Sunday, February 26, 2017

Bill Paxton - RIP

Absolutely ruining Hollywood's biggest night and actively crushing the hearts of everyone, it was shockingly announced that actor Bill Paxton has died from surgery complications. He was 61 years old.

Paxton got his start in Hollywood alternating between acting and directing. His biggest claim to fame in the early stages of his career was starring and directing the music video for Barnes & Barnes' "Fish Heads", which later would have a special airing on Saturday Night Live.

His fortunes would soon change in 1984 with the release of two films. In the rock-n-roll action musical Streets of Fire, he played Clyde, the resident bartender and close friend to Michael Paré's Tom Cody. It was the first meaty role for him and helped establish one of Paxton's go-to character types: the macho show-off who would buckle under pressure and/or be too laughable to take serious. This type would applied to his more memorable 1984 role as the leader of a group of punks who pick a fight with a naked Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator. This would be the first time Paxton would work with director James Cameron and help lead to a lasting friendship between the two.

Paxton's profile expanded greatly in the next two years, first starring off as Chet Donnelly, the obnoxious older brother of Ilan Mitchell-Smith in the popular sci-fi comedy Weird Science. But it was his new buddy James Cameron who gave his most famous role of all time as Private Hudson in the sci-fi action blockbuster Aliens. A space marine dripping in arrogance who would later find himself way over his head once he takes a walk through the dark corridors of LV-426, Hudson proved to be the fan favorite of the movie. Paxton did a phenomenal job as the cocky and beleaguered grunt thanks mostly to his quote-friendly dialogue. His most memorable line, "Game Over, man. Game over!", was improvised by Paxton and would be later re-quoted and parodied in the years to come.

His very next role allowed Paxton to give another great performance. In Kathryn Bigelow's modern horror western Near Dark, Paxton was cast as Severen, the wild card and second-in-command of a group of nomadic vampires. Severen is the darkest character Paxton would ever play, as evident by the twisted bar scene where he horrifically murders several patrons. For the next couple of years, Paxton would be largely drifting along in Hollywood due to a series of less-than-stellar feature films. He would pull out his popular cocky routine again in supporting roles for Navy SEALs and Predator 2 but he couldn't singlehandedly salvage the entire production.

His return to form would come in 1992 from a little film that was going to be sent straight to video but was given a theatrical release thanks to advance word of mouth and the growing indie movement. One False Move had Paxton play a small town Chief of Police who get wrapped up into the major investigation and chase for three violent killers, one of whom happens to be a former lover.

Paxton then embarked on a series of memorable supporting roles in major Hollywood blockbusters. First up was Tombstone where he played Morgan Earp, the tragic younger brother to Kurt Russell's Wyatt Earp. James Cameron came a-calling again and gave Paxton the role of Simon, a sleazy car salesman with a penchant for lying and pissing his pants at danger, in the comedic action-fest True Lies. Ron Howard then gave him a potential Oscar-nominated role as Fred Haise, the third doomed NASA astronaut in Apollo 13. Paxton was able to put the brakes on his streak of supporting roles for a bit in 1996 and got to star as reckless storm chaser Bill "The Extreme" Harding in the disaster feature Twister. And finally, to put a special pin on his run of blockbusters, he played treasure-seeking oceanographer Brock Lovett in the absolute biggest film of the 90's, James Cameron's Titanic.

Following the success of Titanic, Paxton gave a strong lead performance in A Simple Plan, the neo noir directed by Sam Raimi about a trio of friends who find a cache of money and slowly start to distrust each other. Unfortunately, the film was spurned by audiences and Paxton was overshadowed come Oscar time by his co-star Billy Bob Thornton. The next set of years had Paxton again appearing in several blockbuster hopefuls such as Mighty Joe Young and Vertical Limit but his resources weren't well utilized. Paxton had to take matters into his own hands and in 2001, he directed and starred in Frailty. The dark thriller saw Paxton play a deeply disturbed father of two boys who believes that God tells him to kill several people who are demons in disguise. Paxton's acting and directing skills were hailed by critics at the time and the film has since become a cult gem.

After another spell of supporting roles in forgettable movies and stepping in the director's chair again for The Greatest Game Ever Played, Paxton finally achieved significant critical acclaim with his lead performance in the HBO drama series Big Love. For five seasons, he played Bill Henrickson, a practicing polygamist who must balance out his marriage to three women and the children he breeds with each of them. Since the show's conclusion in 2011, Paxton has once again been popping up in supporting roles for movies. His most memorable year in recent times was in 2014, when he had three roles: baseball pitching coach Tom House in Million Dollar Arm, the comedically cruel Master Sergeant Farell in Edge of Tomorrow, and the unsavory freelance photojournalist Joe Loder in Nightcrawler.

Bill Paxton was one of my favorite players in Hollywood. I vividly remember re-reading a great magazine piece about him around the time of Twister, which helped open my eyes about his extensive work and how largely unsung his career is. He was one of the guys that when you saw his name pop up in the credits, you would get instantly excite because you knew he would always bring his A-game. He was James Cameron's lucky charm and a supporting player who often stole the show away from the leads.

He will sorely be missed.

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