Bill Paxton was us.
Some actors project an air of unreality, as if they’re tuned in to a different frequency. Some are chameleons, taking pride in looking radically different with each role. Paxton was a versatile actor, but he wasn’t one of those kinds of performers. There was a solidity to him, a dependable core of raffish decency. His characters could be brash, calculating, and even shady, and they were often gleefully irreverent.
But most of the time, they’d end up doing the right thing. Or at least they’d try to do the right thing at some point — usually when the odds were most clearly stacked against them.
It’s easy to connect to the men Paxton played, because no matter what circumstances they were in, they responded as a regular person would. He didn’t play men with superpowers or resources that would ensure their success. He was usually just a normal guy, one who was in over his head.
Directors cannily relied on that Everyman quality and kept putting Paxton in scenarios that, with the wrong casting, could have come off as absurd, unintentionally comical, or simply unbelievable. A Marine in space? A man married to three women? A cop fighting an alien? These scenarios — the premises of “Aliens,” “Big Love, ” and “Predator 2” — could have seemed ridiculous. Paxton’s rakish energy helped ensure that they were rousing and relatable in the right ways. Even in 2013’s “2 Guns,” in which he played a compassionless bad guy, there was that Texas drawl that made his transgressions delicious.
Paxton typically played working-class characters — grunts, dads, cops, small-timers, guys living paycheck to paycheck, men who had never quite gotten over to the promised land of security (financial or otherwise). Yet it would be wrong to say that he played the same character every time.
Paxton gave us a tremendous gift: He never let us see the effort that went into his performances. He gave every appearance of being a guy who showed up on set and read the lines without any preparation. Of course that wasn’t the case. It takes the greatest skill to make a performance look that unstudied and spontaneous.
When it comes to the work, we’ll probably best remember his film roles, given that he was a key part of iconic American movies. His most notable partnership was with James Cameron, whose work gained texture and heart every time he cast his friend Paxton in a pivotal role.
That said, upon hearing of Paxton’s death, I immediately thought of him on CBS’ “Training Day.” Not many TV critics would make the case that the show was great art, and it’s arguable that it didn’t successfully import to the small screen the most valuable qualities of the film of the same name. Even so, Paxton’s performance drew me into the “Training Day” pilot. He occupied the screen with such slippery charisma that it was impossible not to enjoy what he was doing, partly because he appeared to be having such a damned good time.
He also kept me watching HBO’s uneven “Big Love” for longer than I otherwise would have. On that drama, Paxton played Bill Henrickson, a religious patriarch who could be arrogant, self-serving, and petty. Yet he gave the character a core of vulnerability that kept me hooked.
He was too much of a professional to pretty up the elements that made his “Big Love” character by turns complicated and frustrating. But he also showed viewers the love, aspiration, and spiritual yearning at Bill’s core. And that’s the real appeal of many of his performances: He was unafraid to let his characters be uncertain and vulnerable.
Take his Private Hudson in “Aliens,” my favorite Paxton role. Early in the movie, Hudson is a blusterer, a loud mouth who boasts and razzes and is an almost obnoxious presence. Yet the character is lovable in his boisterousness, and he somehow becomes even more appealing in the scene in which he loses all hope. After a pulse-pounding showdown with the aliens, when he squawks that iconic line — “Game over, man! Game over!” — Hudson is all of us. He’s our immediate, primal connection to the plight of the characters, because he reacts the way any normal, terrified person would. Among this motley collection of people, Hudson has no guile and no chill. It’s a human moment — raw, funny, and cathartic all at once.
It’s shocking and sad that American film and television creators won’t be able to rely on Paxton’s rough-hewn decency, his game sense of humor, and his canny ability to steal a scene. Paxton was dependably watchable in projects that weren’t as good as he was, and great in roles that gave his characters the scope and depth to display their irreverent and essential humanity.