On February 25th, only a day before the Oscars, actor Bill Paxton was pronounced dead at the age of 61 due to complications during heart surgery sending shocks through Hollywood and the hearts and minds of filmgoers everywhere. Paxton may not have been the biggest or most well known actor, but he left his mark on many iconic and enjoyable roles over the years in some of the most memorable films of the last few dacades. In honor of his acting greatness, I compiled a list of my top ten favorite Bill Paxton performances spanning much of his career, which started way back in the 1970s and 1980s.
For this list I looked at Paxton’s filmography on the big screen only, so his television roles in “Big Love” and “Hatfields and McCoys”, while awesome, while not be considered. I chose ten that I felt were some of his best and most iconic. Obviously this list is specific to my own appreciation of Paxton’s work, so feel free to share your thoughts about your favorite Bill Paxton role in the comments below. ALSO this countdown may contain SPOILERS for the roles and films discussed, you’ve been warned!
Before I get to the list, a few honorable mentions: one of Paxton’s career launching roles as the Punk Leader in “The Terminator” and his villainous role as Elliot Vaughn in “Vertical Limit”. Let’s get started.
10. Morgan Earp, “Tombstone”
This modern Western genre classic features Paxton taking on the role of the brother of famed lawman Wyatt Earp. This depiction of the famed “Gunfight at O.K. Corral” and its aftermath includes a fantastic death scene featuring Paxton after Earp’s brothers are ambushed in retribution in the wake of the gunfight. What makes this such a great role is how Paxton owns his position in the family and, upon receiving the fatal gunshot, the scene that follows contains an inspiring call to action and even a lighthearted revelation of what it’s like to die. It’s a delightfully well-done scene and one that makes this one of Paxton’s best roles.
9. Dale “Hurricane” Dixon, “One False Move”
An underrated film by every definition, “One False Move” was a magnificent unforeseen success both critically and financially and featured Paxton in the leading role as ambitious cop who teams with the LAPD to stop a group of thieves and murderers on the run through Arkansas. Possibly his best overall acting role as far as quality and commitment in my opinion, Paxton holds his own throughout the film right to the end and the epic shootout that brings everything to a close. Considering the fact that “One False Move” required word of mouth to generate traction, Paxton managed to play a major role in getting people talking and earning this film the respect it deserves.
8. Coconut Pete, “Club Dread”
It’s fun to see actors take on different roles and characters they may not otherwise portray. In 2004, Paxton was part of Broken Lizard’s semi-parody of slasher films, “Club Dread”, portraying the cast’s island host, music star Coconut Pete. A direct spoof of other tropical music icons like Jimmy Buffett, Coconut Pete was a womanizing party animal that Paxton turned into a charming, show stealing joy to watch. While not necessarily the centric character of the film, Paxton did an amazing job at creating a character that rode the line between straight up parody and serious semi-protagonist that will make you laugh and want to have a beer with him at the same time. It’s all part of a really well done film that brings out the best in everyone on the cast.
7. Chet Donnelly, “Weird Science”
Probably one of his most popular roles for hard-core film buffs, Paxton made a mark on the film industry in the 80’s as the brother people loved to hate, the unapologetically mean elder sibling of one of the film’s nerdy leads Wyatt. Fun fact, this is now one of two films where he plays a brother to someone named Wyatt (see Tombstone above). Anyways, while Paxton was not the star of the show in this film he did steal a few scenes and made quite an impression. In an era where the mean sibling and over-the-top bullies had started to become clichés, Paxton managed to standout as one of the most delightfully dislikable of them all! “You know what time it is?…Time to pay the fiddler!”
6. Master Sergeant Farell, “Edge of Tomorrow”
What made Paxton such a likable actor was not just his skills as a villain, he was also an accomplished smartass. One of Paxton’s more recent roles, Master Sergeant Farell was the commander of a crew of human warriors waging battle against a dangerous alien race with the ability to reset time. Paxton added some very funny moments to the film in his commanding of his troops and his unapologetic bashing of public affairs officer turned unwilling warrior William Cage, played by Tom Cruise. In a lot of ways Paxton’s character is a motivator for Cage as he managed to take a role that could have otherwise been a throwaway cliché hardass and make it an unexpectedly memorable character in an extremely fun film.
