The sad and sudden news that versatile character actor Bill Paxton passed recently, due to heart surgery complications, is a devastating announcement for cinema.
He was a rare beast, a man who would always give his all to a project, regardless of the quality of said film – an approach that helped elevate any job he took. He was an actor that truly never stopped working since his beginnings in the mid 70s, quickly coming up as a flavorful scene stealer in 80’s genre fare, then as a respectable lead and supporting actor in the 90s.
The 2000s were occupied greatly by his pinnacle work on HBO’s “Big Love”, but after things wrapped on the show, he was able to get back out there and chew up the scenery in a number of colorful performances on both the small and big screens – up until his last fateful week.
It’s a testament to his legacy that he was able to retain so many friendships and bonds with his film compatriots over the years, for he wasn’t just regarded as a great actor, but a great man as well.
It’s with a heavy heart that one must deliver such a tribute, but let’s see it as a celebration. Keep in mind this list is compiled based solely on his film work, as his contribution to TV (“Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D”, “Tales From the Crypt”) is vast and could fill up its own list. Also, the criteria is based purely on the quality of the roles and not necessary the movie itself.
There are cases (e.g. “Apollo 13”, “Tombstone”, “Titanic”) where his contribution just wasn’t as strong or pivotal compared the ones featured here, so keep that in perspective as you read. Anyhow, let’s delve into this underrated player’s greatest roles already!
15. The Last Supper (1995) / Club Dread (2004)
There could not be a more fitting way to start off this list than with a common occurrence throughout Paxton’s career – him delivering a ballistic supporting role in a sub-par production. Both turns are too small to stand as their own entry, but in a tie, they acceptably accent the same point.
“The Last Supper” is a mid-90’s attempt at black comedy that’s never as clever or dark as it thinks it is, with the exception of Paxton’s brief appearance as a ex-Marine that escalates a regular dinner party to murder.
It’s a great display of the actor’s skill; he’s immediately captivating, out-acting all the younger and hungrier performers with a performance that’s chilling and commanding yet self-parodying at the same time.
“Club Dread”, the follow-up effort from the Broken Lizard Group after their hilarious cult hit “Super Troopers” (2001), is a less successful slasher mash-up, yet Paxton as washed up ex-musician Coconut Pete completely kills it, stealing every scene he pops up in with impeccable delivery and a penchant for golden one-liners – making the otherwise uneven effort completely watchable.
14. Brain Dead (1990)
Get ready for this – this early 90’s genre gem starred not only Bill Paxton, but Bill Pullman as well. That’s correct, the two Bill’s that flourished in supporting roles during the same period and got constantly mixed up by audiences, managed to headline this sadly neglected film.
A truly bizarre, relentless mind-trip of a movie, it’s a gripping and creatively directed experience from Roger Corman protege Adam Simon (“Carnosaur”). Pullman is fantastically unhinged in the main part, as a brain surgeon going slowly insane, but Paxton deserves credit for his part as Pullman’s business partner.
Completely cast against type as a cold and calculating suit with slicked back hair, icy-cold delivery, and an untrustworthy attitude, it’s a fascinating turn for the actor’s less subdued period, in this wild ride of a movie.
13. Twister (1996)
Whilst not the best movie or character Paxton has been associated with, this tornado special-effects-heavy event movie was a big deal for the hardworking actor’s career. He had been (and would continue to be) involved in some of the biggest movies of that decade, but this was the first time he was playing the actual male lead in a massive and successful blockbuster.
Made by Jan De Bont (“Speed”) during the brief three-year period when he was considered the second coming of Spielberg, this goofy film has logic defiance and exposition-laden dialogue galore, yet it manages to work well enough as a decent entertainment piece with effects that hold up surprisingly well (well, maybe not that scene with the cow).
Much of its strength is due to its duo of leads; the fiery chemistry between pre-Oscar Helen Hunt and Paxton, as ex-spouses/storm chasers, is enticing. The two of them make for an appealing on-screen couple, predictably but enjoyably falling back in love over the never-ending barrage of tornado set-pieces.
