A week after we learned of the tragic death of hugely talented actor and occasional director Bill Paxton, Slarek pays tribute by exploring a few of his less widely seen and celebrated works both in front of an behind the camera | 4 March 2017
A week ago we were hit with the news that actor and occasional director Bill Paxton had died from complications resulting from heart surgery. It’s one of those out-of-the-blue celebrity deaths that complete sideswiped me, in part because only a few days earlier I’d been listening to a recently conducted and enthralling interview with Paxton on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast. Paxton was engagingly open about his life and work here, and since his passing it’s become abundantly clear from those who worked with him that he was universally regarded as one of the nicest guys on the face of the planet.
I’m not sure I can recall through which film I first became aware of Paxton, his considerable talent and his effortlessly engaging screen presence, though I’m willing to bet it was – as I know it was with many others – his now iconic role as Corporal Hicks in Aliens. His apparently improvised wail of “Game over, man!” has passed into movie legend, and was also sampled for a popular soundtrack mod for the videogame Doom 2 – every time I died in the game after installing it I was treated to that mournful proclamation. But it was his performance as hillbilly vampire Severen in Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark that for me really cemented him as one of the genuinely great character actors of his generation. This was a role that Paxton absolutely lost himself in, to the point where I no longer felt I was watching a performance at all; even the showiness of his portrayal felt absolutely authentic to a character who is all too aware of his power and thoroughly enjoys exercising it. He’s since repeatedly demonstrated a real talent for low-key restraint when it’s called for, something admirably showcased in his role as Hank in Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan, stringer Joe Loder in Nightcrawler, and his hauntingly impressive turn as serial-killing family man Dad Meiks in the 2001 Frailty, which also showcased his skill as a director, a career he had wanted to pursue before ever getting into acting.
Yes, there are roles that did him no favours – the stink left by the godawful TV movie Gamechangers was hard for anyone involved to wash off – but there are so many more films where Paxton’s mere appearance on screen would put a small smile on my face, and on those rare occasions where he did get to play a lead role – and as someone who in another life would have chased tornadoes across America, it’s hard for me not to have a soft spot for Twister – he rose to occasion and made for a thoroughly likeable everyman hero.
I’d like to claim it would be easy to pick my five favourite Bill Paxton films or performances, but after taking a brisk trip through his sizeable CV I became painfully aware of how many of his films I’ve yet to see, which means I’d probably end up selecting the same films that have already had plenty of coverage elsewhere. I’ve thus instead chosen to pick five slightly more obscure Bill Paxton projects that I’ve discovered over the years, though in order to accommodate these titles have had to widen the scope of the inclusions beyond feature films (there are none on this list) to include music videos, a short film, a TV movie and a TV miniseries. A couple are personal favourites, another is intriguing for its technical handling, one desperately deserves a Blu-ray or even DVD release, and one is on there in part because no-one else I’ve spoken to even realised that Paxton was in it.
So here, for your amusement, are five lesser-known projects in which the late, great Bill Paxton had a hand. I've also embedded videos where available and appropriate.
Fish Heads (1980) / Love Tap – Barnes and Barnes (1981)
I can’t remember when and how I first discovered the oddball comedy musical duo Barnes and Barnes, but I suspect it was through a past close friend of mine, one I’ve previously referred to as my own private Withnail and who later wrote the duo an offbeat fan letter, to which they replied in kind. Tragically, my friend died before we realised that Art and Artie Barnes were the alter egos of Billy Mumy and Robert Haimer – my friend would have been thrilled to discover that this music was co-created by Will Robinson from Lost in Space. I’m guessing that the first song of theirs that I heard was Fish Heads, an almost annoyingly catchy novelty song that quickly developed a cult following (it was even sung by Homer on one episode of The Simpsons), not least because of the surrealistic music video that was created to sell it. It was many years later before I learned that this video starred and was directed by a young Bill Paxton. I have to presume he, Mumy and Haimer were friends, as Paxton was even more prominent in the video (which he didn’t direct) for the group’s follow-up song, Love Tap, which when first shown on UK TV was listed as a “a nasty little sexist piece from Barnes and Barnes.” You be the judge, but check out how effortlessly good-looking Paxton was in his youth, and just watch the face he pulls when his his girlfriend knees him in the nuts.
