Bill Paxton was one of those actors who was universally loved. Always a welcome presence in any film (or, indeed, TV show), a reliable character actor with strength, vulnerability and charm, but what made him great was that underneath his acting artifice it was obvious to anyone (even those who never met him) that this was a truly decent and affable man, with dignity and love to spare. Following his sudden death this past weekend, those who did know him personally are confirming what we always suspected. His passing is one that deserves to be marked.
For an example of what made Paxton great, just watch the first episode of Big Love, the HBO series in which he starred from 2006 to 2011. The series is about a Mormon family living in Utah that still practices polygamy. Paxton’s character has three wives and a brood of children, but rather than being some redneck fundamentalist cliche, the family, in its way, is a supportive, loving, sensible and modern unit, living emphatically in mainstream society and not retreating into some sort of cultural bubble. Paxton, rather than playing his character as an entitled patriarch with his harem, chooses to play him straight down the middle, as an earnest, ambitious, caring man who truly loves his wives and does his best with his children. Though his first wife (played by Jeanne Tripplehorn) is definitely the anchor of the family, Paxton doesn’t play an absent, career-obsessed father. He brings true humanity to the role, and as an audience, buy into the series based on his charm, bypassing what could easily have become feminist indignation at the premise. But he isn’t Mister Rogers – Paxton had the uncanny ability to suggest darkness in a sympathetic character with remarkable subtlety. As the series goes on, we learn some disturbing things about his character’s past and he goes on to take actions that are morally questionable, Paxton’s performance in that first episode makes what follows utterly believable.
About as far removed from that performance as it is possible to get would be Paxton in James Cameron’s True Lies. Paxton and Cameron had a long-running friendship, and Paxton would appear regularly in Cameron’s films over the years, not always in a large role, but always a welcome presence. (His most famous role was probably in Cameron’s Aliens.) In True Lies, Paxton plays a spineless, arrogant, slimy used car salesman who’s trying to lure Jamie Lee Curtis away from her husband (Arnold Schwarzenegger). Having never met her husband in person, Schwarzenegger, whose character is actually a secret agent, “trolls” Paxton, posing as a customer, and Paxton brags about how he’s pulling a beautiful woman away from a neglectful “loser” husband. Paxton commits fully to the role, creating a vile but hilarious caricature, but his shining moment comes when Schwarzenegger and his partner (Tom Arnold) kidnap Paxton wearing masks and scare him by threatening to throw him to his death. Paxton breaks down and offers up a delicious helping of pathos, sobbing and offering up any information that might save him, pleading at one point for mercy because he has such a small penis. It’s a heroic acting effort, and few have managed to depict the complete and utter folding of a swaggering, small man. Paxton’s lack of ego and willingness to make himself ridiculous for a performance puts him in a special class of actor, and light-years removed from a typical Hollywood “movie star”.
Actors like Bill Paxton are essentially character actors who occasionally play leading roles. Character actors are true actors – they aren’t trying to steal screen time (although they sometimes do), they aren’t trying to win awards (although they often do) and they aren’t trying to be the star (although, in some cases, they are promoted to star a bit too fast – see Val Kilmer for examples of this). The focus of a character actor is 100% on the acting, and that is what makes them so wonderful to watch. Paxton did it better than almost anyone, and the outpouring of grief on social media for the past 48 hours is the sound of the filmgoing public realizing what a gem he was, and how much he will be missed.