Bill Paxton, known for roles in 'Titanic' and 'Apollo 13,' dies at 61
Bill Paxton, the Fort Worth native who went on to star in such movies as “Apollo 13,” “Titanic” and “Twister” and in TV projects such as HBO’s “Big Love” and the History miniseries “Texas Rising,” died Saturday of complications from heart surgery. He was 61.
“A loving husband and father, Bill began his career in Hollywood working on films in the art department and went on to have an illustrious career spanning four decades as a beloved and prolific actor and filmmaker,” according to a statement from a family representative. “Bill’s passion for the arts was felt by all who knew him, and his warmth and tireless energy were undeniable. We ask to please respect the family’s wish for privacy as they mourn the loss of their adored husband and father.”
One of his more recent roles was in the CBS show “Training Day” as a detective. In “Texas Rising,” he played Sam Houston, a distant relative of his.
“I’m related to Sam Houston on my father’s side,” Mr. Paxton said. “We’re second cousins, four times removed.”
Mr. Paxton was born in Fort Worth on May 17, 1955. In a story last year, he remarked how he was in the crowd when President John F. Kennedy spoke outside Hotel Texas in Fort Worth on the morning of Nov. 22, 1963.
People began to gather as early as 5:30 a.m. in the rain to wait for the president’s early-morning address, recalled Mr. Paxton, who was 8 at the time, in 2013.
“There was a real electricity in the crowd,” Mr. Paxton said. “Everybody was so excited.” He said he didn’t remember a lot of the speech but did remember that Kennedy said he was sorry his wife couldn’t make it and joked that she tended to take longer to get ready than he did.
Mr. Paxton’s family owned Paxton Lumber Co., so he never lacked for money. In Star-Telegram stories, friends said he wasn’t affected by status.
Mr. Paxton, who grew up in a house off the 11th hole at Shady Oaks Country Club in west Fort Worth, told the Star-Telegram that he used to make money retrieving and selling lost golf balls to golfers. He even helped Fort Worth golfing legend Ben Hogan practice — by retrieving the golfer’s 5-iron shots.
He attended Aledo High School and then Arlington Heights High School, where he was active in drama and became a movie obsessive, watching films at such Fort Worth movie palaces as the Ridglea Theater.
One friend told the Star-Telegram a story about one of Mr. Paxton’s early filmmaking efforts. The not-yet-star and a friend were shooting in the train yards off of Vickery Boulevard, making a film about a Nazi invasion of the United States.
“This elderly lady drove by and saw it, and she thought we were really being attacked,” the friend said in a 1998 story. “She called the cops, and Bill had a hard time convincing them that those weren’t real guns and they weren’t using real ammo.”
After graduating from Heights in 1973, Mr. Paxton headed to California, where he worked as a crew member on such productions as “Big Bad Mama,” a 1974 film by B-movie king Roger Corman, known for low-budget movies featuring names that would become much bigger, such as Jack Nicholson and James Cameron.
In 1981, he began scoring movie roles with a small part in the Bill Murray comedy “Stripes,” followed by the 1983 military drama “The Lords of Discipline.” But his big breakthroughs were in 1985’s “Weird Science” and 1986’s “Aliens.” The latter was directed by Cameron, who frequently worked with Mr. Paxton, beginning with 1984’s “The Terminator” (in which Mr. Paxton is billed as “Punk Leader,” according to the Internet Movie Database) and on to larger roles in “True Lies” and “Titanic.”
But it was in smaller projects where Mr. Paxton excelled. Arguably his best performance was in 1992’s “One False Move,” in which he plays Dale “Hurricane” Dixon, a small-town sheriff who takes on a group of murderous California drug dealers whose crime spree takes them through his Arkansas town. The same year, he also appeared in “Trespass,” an updated urban twist on “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” about two firefighters who discover the location of a cache of stolen gold — only to cross paths with violent gang members.
One of Mr. Paxton’s “One False Move” co-stars was Billy Bob Thornton, with whom he would work again in the acclaimed 1998 drama “A Simple Plan,” another story about the unexpected aftermath of finding lost riches.
Mr. Paxton also worked as a director. One of his earliest credits is the video for “Fish Heads,” a bizarre novelty song by Barnes & Barnes, a group that included former “Lost in Space” star Billy Mumy. The video got national exposure when it was featured in an episode of “Saturday Night Live.”
On more serious notes, he received strong reviews for directing the 2001 horror movie “Frailty” and the 2005 historical golf drama “The Greatest Game Ever Played.”
“Fish Heads” wasn’t Mr. Paxton’s only musical contribution: As one-half of Martini Ranch, he had a small 1988 hit with the Devo-esque “How Can the Labouring Man Find Time for Self-Culture?”
In 2006, Mr. Paxton turned his focus to television with “Big Love,” an HBO drama in which he played Bill Henrickson, a modern-day Utah Mormon and businessman living a secret polygamist life with three wives. The critically acclaimed series, which used its offbeat premise to examine attitudes toward religion and marriage but also politics, consumerism and other topics, features some of Mr. Paxton’s best work as he served as an anchor for a show in which his female co-stars (Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloe Sevigny and Ginnifer Goodwin) often had the more flamboyant performances. The series lasted till 2011.
Mr. Paxton moved back and forth from TV to movies after that, but the strongest roles were on TV series, including a strong turn as Randall McCoy in the History miniseries “Hatfields & McCoys,” about the long-running feud, and a role in the ABC series “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”
In his latest series, CBS’ “Training Day,” Mr. Paxton played maverick cop Frank Rourke in a drama based on the 2001 movie “Training Day,” which earned Denzel Washington a Best Actor Oscar. The series’s fate is unclear at this time.
In 2015, Mr. Paxton’s family tree was featured in the show “Who Do You Think You Are?,” which looked into the life of Benjamin Sharp, a great-great-great-great-grandfather he had known nothing about.
Through it all, Mr. Paxton didn’t forget his North Texas roots. He was involved in the early stages of setting up Fort Worth’s Lone Star Film Festival as the honorary chair of its advisory board a decade ago. In 2015, he returned to Fort Worth as a panelist at the festival and made a big impression on then-new festival director Chad Mathews.
“In my first year with the Lone Star Film Festival, I had the pleasure of meeting Bill Paxton,” said Mathews in a statement Sunday. “Not only was he an incredible actor but he was integral in the formation of the film society and festival a decade or so earlier. He was an inquisitive, generous, kind-hearted man, who loved his Fort Worth roots. I will never forget how welcoming he was to me. The stories he shared on life and his hometown will forever have a place in our organization’s history. He will be truly missed.”
After Mr. Paxton’s appearance at the festival, he talked about some of his favorite Cowtown hangouts.
“I love to go to the museums,” he told the Star-Telegram. “I like to just drive around. I like to go out to Shady Oaks and walk around the golf course. … I always try to hit Joe Garcia. I like to hit the Railhead for a barbecue sandwich. … [Fort Worth] has changed quite a bit. I feel a bit like a graveyard ghost when I’m down here but I like coming back. … They say a fallen leaf goes back to the root.”
Bryan Bastible and Cary Darling contributed to this report, which includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.