Fish Heads – Barnes and Barnes
Love Tap – Barnes and Barnes
Billy Mumy discusses Barnes and Barnes
and give a shout for Bill Paxton
Shadows of the Night – Pat Benatar
This one’s almost a pub trivia question, as in “What later successful actor had a bit part in Pat Benatar’s Shadows of the Night music video?” Even if you showed the quiz contestants the video there’s a good chance many of them wouldn’t get it, so fleeting is Paxton’s appearance here. While we all know the song – which was given a recent nostalgia boost through its inclusion on the soundtrack of Grand Theft Auto V – but less will remember the cheesy WW2 adventure tale around which very 1980s music video for the same was constructed. Paxton plays a Nazi radio operator, but so small is his role that I couldn’t help wondering if he did it as favour, though it’s worth remembering that at this point in his career he was still playing only bit parts (including Clyde the Bartender in Streets of Fire and Punk Leader in The Terminator), all of which changed a year later when he was cast as Chet Donnelly in John Hughes’ Weird Science.
Shadows of the Night – Pat Benatar
A series that no-one I know apart from me has seen, in part because it’s never been released on Blu-ray or DVD on either side of the Atlantic, which to me makes no sense. Yes, it’s been a long time since I watched it on late-night TV, and maybe, just maybe, it’s not as inventive and funny as I remember, but I distinctly recall enjoying the hell out of it and laughing out loud in places. A delightful parody of Dallas-style primetime TV soaps, it stars Charles Grodin as Cane Kensington, the patriarch of a wealthy family of raisin producers, and he's backed by a lively supporting cast that includes Dabney Coleman, Carol Burnett, Teri Garr, and Jeffrey Jones as the wonderfully named Mr. Acme. Even the opening titles are a parodic treat, as is Mel Brooks regular John Morris’s gusty main title theme. Paxton plays trailer park ranch hand Billy Joe Bobb, who at one point becomes so fired up with misplaced jealously that he shoots the radio on which his aspiring country singer wife Bobbi Jo Bobb (Teresa Ganzel) is performing. Unfortunately for him, the bullet passes through the window behind it and kills the woman the neighbouring trailer. It’s been a long time since that TV screening, but I distinctly remember the whole cast pitching the parodic comedy to perfection. Please, somebody, get this out on disc! Or iTunes! Or anything!
Additional: Just before posting this I was informed that some thoughtful soul has posted the whole thing on YouTube. I guess I'll get the chance to revisit it after all. Given the length, I've decided not to embed the video, but here's the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uL5bYdAlmUw
An Early Frost (1985)
Made the same year as Weird Science, John Erman’s ground-breaking made-for-TV movie was the first major film to deal openly with AIDS and the impact it was having on the homosexual community, eight years before made-for-cinema features caught up with Philadelphia. Paxton’s role is once again small here (as is that of Terry O’Quinn, later of Millennium and Lost), but the film itself was a landmark work and saw Paxton teamed with the likes of Gena Rowlands, Ben Gazzara, Sylvia Sidney, Aidan Quinn and John Glover. The film was also a major award-winner, landing a Golden Globe for Sylvia Sidney, four Primetime Emmys (it was nominated for ten others), a Peabody Award, and the Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Dramatic Specials gong from The Director’s Guild of America.
An Early Frost trailer
Despite his considerable success as an actor, Paxton never let go of his original dream of becoming a filmmaker, and in 2011 directed this intriguing short film starring Daniel Henney, James Hong and Powers Boothe. A mysterious stranger visits an ageing and cautious Chinese tattoo artist with a specific design in mind, one with an almost mythical history that the tattooist begins relating to the stranger and which unfolds in flashback. As is often the way with short films, the story is not strong on substance and pays second fiddle to style, and the film has that in abundance, though if you’re going to watch it I’d pull the curtains and switch off the lights, as visually this has to be one of the darkest films I’ve ever seen. It does leave you wondering what else Paxton might have delivered had he got the chance to spend a little more time behind the camera.