A true legend of the genre has passed away. Bill Paxton, star of Aliens, Near Dark and A Simple Plan, died yesterday at the age of 61 following complications during surgery.
Genre fans will probably remember him most fondly for his amazing run of entire-film-stealing performances from the 1980s onwards, but he had a hugely impressive range that allowed him to take on leading men roles and character parts, to be the straight man or to storm in and liven everything up.
So, while we all can recite every line of Private Hudson’s dialogue from Aliens (“Is this going to be a stand-up fight, sir? Or another bug hunt?”), we couldn’t let an in memoriam go by without pointing to his incredible work as the conflicted hero of Sam Raimi’s snowbound noir A Simple Plan, or marooned astronaut Fred Haise in Apollo 13, or the excitable, tragic Sheriff Dale “Hurricane” Dixon in crime thriller One False Move (possibly his best performance). And who could forget Weird Science‘s Chet? “I’m gonna tell Mom and Dad everything. I’m even considering makin’ up some shit!”
An early meeting with James Cameron led to a life-long friendship and a number of great collaborations. He was, of course, “Punk leader” in The Terminator in 1984, but Cameron would give him his greatest gift with Hudson in 1986’s Aliens. He gets all the best lines, he gets to swing from arrogant to petrified, and he’s the one that you’re watching in any given scene. Hicks may have been the true ultimate badass, but even when he’s advocating running away for the ninth time, you’re still rooting for Hudson. He does get a hell of an exit, too.
The following year, Paxton delivered his second great performance in Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark as cowboy vampire and “Your worst fuckin’ nightmare,” Severen. He’s got a hell of a lot of swagger, and he can back it up by slicing your throat with a flick of his spur. After hauling our fleeing farmboy hero onto a moving RV, he introduces himself with “Howdy! I’m gonna separate your head from your shoulders! Hope you don’t mind none.”
The barroom slaughter sequence in which Severen antagonises a bunch of rednecks as an overture to killing every single one of them is absolutely stunning, and he nails the little moments too, the back and forths with Lance Henriksen’s Jesse that establish the longevity of this blood-drenched band. Near Dark is one of those horror movies where you’re really rooting for the bad guys, and Paxton’s finger-lickin’ good performance is quite possibly the biggest reason for that. And if Hudson got a great exit, Severen’s is something else.
Other scene-stealing genre roles include Predator 2‘s big-mouthed but good-hearted Jerry Dixon (completing his trilogy of being killed by the Terminator, Alien and Predator), Edge Of Tomorrow‘s no-bullshit Master Sergeant Farell, and Agents Of SHIELD‘s no-good double-crossing John Garrett. His role in the Marvel TV show seems particularly worthy of note given that the series as a whole noticeably improved following his arrival. Coincidence? Probably not. It was probably Paxton.
We also want to draw particular attention to Paxton’s directorial debut Frailty. The story of a single father who begins to hear voices telling him to kill demons on earth, it’s a chilling but emotionally rich horror. He got excellent performances from his two young actors (Matt O’Leary and Jeremy Sumpter) and kept the focus on their struggles rather than shining the light on his potentially showy but absolutely restrained turn as the increasingly unstable dad. It’s a film that deserves a much wider audience and showed that he had great skill behind the camera.
Of course, there are so many Bill Paxton films that we love in genres we don’t cover: Tombstone, Twister, True Lies, Titanic, Trespass, Haywire, Nightcrawler, and the HBO series Big Love.
While it will be those brash, scene-stealing roles that we remember him best for, the Severens, the Hudsons, the Chets, we will also remember a charismatic and fantastically watchable actor who could play heroic and dastardly, stoic and cowardly and everything in between. Just as an example, in 2004 he played Jeff Tracy in the live-action Thunderbirds and booze-soaked singer-turned-island-resort owner Coconut Pete in Broken Lizard’s horror comedy Club Dread. They don’t come much more varied than that.
Simply put, he made films more fun just by being in them. This is a terrible loss and he will be missed.