Bill Paxton: Scene Stealer


I remember the first time I recognized Bill Paxton in a film. In Near Dark (1987) Paxton played Severin, a member of a roving band of vampires in love with the night, the nomadic lifestyle and the violence of their existence. “Turned” into a vampire decades earlier, Paxton’s character seemed a remnant of the Wild West crossed with a biker—the ultimate bad boy. Using his Texas drawl to great effect, Paxton portrayed the character as simultaneously cool, frightening and funny. I had seen Paxton in Streets of Fire (1984) as Clyde the Bartender and in Aliens (1986) as one of the gung-ho marines, but Near Dark made me a diehard fan.

I was inspired to check out Paxton’s life and career after re-viewing One False Move(1992). What I discovered was a hard-working character actor and an interesting person who counts director Hal Ashby as an inspiration and who, as a child, was in the crowd the day JFK was assassinated. Paxton left his hometown of Fort Worth at age 18, moving west to make a name for himself as a director. Eventually he landed a job as a set dresser on Roger Corman’s Big Bad Mama (1975). While he did shoot a few shorts, he dropped the idea of directing and moved east to study acting at NYU with Stella Adler. Returning to Hollywood, he became a recognizable bit player and character actor in major movies of the 1980s, including those of James Cameron (The Terminator [1984] and Aliens [1986], later Titanic [1997]) and Kathryn Bigelow (Near Dark). A leading role in Carl Franklin’s One False Move in 1992 elevated his profile in Hollywood. Paxton fulfilled his dreams of directing in 2001 with Frailty, a well-received indie that showcased Matthew McConaughey in an early role.

Paxton has turned to television in recent years, because, as he noted in a 2009 interview, he has not seen as many film scripts that interested or excited him: “The stuff they want to make, teen comedies, teen horror films … When I was growing up, on Friday nights, we saw men in movies. We saw adult stories.” Television proved to be lucky for Paxton. As Bill Henrickson, a Mormon with three wives, in the HBO series Big Love (2006-2011), Paxton earned three Emmy nominations. In Hatfields & McCoys (2012), he starred as the patriarch of the McCoy clan, which earned him another nomination. He is currently shooting Training Day, a television series loosely based on the Antoine Fuqua film. I am excited for the series because, reportedly, some episodes reference classic movies.

Whether in a bit part, character role or the rare lead, Bill Paxton has appeared in some of Hollywood’s most recognized or beloved contemporary films. Here are my favorites in no particular order. Feel free to leave a comment listing your favorites.

1. One False Move. Billy Bob Thornton’s screenplays are among the most accurate portrayals of the modern South on the big screen. He is rivaled only by writer-director Jeff Nichols. This insightful police procedural is currently streaming on FilmStruck as part of its Neo-Noir theme. Paxton costars as Police Chief Dale “Hurricane” Dixon, whose job in tiny Star City, Arkansas consists mostly of settling domestic disputes. When the FBI alert Dixon that a trio of violent drug dealers are on their way to his town, he is excited to assist in real police work. Directed by the criminally underrated Carl Franklin, One False Move is a film about race and class in the contemporary South that is uncannily relevant in 2017. Each character thwarts the common archetypes or stereotypes associated with the South. For example, the two FBI agents can’t see beyond Dale’s accent and lack of sophistication, underestimating him and penning him as a local yokel. The scene in which he overhears the pair making fun of him makes the viewer sympathize with Dixon, making us aware of our own stereotyped preconceptions of him.

2. Near Dark. Kathryn Bigelow’s vampire flick follows a young man who takes up with a merry band of bloodsuckers after he is bitten by one of them. Each of the vampires represents a character archetype that signifies an outlaw, misfit, or maverick: Paxton’s Severin is akin to a Wild West gunfighter; Lance Henriksen plays an ex-Confederate soldier; Jenette Goldstein is dressed like a biker chick; Joshua Miller is a juvenile delinquent; and Jenny Wright is like a flower child with fangs. Like the protagonist, we are tempted by the lure of the outlaw lifestyle through the charisma of the vampires.

