Most of the world knew the late Bill Paxton as an actor, a film and TV star, a musician and even a director.
However, some of the people who got to know the Fort Worth native who appeared on so many movie and TV screens over the last 40 years remember Paxton better for his genuineness. It didn't matter if they grew up with him or just spent time with him during film festivals, movie projects or parties and dinners. Everyone considered Paxton a friend.
"I've met a lot of famous people and had what I consider to be great conversations with them but they're fleeting," says Todd Camp, a former writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram's entertainment section who first interviewed Paxton in the late 1980s just after his memorable role as Private Hicks in James Cameron's Aliens launched his movie career. "So you're pretty sure they don't remember who you are years later but Bill was one of those people who, no matter what you do, he would light up and come over and say hi, which was always a thrill for me because I was a fan first and we became friends later."
After Paxton died last Saturday from surgery complications, tributes poured from the Internet. Conan O'Brien dedicated a portion of his talk show to tell a story about Paxton's legendary friendliness and actress Jennifer Aniston tearfully described him as a "beloved actor and friend" while introducing the 89th Academy Awards' "In Memoriam" segment.
"He never had any entitlement," says Tom Huckabee, a Fort Worth artist, screenwriter,
Huckabee met Paxton in high school, during a '73 trip to study at London's Richmond College. He says Paxton's deep love for art, film and music was evident even then. Later they went on a hitchhiking trip together and "made a pact" to start their own film company. The two went on to work on music videos together for Paxton's band Martini Ranch as well as major motion pictures like Paxton's directorial debut Frailty,
The filmmaking partners started out with a Super-8 sound camera and made their own movies around Fort Worth until "we just wore that thing out." Huckabee says Paxton was a natural in front of a camera because he was so motivated to make people happy. "He was the funniest person I ever knew. I've never laughed harder than when he was on a roll doing characters."
One of their early films was a guerrilla-style, World War II film for a school history project called Victory in Auschwitz. They snuck into a trainyard to shoot some of the movie's key dramatic scenes in boxcars using memorabilia from their fathers' military collections.
Huckabee says Paxton threw himself into every project they worked on, sometimes literally. "That's another aspect of Bill's life and how daring and physically fearless he was, because he could really do stunts," he recalls. "Bill took this flying leap when he got shot and really fucked himself up. It was really horrible, like bruises that tore up his leg, which was good because we didn't have any fake blood."
The second day of the shoot attracted some onlookers who were curious to know why so many people with guns were hanging around the train tracks. Huckabee says they didn't pay any attention until the cops showed up with their guns drawn.
"The next day, we went back to finish shooting and five police cars came roaring up to us," Huckabee says. "They jumped out of the cars and 10 cops leveled guns at us and said, 'Drop your guns!' and we froze. Then the cops recognized one of the actors as a rookie cop and was like 'Scott, what are you doing?' and he said 'We're making a movie' and the cop said, 'Man, we almost blew all of you away' and they actually let us finish the movie."
Paxton's stardom never changed his naturally friendly and outgoing nature. Mark Walters, the owner and operator of the Dallas-based movie website Bigfanboy.com, says he ran into Paxton on several occasions during local film festivals like the Dallas International Film Festival and recalls how he always made time to do an interview or just joke around with him.
"He couldn't have been nicer and more laid back and easy to talk to," Walters says. "Once the camera stopped rolling, we chatted a bit and I let him know how nervous I was. He actually thought it was funny. He even said, 'What did you think I was gonna do? Kiss ya?' We both laughed and suddenly it was like talking to an old friend. After hearing other people talk about knowing him, I realized this was how Bill was. He was just a sweet and humble dude."
It also didn't matter if Paxton had a movie or project to promote. He just seemed to enjoy being around people and doing whatever he could to make them happy, says Kyle Trentham of Fort Worth, a former member of the Lone Star Film Festival advisory board who first met Paxton at a party in Fort Worth.
"The first impression I had of him was you could tell you were in the room with a movie star but he was just the most laid back guy and a lot smarter than the characters he plays on film," Trentham says. "He was passionate about filmmakers and everyone in the business. We were all working extremely hard for the same common goal: to make movies and tell a story."
Trentham says Paxton had a knack for remembering faces and names, which he learned during a first date.
"We were on a first date the next day at the Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth and they were having the meeting for the festival at the restaurant and my date was a big fan of Bill Paxton," Trentham says. "Bill Paxton walks around the corner and says, 'Hey, remember me, Kyle?' That just seemed to be the kind of guy he was, just a very, very friendly person."
Paxton may be remembered for his over-the-top characters in movies like Weird Science or Aliens, or his more dramatic roles in Apollo 13 or the hit HBO series Big Love, but Camp says the character he'll remember most is Paxton himself.
"It makes me smile to think about how he touched so many different people and how his death just hit people," Camp says. "He's a talented character actor but it's amazing how much of an impact he had on a lot of people."
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