Bill Paxton (1955 - 2017)

Bill Paxton, the Emmy Award-nominated actor known for roles in films including “Titanic” and “Twister,” as well as a starring role on HBO’s “Big Love,” died Saturday, Feb. 25, 2017, of complications from surgery, according to multiple news sources. He was 61.

A family spokesperson announced the death Sunday. No other details were provided, however.

Paxton didn’t hesitate to call himself a journeyman, recognizing that his greatest strength as an actor was his everyman quality. Starring roles found their way to Paxton, but much more frequent were the supporting roles that called on his skill as a character actor and his ability to improvise a great line.

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One of his most memorable ad-libs came in one of his earliest notable films: James Cameron’s 1986 sci-fi classic, “Aliens.” Paxton’s role was small, his cocky, trigger-happy Marine doomed to die before the film’s end. But when the ship sent to rescue his unit crashes and burns, Paxton’s Private Hudson wails one of the movie’s most enduring lines: “Game over, man! Game over!”

It wasn’t a scripted line, as Paxton revealed in an interview with the A.V. Club in 2012: “That was an ad-lib thing…. Now, when I say “ad-lib,” I’m not clever enough to think of stuff and throw it out off the top of my head. It’s usually something I’ll come up with beforehand, and then I’ll try it out. I find most directors are willing to let you kind of bend the dialogue if you give them something different. I’ve always found that it’s better to just do it than ask permission.”

It was a technique that had worked for Paxton before and would work for him again. A Paxton ad-lib gave “Weird Science,” too, one of its most quotable quotes. “How about a nice, greasy pork sandwich served in a dirty ashtray,” Paxton as Chet Donnelly asks his hungover younger brother. The phrase was, Paxton confided to the A.V. Club, “something my dad used to say to me and my brother if he thought we had been at a beer bust on Saturday night and we were all hungover at breakfast the next morning.” Deployed in “Weird Science,” it helped build the love-to-hate-him character of Chet.

Indeed, though it was filmed more than 30 years before his death, “Weird Science” was one of the films with which the casual Paxton fan best associated him. In encounters with the actor on the street, strangers were more likely to bring up Chet than some of Paxton’s later and more nuanced roles. “It's fine. It's flattering,” he told Vulture. “I'm proud to have played a character that people still know the name of 25 years later.” And to the A.V. Club, he mused, “If I do a thousand movies, [“Weird Science” will] probably still be at the top of my obituary, but so be it.”

Paxton didn’t manage to do a thousand movies, but with several dozen to his credit – including a small but notable early turn in “The Terminator” – he found his way to roles larger than those of Hudson and Chet. In “Tombstone” (1993), he played Morgan Earp, one of the lawmen on the side of good at the O.K. Corral. 1994’s “True Lies” cast him as a gleefully lecherous used car salesman. In 1995’s “Apollo 13” he was Fred Haise, one of the astronauts aboard the titular spaceship that attempted and failed at a third Moon landing in 1970.

Paxton finally found his way to a leading role when, in 1996, he starred in “Twister.” He devoted himself to the role of tornado-chaser Bill “The Extreme” Harding, diving into his character research by going on the road with a group of tornado chasers in Texas. He witnessed firsthand how they sought out danger while narrowly avoiding it: “We followed one storm right up until nightfall,” he told WHYY. “That's when you stop, because when it's dark, you don't chase IT, it chases YOU.”

And though the CGI tornadoes in “Twister” weren’t the real thing, Paxton and Hunt still encountered some unexpected physical danger on set. Bright lamps were used to heighten the effect of the stormy sky, and both actors were temporarily blinded when the lamps “sunburned our eyeballs,” as Paxton told Entertainment Weekly. Several days of recovery in dark glasses followed the incident before they could continue filming.

A less dangerous leading role came in 1998’s “A Simple Plan.” Paxton starred alongside Billy Bob Thornton and Bridget Fonda in the noir-ish thriller about a scheme to keep ill-gotten millions. The film met widespread critical acclaim, and Paxton received praise for a masterfully nuanced performance. It seemed like it might be a turning point for an actor who had mostly appeared in genre films but wished to spread his wings. “I thought that one might be the role that put it all together for me, that connected the dots,” he told the Guardian.