3. Frailty (2001). Paxton directed and costarred in this story of two young brothers whose fanatical father murders under the guise of fighting demons. The story is told from the perspective of the children, one who believes his father and one who doesn’t. Paxton plays the rare villain here, a crazed religious zealot who forces his children to help him in his cause. Set in rural Texas, the film stars a cast of Southern-born actors, including fellow Texans Matthew McConaughey and Powers Boothe.

4. Nightcrawler (2014). Jake Gyllenhaal stars as a strange young man who becomes a nightcrawler, slang for the free-lance journalists who arrive first at a scene of violence, shoot video until the authorities arrive, then sell it to the television stations. Paxton costars as a veteran nightcrawler who has become hardened and cynical because of his chosen occupation, but his character pales in comparison to Gyllenhaal.

5. A Simple Plan (1998). Sam Raimi proved he could direct outside the horror genre with this indie drama that re-teamed Paxton with Billy Bob Thornton. Three working-class friends stumble across millions of dollars in lost cash. They decide to keep it from the authorities (the “simple plan” of the title), but as time passes, their trust in each other and the plan falters. This bitter, dark story unfolds in a small town during the dead of winter—a kind of “Midwest noir.” Hey, I think I just coined a subgenre!

6. Tombstone (1993). Though the story bursts at the seams with too many minor characters, and the film suffers from some miscasting, Tombstone is on my list of favorite films because of Val Kilmer in the role of Doc Holliday. Kilmer gave the best performance of 1993, no contest. But, Paxton steals a few scenes as Morgan Earp, the least cynical and hardened of the Earp clan. Early on, he earnestly speculates on the existence of heaven with hope and wonder. But, when he lay dying of a mortal gunshot wound, he realizes that death is not hopeful, but brutal. Paxton plays it sincerely, making Morgan’s death all the more tragic.

7. Trespass (1992). This is a down-and-dirty genre piece about two Arkansas firemen, Vince and Don, who find a cache of stolen gold in an abandoned factory in the ghetto of East St. Louis. They don’t realize that the factory is in the turf of a local gang, who have come by to execute an enemy just as Vince and Don are ready to take off with their loot. Paxton costars as Vince to William Sadler’s Don. I included this film because it was directed by Walter Hill, my favorite 1980s director. Also, my former film studies instructor, Stuart Kaminsky, contributed to the screenplay (uncredited).

8. Edge of Tomorrow (2014). This sci-fi adventure directed by Doug Limon served as a star vehicle for Tom Cruise. Set in the not-too-distant future, the film features a Groundhog Day-like story in which Cruise, a military man hoping to avoid active duty, relives the same time frame over and over. The film is an excellent example of the ability of a talented character actor to enhance a scene. As Master Sergeant Farrel, Paxton gets to lay out the law to Cruise, which he does with great authority in their first scene together. As this event is repeated on subsequent days, and Cruise can predict Sergeant Farrel’s actions, Paxton’s expressions and reactions are priceless.

Susan Doll

22 Responses Bill Paxton: Scene Stealer
Posted By Doug : January 30, 2017 8:23 am

Paxton is very good; his character in “Edge of Tomorrow” struck me as the extreme opposite of Hudson in “Aliens”. I also liked the homage to “The Americanization of Emily” in that film.

Posted By James Bigwood : January 30, 2017 11:06 am

May I suggest you take a look at the HBO feature “A Bright Shining Lie” where Bill played real life Viet Nam “advisor” John Paul Vann.

Posted By KennyA : January 30, 2017 12:27 pm

Good list…my personal Paxton favorites are “Frailty” and “One False Move”. He deserved Best Actor consideration for both!

Posted By Chris : January 30, 2017 1:03 pm

It’s not an amazing movie by any stretch, but his weird subplot in ‘True Lies’ is what sticks with me more than any of the Arnold stuff.

Posted By Adam : January 30, 2017 1:10 pm

I’m also a longtime Paxton fan, and while I love his work in more dramatic fare like ‘One False Move,’ ‘Nightcrawler,’ and ‘Big Love,’ I’ve always preferred those roles where he gives his innate goofiness free reign. My favorite is still his lovably sleazy used car salesman/pretend spy in ‘True Lies.’ There’s no other actor who could have played that role even half as well.

