hero performance of his life as romantic storm chaser Bill Harding in Jan De Bont's effects-heavy bad-weather spectacular Twister (1996). The movie was a shallow but enjoyable thrill ride, grossing almost $500 million, one of the biggest box-office scores of Paxton's career.

Paxton directed himself in a couple of features, most impressively in Frailty (2001), playing a religiously devout ax murderer who believes himself to be a righteous demon-slayer doing God's work. That plotline sounds like a camp bloodbath, but Paxton builds up a compelling portrait of a dangerously delusional patriarch whose blind faith impacts on his impressionable children. A young Matthew McConaughy co-stars.

Paxton's clean-cut, regular-guy side also served him well in his biggest TV role, playing religious-cult polygamist Bill Hendrickson in the HBO drama series Big Love from 2006 through 2011. Hendrickson is a staunch Republican, an excommunicated Mormon and a greedy husband to multiple wives. Yet Paxton makes him a rounded, sympathetic, complex and believable creation across six critically feted seasons. Also for TV, he was a worthy antagonist to Kevin Costner in the flavorful 2012 History Channel miniseries, Hatfields & McCoys, about a legendary family feud in 1880s Appalachia.

Classy acting skills shaped Paxton's career, but let us not forget his long legacy of colorful cult performances too. Among his more pulpy greatest hits are his shades-wearing, shotgun-blasting vampire in Kathryn Bigelow's punky horror classic Near Dark (1987), his Hitler-loving Desert Storm veteran in Stacy Title's bruise-black indie comedy The Last Supper (1996), and his hard-ass drill sergeant in Doug Liman's alien-invasion sci-fi shocker Edge of Tomorrow (2014), a perfect comic brick wall for Tom Cruise to bounce against.

So yes, let us celebrate Paxton for his iconic blockbusters, his generous ensemble roles and subtle performances. But we should remember him for his weird and wonderful fringe legacy too. Right back to those magical singing fish heads.

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