Film lovers the world over are reeling from the announcement that actor Bill Paxton passed away this past Sunday at the age of 61 following complications from surgery. Paxton was one of the most beloved character actors from the mid-’80s until present day, leaving behind a varied, timeless, and memorable body of work.
And he wasn’t strictly limited to acting, either. Paxton was, in many ways, a Renaissance Man. He was also a musician, performing in the ’80s New Wave group Martini Ranch. He even took a turn at directing, including the bizarre music video for the 1980 cult Barnes and Barnes hit “Fish Heads”, as well as two feature films (Frailty and The Greatest Game Every Played).
In the months prior to his death, Paxton was cast as corrupt LAPD Detective Frank Rourke in the 2017 CBS cop drama Training Day. He’d already shot the entirety of the series’ first season order before his passing, and the show will pay tribute to the late actor in the coming days.
While we mourn his death, we’re also paying tribute to his career, chronicling his very best performances in film and television, works that showcased his diverse gifts in the realms of sci-fi, horror, action, drama, and comedy. Without further ado, here’s our list of Bill Paxton’s 15 best performances. RIP.
15. John Garrett – Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
ABC’s Marvel series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been wildly uneven in terms of quality over the course of its 4 seasons, but no one can accuse Bill Paxton of the same with his portrayal of Hydra mole Agent John Garrett. He provided one of the show’s great twists, and pretty much salvaged the first season from its clumsy start.
It was clear that Paxton was having a blast playing the comic book bad guy/double agent at odds with series lead — and Marvel movie connecting thread — Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg). His seething dialogue and hard boiled persona were pitch-perfect for Paxton’s inimitable delivery.
Coulson would eventually catch on to Garrett’s scheme, leading to an epic showdown that resulted in Garrett’s death. While Paxton’s role on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was brief, the series’ cast was deeply saddened by his loss, with Gregg saying in People Magazine: “He was like a brother to me, and I love him and I’ll miss him terribly.”
14. Master Sergeant Farrell – Edge of Tomorrow
In director Doug Liman’s brilliantly inventive military sci-fi flick Edge of Tomorrow, Tom Cruise stars as Major William “Bill” Cage, a soldier battling deadly extraterrestrials. His job becomes complicated by a Groundhog Day scenario: every day is exactly the same. He wakes up, goes to fight aliens (known as “Mimics”) gets killed on the battlefield, and the cycle starts anew.
And one particularly grating thorn-in-his-side is Paxton’s Master Sergeant Farrell, a tough talking military leader who takes sheer delight in making Cage’s life miserable, completely unaware and unconcerned by the hero’s claims of his ongoing rinse and repeat lifecycle. His staunch refusal to believe Cage’s explanation of an infinite time-loop reality is only lessened when Cage begins accruing more clues to the cause behind it all.
13. Joe Loder – Nightcrawler
Nightcrawler was a truly unnerving thriller, starring Jake Gyllenhaal as Lou Bloom, a stringer striving to provide the best grisly coverage of car wrecks and crime scene footage for the nightly news — no matter what moral lines he has to cross to do it. His ambition appeals to friendly rival Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), a dogged business veteran who suggests they partner up to share in the spoils.
Bloom wants nothing to do with Loder, however, seeing him as an enemy combatant. Instead of viewing a potential partnership as an asset, his own greed and disturbing sense of competition leads him to sabotage Loder’s career to further his own. And he does so in cruel and psychotic fashion. Paxton infuses his role with the just right amount of journeyman cynicism, gallows humor, and competitive spirit, helping to humanize a character in a morally questionable profession. This is the perfect counterpoint to Bloom’s cold, sociopathic demeanor, making Paxton’s contribution a small but vital element to the 2014 cult classic film.
