In a final interview before his tragic and sudden death at 61, the fine actor Bill Paxton revealed that he was never one for speaking in front of people, and he remained camera shy despite his thirty-three-year film career. A poignant and fitting insight, because Paxton’s great gift was portraying the ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances, caught in the stark lights of chance and catastrophe, swept along by something bigger than him, as life is to us all. This made him one of the most relatable and effective character actors of his generation.

“Game over, man!” This now-bittersweet line from Aliens is probably the most renowned of Paxton’s career, and the affable-but-unhinged marine Private Hudson is the role I most identify him with. Now, James Cameron knows how to write good dialogue, but Paxton’s delivery is the reason that line has crossed over into common parlance as the go-to expression for those moments when you find yourself faced with ridiculously insurmountable odds. Paxton delivers it with such perfect, cracking pitch of an adrenaline-drenched, knuckle-headed mind beginning to fall apart at the seams, that it works simultaneously as comic relief and an affirmation of pure terror.

It’s a funny line: but that’s art right there, and the character actor’s art is the most taken-for-granted but essential component of a successful film. Paxton was one of the best character actors around — no question.

Directors and casting directors valued Paxton for his everyman charm — plain-spoken and rough-around-the-edges, he could play larger-than-life types with an authenticity that warded off the threat of parody: He was the only astronaut in Apollo 13 (as Fred Haise) trusted with lines like “I could eat the ass out of a dead rhinoceros.” A role like tornado-chasing Bill Harding in the silly natural-disaster-meets-love-triangle Twister would have imploded without Paxton’s steady hand on the ridiculousness tiller.

Paxton had range, though, too. He was very capable playing comedy villains — he was the perfect douchebag big brother (“anybody with a haircut like that is an asshole”) in Weird Science, and a deliciously greasy car salesman trying to pass himself off as a secret agent in True Lies. But two dramatic roles, both cast alongside Billy Bob Thornton, really cement his legacy as a gifted all-round actor. First, in a key support role in the neo-noir minor classic, A Simple Plan, and second as the lead — in what is probably his stand-out dramatic performance — in the overlooked-but-great thriller One False Move.

This range had served him well in recent years as he made the transition to TV. He was nominated for a Golden Globe for his lead role in successful HBO polygamy drama Big Love, and recently starred in Training Day, a serialized-for-TV follow-up to the 2001 Denzel Washington movie.

The plaudits never went to Paxton’s head, despite his roles in movies by giants like Ron Howard and James Cameron, or starring alongside the likes of Tom Hanks (Apollo 13) and Denzel Washington (2 Guns). Reading through interviews, you get the sense of a humble guy who was genuinely enthralled to be doing his dream job with people he was clearly in awe of. In one interview, he describes jumping around with his wife, in a dance of glee at landing the part in A Simple Plan. In another, he recounts the kick he gets out of the fact that his son sends him fan-made youtube montages of favourite Bill Paxton lines.

Paxton will be sorely missed, but his place in film nerd culture is secured. His characters had a knack for going down in memorable ways. He wore a rare badge of honour, having bitten the dust at the hands of a Predator, a Terminator, and an Alien. And I’ll always remember his final moments in Aliens, in a final-stand berserker rage, fear long-forgotten, emptying his pulse rifle into xenomorphs with a slew of rage pouring from his mouth — “Come on! Come on you bastard! Come on, you too! Oh, you want some of this? Fuck you!” — he knew how to go out with style.

Thanks for everything Bill. You had so much more to give. RIP.

 

Selected Paxton Classics

Private Hudson’s last stand from Aliens

Big Brother Chet from Weird Science

“Game over, man!” from Aliens