February 27, 2017
obituary

RIP Bill Paxton: Watch His Surreal SNL Short and Other Indie Efforts

Actor and director Bill Paxton has passed away at the age of 61. Here's a look at his career, including some of his lesser-known directorial efforts, and a surreal short film from SNL. 

Bill Paxton's career as a writer and director spanned four decades. In the '90s, he was practically ubiquitous, appearing in films ranging from Apollo 13 to Twister, and Titanic. But the actor had a strong indie pedigree, too: One of his most memorable roles was in Sam Raimi's A Simple Plan, co-starring Billy Bob Thornton. Though the film didn't receive much notice at the time, Paxton and Thornton appeared on Charlie Rose to promote the film in the wide-ranging discussion below. 

Paxton's movie career began in the art department, where he painted sets. He met James Cameron, who would go on to direct the actor in three movies (The Terminator, Aliens, and Titanic) during the filming of Battle Beyond the Stars, a 1980 Roger Corman sci-fi flick for which Cameron was the art director. (The Battle Beyond the Stars screenplay also happened to be written by indie legend John Sayles) Despite Paxton's later success as an actor in big-budget films and TV series like Big Love, perhaps his greatest legacy will be one of his most overlooked projects: his directorial debut, Frailty.

"On the basis of this film, Paxton is a gifted director" -Roger Ebert

The low-budget psychological thriller, in which he also starred, is about a father whose religious delusions lead him to acts of horrific violence. The 2001 film has been singled out for praise by many, including Roger Ebert, who gave the film four stars and called it "an extraordinary work," further noting: "On the basis of this film, Paxton is a gifted director; he and his collaborators...have made a complex film that grips us with the intensity of a simple one." This wasn't the actor's only foray into directing, though.

In 1980 (the same year he met Cameron) he directed and starred in this very early Saturday Night Live short, Fish Heads. It's experimental, surreal, and funny, and shows sides of the square-jawed actor's personality that he didn't often get to display during his career. According to Yahoo, "Paxton, cinematographer Rocky Schenk, and costumer Joan Farber shot the video with a Super 8 camera and hand-cranked Bolex camera for about $2,000, and Paxton campaigned to get the video played on Saturday Night Live, long before the days of Digital Shorts."

Paxton was working up until his untimely death; his final role as a corrupt cop in the TV remake of Training Day began airing on CBS earlier this month.

The actor was also fondly remembered by his collaborators and friends. In a moving statement, James Cameron shared memories of their friendship and called Paxton "a good man, a great actor, and a creative dynamo," and hoped that, "amid the gaudy din of Oscar night, people will take a moment to remember this wonderful man, not just for all the hours of joy he brought to us with his vivid screen presence, but for the great human that he was."       

Your Comment

4 Comments

I haven't seen all his work, but he elevated everything he was in, that's for sure.

February 27, 2017 at 12:37PM

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Saied M.
984

Highly prolific with a few unknowns to me. Somewhere, someone is putting together a script on his behalf.

Salud,

A.S.

February 27, 2017 at 12:46PM

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I'm surprised you haven't mentioned that the short is practically the music video for the song "Fish Heads" by comedy rock duo Barnes & Barnes.

February 27, 2017 at 2:15PM

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My favorite Bill Paxton film was "One False Move", but I also enjoyed seeing him pop up in scene-stealing supporting roles like Chet in "Weird Science" and Joe from "Night Crawler". If he wasn't his generation's archetype for Hollywood's representation of Middle American masculinity, I don't know who was. RIP.

February 28, 2017 at 1:17PM

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Marc B
Shooter & Editor
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