12. Brock Lovett – Titanic
Bill Paxton had a symbiotic career with filmmaker James Cameron. He was cast in four of the director’s films over the years, beginning with a bit part in The Terminator (his “nice night for a walk, eh?” was a near miss for our list based on his spectacular blue hair and face tattoo alone). Paxton’s restrained performance in Titanic (the pair’s final collaboration) was a sharp counterpoint to the director’s most opulent melodramatic film to date.
It’s easy to goof on Titanic now, as it’s in many ways the pinnacle of Hollywood excess and hokiness. Nevertheless, it’s one of the biggest cinematic achievements of the ’90s, and Paxton played a crucial role as treasure hunter Brock Lovett. He’s obsessed with finding the Heart of The Ocean, a famed diamond necklace in the ruins of the RMS Titanic.
Lovett’s search for the jewel begins when he discovers a painting of Rose Dawson Calvert wearing the necklace in question. And when he meets Calvert — now in her later years — he becomes so moved by her story that he abandons the search altogether (wise, given that Rose had it in her possession all along). Paxton doesn’t have a big part, but his grounded performance gives the heavy-handed storyline some much-needed balance.
11. Bill Harding – Twister
The 1990s saw a resurgence in disaster movies, but the most memorable one of them all was surely Jan De Bont’s Twister, which gave a big-budget take on encountering a series of terrifying tornadoes. Twister was full of pioneering (at the time) CGI and sound effects, and it was more focused on spectacle than story. Regardless, Paxton once again brings his talents to the fore, refusing to fade into the periphery of on-screen carnage.
He plays Bill “The Extreme” Harding, a former storm chaser turned weatherman, dragged back into his old profession by fellow storm chaser and estranged wife Jo (Helen Hunt). They use cutting edge tech of their own design to pursue a series of massively destructive twisters across Oklahoma.
Hunt and Paxton’s portrayal of storm chasers in Twister proved so popular that it helped thrust their characters’ career into pop culture, inspiring many young viewers to pursue the profession, as witnessed by a recent touching tribute from the industry in honor of Paxton’s passing.
10. Dale Dixon – One False Move
Bill Paxton gave the performance of a lifetime in One False Move, a 1992 thriller that is a criminally underrated gem. (Seriously, seek this film out immediately if you’ve never had the good fortune of seeing it.)
Paxton plays Dale Dixon, the chief of police in a sleepy, Arkansas town. He gets a taste of the big time, however, when a pair of LAPD officers trace a trio of wanted criminals (including Billy Bob Thornton as a truly disturbing violent ex-con) to his quiet burg. Dixon is ecstatic at getting some real police work opportunities and aids the California operatives in their quest.
Dixon’s aw-shucks demeanor makes the LA officers believe him to be a yokel out of his element working on such a high-profile case, but Dixon, in a revelatory moment, proves his down-home appearance masks a shrewd deductive mind, one that also has some dark secrets to contend with.
9. Severen – Near Dark
Katherine Bigelow’s 1987 vampire western Near Dark featured a mini-reunion for the cast of Aliens (don’t worry, we’ll get to that one), with Paxton joined by Lance Henriksen and Jenette Goldstein. Paxton steals the show, however, in the role of cocky bloodsucking outlaw Severen. He’s a revelation in his role as a sneering, sarcastic bloodsucker utterly disgusted after taking a newbie vampire (Adrian Pasdar) under his wing. He also portrays the world-weary perspective of an immortal soul who has utter contempt for the people he has to feed on.
And if you had to pick one highlight from the film showcasing Paxton’s gifts, it’s easily the bar scene. Severen attacks the patrons in savage fashion, breaking one man’s neck before feeding on him (“I hate ’em when they ain’t been shaved”), and takes out an armed bartender by slitting his throat with the spurs of his boots. It’s a sequence that’s both hilarious and terrifying, and Paxton is utterly magnetic in the part. He adds the perfect touch of Southern grit to Bigelow’s sleek and stylish tale.
8. Hank Mitchell – A Simple Plan
The second underrated neo-noir crime thriller on our list is Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan, (adapted by Scott B. Smith’s 1993 novel of the same name). It’s a bleak, gripping thriller that reunited Paxton with his One False Move co-star Billy Bob Thornton.
