Evan Smith: You were in Texas in March for the Texas Film Hall of Fame induction, in Austin, and the AFI Dallas International Film Festival. Do you come back a lot?
Bill Paxton: No, I really don’t. And I have to say I’m sorry I don’t, because I really enjoy it. I have no family left down there. They’re either dead or have moved on. And I left Fort Worth when I was 18 years old to come out to California to find my way in the movie business. I’ve come back for certain things, but I haven’t spent any length of time in Texas in more than 32 years.
ES: I read on the Dallas Observer ’s blog that on this trip you visited the Sixth Floor Museum [at Dealey Plaza] for the first time.
BP: It brought so many memories back. It was always a story to tell people, that I’d seen John F. Kennedy that day [in Fort Worth]. But I didn’t really think about it in terms of the event. I was eight when it happened. My brother Bob was eleven. He was much more shaken by it; he’s always been the most sensitive of the kids. I remember him getting in my bed that night, he was so scared.
ES: Why’d you brave the crowds to see him?
BP: Because Bob was so excited that Kennedy was coming through town. We lived on Indian Creek Drive, bordering Shady Oaks Country Club. You could look across Shady Oaks from my window with a telescope—it was slightly elevated—and see Air Force One parked at Carswell Air Force Base. So Bob woke Dad up and said, “You promised you’d take me and Bill to see the president.” Dad looked out the window and saw that it was drizzling. He said that his first thought was “Oh, God, we’re going to line up in the rain.” He liked Kennedy, but it was the idea of wrangling the kids down there.
ES: Typical father attitude.
BP: Finally he said, “Okay, get your brother ready.” So we drove downtown. It took us, like, ten minutes, and we parked near the Hotel Texas. And we became part of the crowd that had gathered in the parking lot. I remember Kennedy walking across the street. He shook some hands and then went up on the podium. I’m not sure if it was [Senator Ralph] Yarborough or [Congressman] Jim Wright who said a few words, but then LBJ went up there and introduced the president. I remember my dad was taking turns putting us up on his shoulders. He was getting fatigued, and there were these two African American guys standing next to us. They said, “We’ll take those boys.” So I was sitting on a stranger’s shoulders, but I could see Kennedy. He was there in his suit; the rest of them on the podium had raincoats on. He was jocular, in good spirits.
ES: How did you hear that he had been shot?
BP: My dad took us to the Toddle House, and then he dropped us off at about ten a.m. We were going to St. Alice, which was a Catholic school. I remember going out on the playground at recess, and then a bell rang. We came back in—this was one of those old cinder-block, one-story grade schools, with a central hallway and classes on both sides—and we were told to put our heads on our desks. The radio was on, and the nuns were all crying. Then it was announced that he had died in Dallas. I couldn’t believe it. I’d seen him alive!
ES: I have to believe the Sixth Floor Museum was especially eerie for you.
BP: It was a strange pilgrimage. When I was walking around in there, I saw a picture of Kennedy in front of the Hotel Texas. I knew I would have been standing in front, to the left, and this picture was taken from the left side. You could see a lot of the crowd; I could actually see faces. The next day I got ahold of Gary Mack, the curator of the museum, and said, “Do you know I was in the crowd at the speech in Fort Worth?” And he said, “Yeah.” And I said, “Do you have other images?” He said, “There’s some news film stuff I could look at.” I went over there that afternoon, and he had copied these two pictures. In the first one I thought I saw my brother Bob, but it’s me. I’m above the crowd; your eye kind of goes right to me. In the other shot, taken from a different angle, you can also see me. I’ve got a big smile on my face.
ES: How amazing, all this time later, to discover that picture.
BP: Not just to discover the picture but to rediscover the whole event in a strange, personal way. It made me realize that no one’s ever made a movie just about what happened. There hasn’t been a movie that follows the characters and the way it all went down. A movie like JFK is beautifully made, but it’s about fringe characters. What angers me is that three out of four people believe it was a conspiracy, believe the government was somehow culpable. To me, the only culpability was that a lot of people were napping on the job that morning.
ES: Since you mentioned the movies, let me ask you about how you got out to Hollywood. The legend is that you went out there to work for Roger Corman.
BP: Actually, my very first job in Hollywood was for a man named Milan Herzog, who is still living. God, Milan must be one hundred by now. He was making what we call industrial films. My dad had met him and his wife when he was traveling with my mother in Spain, and they had corresponded a bit. I had been in school in England the year