Bill Paxton: his most iconic genre performances

Contributed by
Feb 27, 2017

Bill Paxton embraced genre work with passion and commitment, and fans loved him for it.

Across a career that spanned four decades, Paxton -- who died way too young at 61 -- delivered striking, unforgettable performances in a wide variety of films, ranging from independent classics to Hollywood's biggest blockbusters. He brought a natural everyman quality to each of his roles, as well as an ability to portray vulnerability even in the toughest characters. He made you want to keep watching him.

Below we focus on some of his best-known and most memorable turns in genre films, but we would be remiss if we didn't mention the incredible body of non-genre work that included movies like One False Move, Trespass, Tombstone, The Last Supper, A Simple Plan (perhaps his greatest single performance), U-571, Titanic, Haywire and Nightcrawler, as well as his run on the underrated HBO series Big Love (his last two films, Mean Dreams and The Circle, will be out this year).

For now, however, let's take a quick look at some of his most beloved roles in sci-fi, horror and related genres and pay tribute to this fine actor and gentleman who was taken from us far too soon.

(Note: language and imagery advisory for some of the clips.)

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The Terminator (1984)

The first role that earned Paxton some real attention -- as the spiky-blue-haired member of a gang of street punks who end up on the bad side of Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator -- was also the first of several collaboration with director James Cameron, who spotted Paxton's range and earthiness early on.

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Weird Science (1985)

Paxton had one of the grossest -- yet most satisfying -- comeuppances in movie history when his Chet Donnelly, the sadistic older brother of Wyatt Donnelly (Ilan Mitchell-Smith), was transformed into a giant turd by the super-powered fantasy girl (Kelly Le Brock) that Wyatt and his friend Gary (Anthony Michael Hall) create in their bizarre experiment. Chet was the first of many major a-holes Paxton portrayed so well in his career -- although he could play decent and steadfast just as easily.

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Aliens (1986)

"Hey, maybe you haven't been keeping up on current events, but we just got our asses kicked, pal!" Just one of so many immortal lines (including my favorite, "Why don't you put her in charge?") spoken by the hysteria-prone but ultimately heroic and self-sacrificing Private Hudson in what turned out to be Paxton's breakout performance. The actor took what might have been a one-dimensional role and turned it into a comic tour de force. This is one of the roles Paxton will always be remembered for.

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Near Dark (1987)

Paxton gave one of his most irredeemably evil performances as Severen, the most murderous of a pack of nomadic vampires who wander the American countryside. Near Dark itself (directed by Kathryn Bigelow, later of Point Break and The Hurt Locker fame) is a serious vampire film -- about as far away from things like Twilight as you can get -- and Paxton revels in both Severen's joy in his own nature and his unstoppable bloodlust.

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Predator 2 (1990)

Bill Paxton shares the honor with his Aliens co-star Lance Henriksen of being the only two actors ever killed on screen by the Terminator, the Alien and the Predator. This ultra-violent sequel took place on the streets of Los Angeles and featured Paxton as a wisecracking L.A. police detective who faces off against the Predator and -- no surprise -- loses. Not a very good film but Paxton provides his usual energy and wit.

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True Lies (1994)

The actor reunited with James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger for this remake of a French film in which Schwarzenegger's secret agent hides his real job from his wife and family. Paxton played an oily used car salesman trying to seduce Arnold's wife (Jamie Lee Curtis) by telling her that he's a spy. Simon is one of Paxton's more weaselly characters, and he makes it effortless to hate the little son-of-a-b**ch.

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Apollo 13 (1995)

Bill Paxton's career went to a new level with Ron Howard's gripping film about the infamous moon mission that went terribly and almost fatally wrong. The movie was nominated for Best Picture and found Paxton in an A-list cast that included actors like Tom Hanks, Ed Harris and Kevin Bacon. His astronaut Fred Haise is the unlucky one who contracts a urinary tract infection and a fever, with Paxton keeping the character's dignity -- despite agonizing pain -- throughout.

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Twister (1996)

Twister, like a few of Paxton's other films, is adjacent to sci-fi; it features a team of scientists using cutting edge technology in pursuit of their goals. In this case, that goal is tracking, chasing and getting as close as possible to tornadoes. Paxton and co-start Helen Hunt, playing "storm chasers," got pretty beat up in real life during the filming; both were temporarily blinded by high-intensity lights used on the set and both also needed hepatitis shots after filming in a particularly filthy ditch.

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Frailty (2001)

Bill Paxton only directed two feature films, but he knocked it out of the park with his first, a psychological horror tale both complex and frightening in its implications. He also starred as a religious fanatic who believes he has been commanded by God to kill people within whom he can "see" demons -- and raises his sons to accompany him with his work. Paxton's performance here is terrifying and intense, but his direction is also strong and atmospheric -- it's a shame he didn't get behind the camera more often.

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Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

Paxton returned to sci-fi with this top-notch effort from director Doug Liman, in which Tom Cruise plays a military public relations officer who is caught in a time loop and keeps reliving the day before he dies in a battle against alien invaders. Paxton is all business as Master Sergeant Farell, head of the squad in which Cruise's character finds himself, and it's great fun to see him at the other end of his career as the kind of officer who would not take Private Hudson's crap.

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Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013/2014)

Paxton didn't do much genre work on TV (a Tales from the Crypt episode aside), but he got a chance to dabble in the Marvel Universe during the first rocky year of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. He played John Garrett, a high-level S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who turned out to be the season's chief villain, the Clairvoyant, as well as a top member of HYDRA and a test subject of the Deathlok cybernetic program. The show definitely benefited from Paxton's presence -- as did just about every other project this multi-faceted, engaging and already missed actor appeared in.