Paxton, William [Bill] (1955–2017)


By: Ray F. Lucas

Type: Biography

Published: January 30, 2022

Updated: January 31, 2022


William “Bill” Paxton, celebrated screen and television actor, producer, director, and musician, son of John Lane Paxton and Mary Lou (Gray) Paxton, was born in Fort Worth, Texas, on May 17, 1955. Paxton was the second of four siblings and had two brothers and a sister. The Paxton children were raised Roman Catholic. At the age of eight, Bill and his older brother Bob went with their father to see President John F. Kennedy outside of the Texas Hotel in Fort Worth on November 22, 1963. The boys witnessed the president as he gave a short speech, his last public address before he was assassinated in Dallas later that day (see KENNEDY ASSASSINATION). In 2007, after relaying the story to a curator at the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, the curator uncovered television footage of young Bill Paxton perched on a kind stranger’s shoulders in the Fort Worth crowd.

Paxton attended Aledo High School and graduated from Arlington Heights High School in 1973. He then studied at Richmond College in England, where he met fellow Fort Worth native and future screenwriter and producer Tom Huckabee. After returning to Texas, Paxton joined Huckabee in creating Super 8 short films on homemade sets. Resolving to pursue a career in filmmaking, Paxton moved to Los Angeles, California, in 1974. His first job in the film industry was working on an industrial film for Milan Herzog. Paxton’s father had met Herzog on a trip to Spain and struck up a correspondence with the filmmaker. Next Paxton worked as a set dresser on the Roger Corman film Big Bad Mama (1974). He worked on the sets of several other productions in the mid-1970s and made his on-screen debut in an uncredited role in the 1975 film Crazy Mama, which was also the uncredited debut of actor Dennis Quaid. Unable to gain admission to film schools in Southern California, Paxton moved to New York to study acting under Stella Adler at New York University. In 1980 he moved back to California. That same year he met James Cameron, a director with whom Paxton would form a close friendship and collaborate on multiple projects over the course of his acting career. In 1980 he also made his directorial debut with a music video for the song “Fish Heads” by Barnes & Barnes, which aired on Saturday Night Live.

During the span of his prolific forty-three-year career in Hollywood, Bill Paxton amassed more than ninety acting credits, seven production credits, and five credits each as a writer and a director. He was also a member of the new wave band Martini Ranch, which produced one studio album, Holy Cow, in 1988. His most memorable acting roles included Chet Donnelly in Weird Science (1985), Severen in Near Dark (1987), Private Hudson in Aliens (1986), Morgan Earp in Tombstone (1993), Simon in True Lies (1994), Fred Haise in Apollo 13 (1995), Bill Harding in Twister (1996), Brock Lovett in Titanic (1997), Bill Henrickson in the television series Big Love (2006–11), Randall McCoy in the television miniseries Hatfields & McCoys (2012), and Sam Houston in the television miniseries Texas Rising (2015). He received critical acclaim for directing the movies Frailty (2003) and The Greatest Game Ever Played (2005).

He received four Golden Globe Award nominations for acting, three of them for his work on Big Love. He was also thrice nominated for a Best Actor Satellite Award for his role on Big Love. In 2012 he received a Primetime Emmy Award and a Screen Actors Guild Award nomination for his work on Hatfields & McCoys. He was awarded the 2003 Filmmaker’s Showcase Award from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films and was nominated for that group’s Saturn Award for best director for his movie Frailty. He had previously been nominated for Saturn Awards for acting for his roles in Near Dark, True Lies, and Twister and also won the 1987 Saturn Award for Best Supporting Actor for his work as Private Hudson on Aliens. In 2001 he was awarded the Texas Filmmaker Award at the Deep Ellum Film Festival in Dallas. He also shared the 1996 Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast with the cast of Apollo 13. Two years later, he and the cast of Titanic were nominated for the same award.

After performing in director James Cameron’s film Titanic, Paxton joined his friend in visiting the wreck of the actual RMS Titanic and made four dives to the wreck site with Cameron for the documentary Ghosts of the Abyss (2003). Paxton assisted in establishing the Lone Star Film Festival in Fort Worth and served as a panelist in 2015. In November 2017 the festival inaugurated the Bill Paxton Achievement in Film Award for Acting in his honor.

Paxton was married twice. His first marriage began on October 2, 1979, when Paxton married Kelly Lynn Rowan of Fort Worth. The marriage ended in divorce less than a year later on July 22, 1980. His second marriage began on May 12, 1987, when Paxton and Louise Newbury were married. The couple had two children, James Paxton and Lydia Paxton. The almost thirty-year marriage ended with Paxton’s death.

Bill Paxton suffered from a bicuspid aortic valve and an aortic aneurysm. He underwent a recommended open-heart surgery on February 14, 2017, at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. During course of the surgery he had multiple complications, which required a second emergency surgery. His condition deteriorated over the following ten days. Bill Paxton died of a fatal stroke on February 25, 2017. His cremated remains were interred at Forrest Lawn Memorial Park in Los Angeles, California. Many within the film industry paid tribute to Paxton following the actor’s unexpected death.

The next year his family filed a medical malpractice lawsuit against the surgeon and the hospital and sought damages for wrongful death, negligence, battery, and a survival action. The case was set to begin trial in Los Angeles in March 2022.

Fort Worth Star-Telegram, February 12, 2018. Hollywood Reporter, February 26, 2017. Louise Paxton, et al. vs. Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, et al., Superior Court for the State of California for the County of Los Angeles (Case No. BC 693636), February 9, 2018. Bill Pearis, “Bill Paxton, RIP,” BrooklynVegan, February 26, 2017. Evan Smith, “Bill Paxton,” Texas Monthly, June 2007. Texas Cultural Trust, “Bill Paxton” (https://txculturaltrust.org/bio/bill-paxton/), accessed January 24, 2022. USA Today, February 13, 2018 (https://www.usatoday.com/story/life/2018/02/13/bill-paxtons-family-sues-his-surgeon-and-hospital-wrongful-death/334917002/), accessed January 24, 2022. Washington Post, February 26, 2017.

Categories:
  • Music
  • Performing Arts
Time Periods:
  • Texas Post World War II
  • Texas in the 21st Century
Places:
  • North Texas
  • Dallas/Fort Worth Region
  • Fort Worth

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Ray F. Lucas, “Paxton, William [Bill],” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 27, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/paxton-william-bill.

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January 30, 2022
January 31, 2022

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