Posted By Susan Doll : January 30, 2017 2:50 pm

This is great. Movie fans I can talk “Paxton” with.

Posted By EricJ : January 30, 2017 3:24 pm

And I’ll stick up for the folks saying “And remember Spaceballs and the big speech at the end of Independence Day?…Oh, wait, darn, that was Bill PULLMAN!”

Posted By Susan Doll : January 30, 2017 3:37 pm

Hey, I like Bill Pullman, too. Serpent and the Rainbow, Mr. Wrong, Malice, Lake Placid.

Posted By michaelgsmith : January 30, 2017 3:38 pm

Great piece about an underrated character actor (and filmmaker). He has the best line in NEAR DARK: “I hate it when they don’t shave!”

Posted By AL : January 30, 2017 5:23 pm

(Susan–you’ve done IT again! I’m so glad you’re here.) Why this brilliant, gifted, versatile, accomplished actor has not received the acclaim he deserves is a mystery to me. Perhaps it’s because he is so thoroughly convincing in every role that it’s hard to believe he’s acting. He was so funny in the delightful WEIRD SCIENCE, but if I had to pick just one, I’d go with NEAR DARK. “I hate it when they ain’t shaved”…

Posted By Renee Leask : January 30, 2017 6:48 pm

I love Bill Paxton, too. And Carl Franklin really is criminally underrated!!

Posted By Tolly Devlin : January 30, 2017 7:34 pm

One False Move, A Simple Plan & Near Dark are my particular favorites. I like Aliens & Paxton’s line ” Put her in charge ,man!” Even in drek like Two Guns ,which I recently watched on DVD Paxton delivers. I have not seen Frailty yet but I’ve been meaning to catch it. Thanks for the post.

Posted By Murphy’s Law : January 30, 2017 10:44 pm

I first saw him as Wyatt’s jerk older brother in WEIRD SCIENCE.

Posted By Dave Stark : January 30, 2017 10:47 pm

Frailty! Tour de force performance (and great direction), including a young Jeremy Sumpter as one of his kids, and not one but three (even four) killer plot twists at the end. Loved that it seemed to take on religious fanaticism but managed to avoid a trite resolution–surprises till the very end. Susan, you reminded me of A Simple Plan too, and that made me remember how much I miss Bridget Fonda after she dropped out of films. Funny about how Bill Paxton is still confused with Bill Pullman. There’s also Will Patton, yet another kinda lookalike easy-on-the eyes actor with a similar name. Maybe that’s part of the reason Paxton never quite broke through–confusion with Pullman and Patton. Like all the Allens in the 80s–Nancy Allen, Karen Allen, and Debbie Allen.

Posted By Christine B Hoard-Barre : January 31, 2017 12:29 am

ONE FALSE MOVE is totally awesome – story, acting, directing, photography, everything. One of my favorites and I’m so glad others appreciate it, too. It has been criminally overlooked but not by us. Also like Paxton in ALIENS.

Posted By Rob Gaczol : January 31, 2017 4:31 am

My favorite paxton Film is FRAILTY, close runners up: ONE FALSE MOVE, TRESSPASS, and A SIMPLE PLAN — He’s good in everything I’ve seen him in!

Posted By Charles Gee : February 1, 2017 10:57 pm

I’d like to give a little shout out to Traveller from 1997. A small drama about the sub-culture of Irish gypsies in the American south.

Posted By LD : February 26, 2017 11:39 am

So sorry to hear about Bill Paxton. RIP

Posted By George : February 26, 2017 4:01 pm
Posted By Susan : February 26, 2017 5:40 pm

I am crushed by this news. There are no words.

Posted By Thomas Zorthian : February 26, 2017 7:47 pm

This article now, tragically, serves as a fine eulogy for an actor who has left us too soon.

Posted By swac44 : February 28, 2017 3:30 pm

Have some kleenex handy while listening to this indepth interview with Bill Paxton, he just seems like the greatest guy imaginable, and it amplifies his loss that much more (skip to the 25 minute mark for the start of it).

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