Bud Kennedy

Friends remember Bill Paxton, who never forgot Fort Worth

Bill Paxton's childhood friends reflect on the memories of their youth

Longtime friends and local celebrities gathered Thursday at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth for a private tribute to actor Bill Paxton.
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Longtime friends and local celebrities gathered Thursday at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth for a private tribute to actor Bill Paxton.

Bill Paxton grew up in a Fort Worth where anyone’s career could go into orbit.

In 1973, when he graduated from Arlington Heights High School, singer Betty Buckley was starring on Broadway and rival Paschal High School was still talking about moonwalking astronaut alumnus Alan Bean.

There was no question anyone from Fort Worth could be a star. The proof was as close as Ginger Rogers’ girlhood home on Cooper Street, or the El Campo Avenue house where Larry Hagman was born, or the church on Camp Bowie Boulevard where John Denver sang when his name was Deutschendorf.

Bob Schieffer was at CBS, weeks away from beginning a 33-year career as a news anchor, and Paxton was “Wild Bill,” leaving his hometown for Hollywood.

Family friend Ginger Head Gearheart remembers what Paxton’s mother, Mary Lou, told her at the old Ridglea Drug, now a bakery-cafe: “She said, ‘That crazy boy came home today and told me he’s going to Hollywood. He told me he was going to go out and be an actor. What was he thinking?’ ”

At a Paxton tribute Thursday night at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, boyhood friend Tommy Roberts remembered the 1980s moment he realized his cut-up childhood friend had become a celebrity.

“We were sitting in the Black-eyed Pea Restaurant,” Roberts said, “and this guy comes over to the table and starts doing lines from Chet,” Paxton’s tyrannical older brother character in the 1985 John Hughes teen comedy “Weird Science.”

It was tough for years to think of Paxton as a movie star, partly because some of his wheels-off roles didn’t seem like acting.

In ‘Weird Science’ and ‘True Lies’ — that was just Bill being Bill.

Fort Worth friend Tommy Roberts

“In ‘Weird Science’ and ‘True Lies’ — that was just Bill being Bill,” Roberts said.

In a 1997 Texas Monthly interview, after Paxton had taken his own starring ride into space as Tom Hanks’ crewmate in “Apollo 13,” Paxton joked about making home movies as a teenager with a Super 8 camera: “We made films because we liked to blow stuff up.”

By then, he was a genuine leading man. But even on trips home in 2006 and 2007 to help jump-start the Lone Star Film Festival, he immediately talked about high school, chemistry teacher Dona Stovall and his favorite, drama teacher Rosemary Burton.

Bill Paxton attended Aledo High School when he parents moved to a ranch, then graduated in 1973 from Arlington Heights High School.

Roberts said when he and Paxton talked weeks before his death Feb. 25 in Los Angeles, he said he was “just a hometown boy who got some breaks.”

At the tribute, classmates shared photos and signed a guest book “Heights forever” and “[Yellow] Jackets Fight.”

Their memorial fund will support Heights’ musical theater program, and maybe the next Fort Worth star.

Bud Kennedy: 817-390-7538, bud@star-telegram.com, @BudKennedy. His column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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