5. Simon, “True Lies”
One of many collaborations between Paxton and director James Cameron, Paxton played the car salesman Simon who pretended to be a secret agent in order to woo over the wife of main character Harry Tasker, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Simon becomes the center of some comedic scenes with Harry and oozes many of Paxton’s trademark character tropes that made his career one to remember. His character also serves to set up the struggles between the male and female leads of the film, which helps set the action in motion. Paxton manages to take a relatively forgettable character and turn it into a major plot devise early in the film, and a memorable one at that.
4. Fred Haise, “Apollo 13”
One of Paxton’s few biographical roles, Paxton portrayed real life lunar module pilot Fred Haise in the docudrama “Apollo 13”. This is honestly a role that makes this list more for Paxton being a part of the cast than Paxton’s specific role alone. A fantastic, Oscar worthy film, “Apollo 13” features and ensemble cast and was probably the closest Paxton ever got to being considered for a Golden Globe or an Oscar. Unfortunately he was outshined by bigger names on the project, but Paxton held his own and showed he could work with the best of them. He did earn an award from the Screen Actors Guild as part of the “Outstanding Performance by a Cast” category, sharing the award with the other actors on the project, which was well deserved.
3. Brock Lovett, “Titanic”
Here for pure iconic status, Bill Paxton became a household name in 1997 when he played treasure hunter Brock Lovett in James Cameron’s “Titanic”. As a hunter, Paxton proves to be a heavy plot driving force as he is searching for the Heart of the Ocean, a necklace that was supposed to have gone down with the famous ship. It’s his character that brings narrator Rose into the fold and allows for the setup where the story is told. In the grand scheme of things Lovett is not the biggest character in the role, but he was important to setting the tone and he is one of the few in the film whose knowledge of the Titanic is rooted in modern day rather than in the past. By the end of the film his revelations and feelings after hearing Rose’s story become ours, meanings more than any other character Brock Lovett serves as a representative of the viewer who came to find a treasure and left with a new understanding of the world around them.
2. Bill Harding, “Twister”
Maybe not his best role, maybe not his most artistic role, but Paxton’s Bill Harding is by far one of his most iconic. Paxton led the way in this iconic disaster epic that saw a group of storm chasers hunting down the meanest and most dangerous twisters in an attempt to learn what makes them tick. Paxton proved he could be a leading man with this role, which earned him a nomination at the Saturn Awards for Best Actor in 1997. When people think Bill Paxton, this is the role and the movie they usually associate him with. Even casual movie fans know when they hear the name Bill Paxton that he was “the guy from Twister”. With his trademark sarcasm and whit Paxton made the Bill Harding role one few could ever forget and helped carry the film to become one of the most iconic disaster movies of all time. Truly a career making role, this character is what cemented Paxton as a true frontrunner in the film industry at the time and while the film itself may have mixed reactions from critics and audience, few can deny that Paxton was one of the most likable and memorable aspects of this epic movie going experience.
1. Private Hudson, “Aliens”
Paxton had the honor many times of working with the legendary James Cameron. We’ve seen two entries on this list already for his work with the iconic director, but it’s his second role in a Cameron film that stands out as Paxton’s most iconic and notable role. In 1986 Paxton played the gritty and comical Private Hudson in the science fiction classic “Aliens”. This was truly Paxton’s breakout role to the masses as his sarcastic whit and badass personality took center stage after playing mostly background roles and bit parts, including the punk leader in Cameron’s “Terminator” film two years earlier. Numerous one liners helped Paxton set the stage for what everyone could expect from him in the years to come and, to top it all off, it earned him his only major award as an individual actor. He took home a Best Supporting Actor win at the Saturn Awards and he would follow that up with two more nominations in that category over the years. It as this role that opened the doors for Paxton to become the star he was destined to be, and that alone makes it number one on my list.