Paxton plays Hank Mitchell, a local-boy-done-good owner of a feed mill in rural Minnesota. One day, he, along with his mentally unsound brother Jacob (Thornton) and their friend Lou (Brent Briscoe), stumble across a bag full of money in a crashed private plane.
They decide to pocket the money, with Hank laying down the ground rules: they’ll sit on it until the end of winter, avoiding any undue suspicion. Unfortunately, the plan falls apart when greed (and the involvement of criminals looking for the money) leads to tragic and deadly consequences.
Paxton gives an anguished performance, balancing his decent nature with opportunistic greed and worry over his troubled brother. It’s a haunting portrayal from a quietly devastating film, which features a chilling twist ending.
7. Fred Haise – Apollo 13
Ron Howard’s historical epic Apollo 13 recounted the harrowing events of NASA’s seventh manned moon-landing mission. It featured a fantastic ensemble including Paxton, along with co-stars Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, Ed Harris and Gary Sinise.
Paxton played Lunar Module Pilot Fred Haise, and his role is crucial in keeping the focus of a big sweeping Hollywood docudrama on the down-to-Earth, practical, selfless American heroes willing to take a journey fraught with peril. Along with Hanks and Bacon, the trio lends a no-nonsense gravitas to their roles, and their interaction is the epitome of what an ensemble can carry out when their work ethic mirrors the characters they’re portraying.
Paxton rapport with his cast is clear, and showed that he was one of the best team players in Hollywood. Sure, he could showboat and steal scenes, but he also knew when to pull back to allow others their chance to shine, and Apollo 13 is just one of many wonderful examples of that balance.
6. Morgan Earp – Tombstone
In this epic western that starred pretty much every single badass actor of the ’90s — Kurt Russell, Val Kilmer, Sam Elliot, Michael Biehn, and Powers Boothe, just for starters — Paxton once again stood out even in a crowded playing field. His portrayal of Morgan Earp (brother to Wyatt, played by Russell, and Virgil, played by Elliot) was wholesome and sweet-natured, a part that the Fort Worth, Texas native could pull off with aplomb.
For anyone who thinks the actor was typecast playing jerks, this role as an earnest baby-brother was a much-needed reminder that he was capable of playing any character type that was thrown his way.
Like many roles Paxton inhabited, fate was none too kind to his character, and his eventual death was an emotional sucker-punch in an otherwise hard boiled and stoic film. There’s a reason Tombstone is still played constantly on basic cable: it completely holds up, and Paxton’s performance remains a powerful centerpiece to its plot.
5. Simon – True Lies
True Lies was the third collaboration between Paxton and director James Cameron. And while the film was a star vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis, Paxton’s performance as a sleazy used car salesman with delusions of grandeur steals the movie.
Simon pretends to be a secret agent in a ploy to seduce Helen (Curtis), the wife of real-life spy Harry Tasker (Schwarzenegger), who works as a black ops operative for the United States government.
When Harry discovers Simon’s scheme, he strings him along until he can figure out if Helen has fallen for his scam, eventually leading to a hilarious scene where Simon’s true cowardice is revealed. Paxton lets out a slew of improvised, gut-busting, hard-R-one-liners, drawing inspiration from his father’s colorful colloquialisms: “I got a ton of his stuff in True Lies…all that stuff was my dad…the great directors, when I’d throw stuff at them like that, they would go, ‘Put it in there!'”
4. Chet – Weird Science
Arguably the entry point for most moviegoers’ introduction to Paxton was his role as Chet Donnelly, the obnoxious, bullying older brother of Wyatt Donnelly (Ilan Mitchell-Smith) in John Hughes’s 1985 sci-fi teen-sex-comedy Weird Science. Although he only has a few scenes, he’s one of the most memorable jerks in 1980s cinema.