“A Simple Plan” remained a high point of Paxton’s film career. And though it didn’t propel him to a new level of movie stardom, the actor proceeded to turn in a wide range of memorable performances throughout the 1990s and 2000s.

In 1997, he teamed up again with James Cameron – a longtime close friend with whom he frequently worked – on the blockbuster hit “Titanic,” in which Paxton played a present-day treasure hunter exploring the shipwreck. The two would work together again in 2003 on “Ghosts of the Abyss,” in which Cameron invited his friend to join him in a submersible and explore the real wreck of the Titanic. Paxton narrated the film, which guided the audience through the wreckage in a way no one had experienced before.

In “Mighty Joe Young,” a 1998 remake of a 1949 RKO classic, Paxton played a role originated by his hero, Ben Johnson, a Texas native like Paxton who was dear to the hearts of young fans of Westerns in the 1950s and ‘60s.

2001’s “Frailty” marked Paxton’s directorial debut as well as a starring vehicle for the actor. The dark psychological thriller was considered by many to be among Paxton’s finest performances, as he played a man who believed God had commanded him to kill demons – in the form of ordinary humans – and pass the job along to his young sons. Roger Ebert called Paxton a “gifted” director on the strength of the film, and the New York Times assessed his fine performance: “[T]he movie ultimately belongs to Mr. Paxton, whose Dad, but for his psychotic glitch, might pass as an ideally devoted working-class Texan father of two.”

Paxton broadened his reach when in 2006 he moved to television, taking on a starring role in HBO’s drama, “Big Love.” The groundbreaking show explored the dynamics of a modern-day polygamist Mormon family, of which Paxton was the patriarch, sharing his life – and three homes – with three wives and eight children. An award-winning show that earned Paxton three Golden Globe nominations for Best Actor, “Big Love” was among the cable dramas that began to shift the television landscape away from network dominance, and it was widely considered to be one of the top television shows of the 2000s.

As Bill Henrickson of “Big Love,” Paxton turned in the performance Vulture called his finest and Entertainment Weekly called “consistently amazing.” The role he occupied was a unique one, a family man in an atypical family, struggling to maintain a growing public persona – expanding his business and running for office – while concealing his less-than-legal home situation. Paxton navigated the role’s challenges with his typical skill at playing the everyman, and when the show ended after five seasons in 2011, some wondered what TV role he’d step into next.

Paxton did return occasionally to television, notably with the 2012 History Channel miniseries “Hatfields & McCoys,” which starred Paxton as the McCoy patriarch in an Emmy-nominated performance. But he wasn’t in a hurry to enter into another long-term television commitment, as he told Screen Anarchy shortly after the series finale of “Big Love.” “Would I do another series? NO. I find the work to be exhausting, and I just don't have the stamina I had.”

In the last years of his life, Paxton took on roles in movies including “Edge of Tomorrow” and “Nightcrawler.” One performance will find posthumous release: “The Circle,” a thriller centering on a massively powerful internet corporation, features Paxton in a supporting role and is scheduled for release in April 2017.

Born May 17, 1955 in Fort Worth, Texas, Paxton left home for California at 18 with dreams of being a movie star. The route he took to that goal included a few twists and turns, from working as a set dresser to directing a video to the Barnes & Barnes novelty song “Fish Heads,” a favorite track on the Dr. Demento radio show that found its way, in Paxton’s video form, to “Saturday Night Live.” Paxton also formed a new wave band in the early 1980s, Martini Ranch, which attracted well-known collaborators including Cindy Wilson of the B-52’s, who sang on several tracks; members of Devo who produced and played; and James Cameron, who directed the video for the single “Reach.”

Paxton was married for 30 years to Louise Newbury, who survives him. The couple has two children: James, an actor, and Lydia, a student.

HBO, as well as other actors who worked with Paxton, shared their condolences on social media.

"We are extremely saddened to hear of the passing of Bill Paxton. Big Love was a seminal series for HBO for many years due to Bill's extraordinary talent and grace. Off screen, he was as warm, smart and fun as one could be. A true friend to so many at HBO. He will be greatly missed." – HBO

"Apollo 13" star Tom Hanks tweeted: "Bill Paxton was, simply, a wonderful man. A wonderful man... Hanx."

Arnold Schwarzenegger, the star of "The Terminator," tweeted: "Bill Paxton could play any role, but he was best at being Bill - a great human being with a huge heart. My thoughts are with his family."

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