Tribute to Bill Paxton: A Legend of Sci-fi Cinema

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Image Credit: Gage Skidmore

My favorite character actor, Bill Paxton, passed away last week at the age of 61. He is best known for portraying goofy, cowardly, or eccentric individuals in both cult classics and blockbuster films, at least several of which were directed by sci-fi visionary James Cameron.

When I was in college, I wrote a comedic werewolf story with Bill Paxton in mind for the lead role. While my dream of one day working with Paxton will never come to fruition, I’ll always appreciate how his contributions to science fiction cinema have inspired me as a writer. To honor the life and career of Paxton, I thought it would be appropriate to provide an overview of his most notable performances and achievements.

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“Nice night for a walk, eh?”

In 1984, a then unknown Paxton landed the role of “Punk Leader” in The Terminator. Though quite brief, the blue-haired miscreant played by Paxton is often remembered for his one-liners prompted by a nude, albeit still imposing, Arnold Schwarzenegger. It should also be mentioned that “Punk Leader” is chronologically the first character to be killed by the T-800 model (keep this in mind for later).

Less than two years after appearing in The Terminator, Paxton would portray Private Hudson—a combat technician who undergoes a nervous breakdown upon encountering the xenomorph colony on Acheron—in Aliens, another sci-fi thriller directed by Cameron.

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“Somebody said ‘alien’; she thought they said ‘illegal alien’ and signed up.”

To be honest, I prefer the slow, creepy tension of the first Alien movie over the more action-oriented approach employed by Cameron in the second installment. That being said, the Hudson character is my favorite in the entire Alien franchise. His dialogue—conveyed with a fine balance of desperation and sardonic wit—allows the audience to vicariously experience the sense of hopeless dread that plagues the LV-426 expedition in nearly every scene. (Spoiler alert) Hudson unfortunately fails to survive the film’s climax, going out in a blaze of glory while spewing profanity at a swarm of encroaching xenomorphs.

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“It’s finger-lickin’ good!”

The following year, Paxton would be reunited with Aliens co-stars Lance Henriksen and Jenette Goldstein in Near Dark—a low-budget vampire film now regarded as a cult classic. Other horror productions starring Paxton include Brain Dead (not to be confused with Peter Jackson’s Braindead), Mortuary, and the Tales from the Crypt episode entitled “People Who Live in Brass Hearses.”

Paxton returned to sci-fi cinema in Stephen Hopkins’ Predator 2, portraying a goofy LA detective named Jerry Lambert. In my opinion, the comic relief provided by Paxton’s character makes watchable an otherwise middling entry in the Predator franchise. Lambert is killed during a subway attack halfway through the movie, making Paxton the first actor whose characters have been slain by a predator, an alien, and a terminator—a dubious honor that Paxton shares only with Henriksen.

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“No, sir. I’m from Kentucky.”

Recently, Paxton played Master Sergeant Farell in the futuristic sci-fi/action thriller Edge of Tomorrow, a film that combines the military vs. extraterrestrials theme of Aliens with the main narrative device featured in Groundhog Day. Once again, Paxton offers comic relief in a highly tense situation, this time by talking down to Major William Cage (Tom Cruise)—a cowardly public affairs officer demoted to private in the midst of an alien invasion.

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Image Credit: Vanessa Lua

Paxton appeared in and directed a variety of family movies. Most notably, the late actor starred in Disney’s 1998 remake of Mighty Joe Young, a modern retelling of the stop-motion classic about a giant, misunderstood gorilla. He is also known for his supporting role of Dinky Winks in the Spy Kids series of films. In 2005, Paxton directed The Greatest Game Ever Played, an inspiring historical drama centered on the early career of golf legend Francis Ouimet (Shia LaBeouf).

Other characters portrayed by Paxton include Bill Harding, a tornado-chasing weather reporter in Twister; Brock Lovett, a treasure hunter in Cameron’s Titanic; Tombstone’s Morgan Earp, a real-life-participant in the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral; Chet Donnelly, Wyatt’s abusive older brother in Weird Science; used-car salesman Simon in True Lies; and astronaut Fred Haise in Apollo 13.

 

Rest in peace, Mr. Paxton.

 

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