After Wyatt and his best friend Gary Wallace (Anthony Michael Hall) create Lisa (Kelly Le Brock), the perfect woman, via a home computer, Chet blackmails them for his silence, clearly relishing his role in terrorizing his geeky younger sibling.
Paxton is so good in inhabiting the role as a prize creep that many moviegoers imagined he had to be as big of a jerk in real life. Such is the curse of being so good at playing a character so bad. Chet’s ultimate comeuppance results in him turning into a talking, farting sentient turd. It’s a classic gross-out moment of revenge that was totally appropriate for such a revolting character.
3. Dad Meiks – Frailty
In what is perhaps most unnerving role, Paxton plays Dad Meiks, a father trying to raise two young boys after the loss of their mother. Soon, he tells his sons Fenton and Adam that their family has been chosen to be “God’s hands,” charged with ridding demons from the Earth.
Meiks awaits “messages” from God, such as which weapons he needs to destroy these demons and a list of targets. His sons discover that their father is convinced that humans are demons in disguise, and he begins ritual murdering anyone he claims has been selected by the Lord to die.
The sons are pitted against each other when Fenton questions his father’s motives, and sees him as a murderer, whereas Adam believes in their mission, claiming to see the visions as well. This is merely the beginning: once Fenton matures, he reveals the full extent of his father’s wrath and Adam’s involvement.
Paxton is terrifying as a man so devout in his belief that he makes even the audience question whether he’s insane or correct in his claims. Frailty is more than just a strong performance from Paxton, it’s also his feature directorial début. It’s an accomplished horror film that deserves more acclaim.
2. Bill Henrickson – Big Love
One of Paxton’s most memorable leading man performances came as Bill Hendrickson in HBO’s series Big Love. He played a Mormon polygamist balancing his political career with his personal life with his three wives (portrayed by Ginnifer Goodwin, Jeanne Tripplehorn and Chloë Sevigny) and their two children (Amanda Seyfried, Douglas Smith).
Big Love took the concept of a traditional family drama and turned in on its head, showing the full set of logistical headaches and heartaches that come with juggling multiple spouses while trying to explain their unorthodox family life to those around them. This would prove particularly vexing as he entered the political arena as a Utah state senator. Paxton gave a sturdy, well-rounded portrayal, where his complex moral quandaries and inner doubts were conveyed just as much by his pained facial expressions as with his expertly delivered dialogue.
Big Love met with plenty of controversy upon its release, particularly from the Mormon Church, but Paxton’s ability to give a wonderfully mundane, human face to his complicated patriarchal role made for one of premium cable’s most fleshed out characters.
1. Private Hudson – Aliens
“Game over, man!” “Why don’t you put her in charge?” “Stop your grinnin’ and drop your linen!” Paxton’s role as Private First Class William L. Hudson in Aliens is an absolute goldmine of iconic movie one-liners. In a film boasting an amazing cast, his comedic portrayal often upstages every actor he shares a scene with.
Paxton excels in his role of a macho show-off who is ultimately revealed to be a neurotic coward. His bravado collapses under pressure when he, Ripley, Corporal Hicks, Newt, Bishop, and the rest of his fellow Colonial Marines are besieged by a nest of xenomorphs in the ravaged “shake-and-bake” colony on LV-426.
No matter how much he complains, the audience never stops rooting for Hudson, and while he definitely doesn’t survive, he goes out in a blaze of glory, eventually emerging as the selfless hero he claimed to be.
Paxton’s role in Aliens makes him part of a unique sci-fi trifecta: between Aliens, his cameo in James Cameron’s The Terminator, and role in Predator 2, he holds a unique distinction immortalized in this meme: “Bill Paxton has been killed by a Predator, an Alien, and a Terminator.” Gone, but never forgotten. We’ll miss you, Bill.
That wraps up our list of Bill Paxton’s 15 best performances! What other films or television Paxton roles would you add to the list? Be sure to tell us in the comments, as well as your favorite memories of the late actor.
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