As said before, it’s a fairly vanilla role for Paxton, not asking much of him except to stare at a blue screen with a stunned look, but he still elevated it much above what was asked, and used his pedigree with the movie to finance a series of lower-key and interesting acting jobs.
12. Traveller (1997)
This was a meaty role for Paxton as he gained more heat as a leading man in the late 90s. This low-budget indie thriller has potential teasing from its premise, as it focuses on the Irish gypsies communities in North Carolina, and Paxton as their local con man.
Sadly, the premise is squandered by first-timer Jack Green’s flat and awkward directing, a familiar script, and Mark Wahlberg and Julianna Margulies, (both of whom are strong acting presences nowadays) just being too green to bring in the necessary solid support.
Still, this is all about Paxton – it’s a fine and diverse role for him as he faultlessly switches from lovable country boy, to a cunning criminal, to genuine heartbreak with a handful of standout scenes for himself. It’s a pity this was Paxton’s first hands-on producing job, and one only feels that if he decided to step into the director’s chair at this earlier point in his career, it could’ve resulted in a real gem – but alas.
11. Predator 2 (1990)
Paxton was carving a decent pedigree for himself in the late 80s as arresting support in big-budget genre fare, so it’s no surprise that once producer Joel Silver was gearing up to film a sequel to their seminal “Predator” (1987), the Texan actor got a quick call.
It’s Danny Glover’s pissed off cop versus an extraterrestrial hunter/killer in this fun, gory, old-school action flick. Most memorable amongst Glover’s roguish crew is recently transferred hero cop Jerry ‘Lone Ranger’ Lambert – full of brash attitude, big talk and ‘oh so cool’ swagger, he’s a character the audience isn’t initially meant to like much.
However, with a stylishly shot subway showdown between him and the titular alien, he sacrifices himself to get civilians to safety, nodding toward a clear case of Paxton taking a two-dimensional caricature and giving him a depth and memorable arc – a pattern that would repeat a lot during that period.
10. The Vagrant (1992)
This greatly ignored thriller headlined by Paxton definitely deserves a mention just for its pure wackiness factor. A rare directorial effort by special effects guru Chris Walas, the plot revolves around a straight-arrow office worker (Paxton) whose existence is turned upside down when he gets on the bad side of disfigured bum (Marshall Bell).
The plot soon spirals into nonsensical goofiness, but it’s plenty of fun to watch with Walas giving it plenty of off-kilter visual panache and with colorful support from Bell and Michael Ironside, but this is completely Paxton’s show.
Having to portray every emotion out of the playbook (sometimes all in the same scene), he’s game for whatever craziness the movie throws at him, in a over-the-top tour de force only a few chainsaw dices away from Bruce Campbell territory. It’s a fun and different type of performance from the versatile man that’s worth digging up by his fans.
9. Nightcrawler (2014)
After Paxton had finished his five-year stint on HBO’s “Big Love” in 2011, he jumped back into the cinematic world, doing what he did best – playing flavorful supporting parts in big movies (“2 Guns”, “Edge of Tomorrow”). Most memorable out this late period was his turn in Dan Gilroy’s chilling sleeper smash.
A powerhouse performance by Jake Gyllenhall is the centerpiece in this chronicle of a sociopath’s ruthless journey to becoming the top media dog in the news scene of Los Angeles.
His prime antagonist is Paxton’s old dog cameraman, who at first comes off as a scumbag who’s abrasively competitive, then spineless as he attempts to buy off Gyllenhaal’s character. However, later on his arc wraps up nicely in the shocking denouement, where his character actually becomes the movie’s sole voice of reason in a vicious backstabbing world.
It was a solid refresher of what Paxton could so easily do with a character – make them enjoyably hateable yet skillfully flip it by giving them memorable pathos, and stand out even in the vicinity of an Oscar-caliber performance.