On a Saturday night in early March, 41-year-old Bill Paxton stood at the entrance to the Paramount Theatre in downtown Austin greeting VIP guests attending the premiere of Traveller, a film he coproduced and stars in. Playing the role of brand-new movie mogul, he looked for all the world like a wild-eyed mess, the tail of his Ralph Lauren suede shirt flapping, his eyes electric, his hair stylishly tousled.
The premiere, the feature event of the South by Southwest Film Festival (SXSW), was itself the stuff movies are made of. Before the lights dimmed, Paxton surveyed the capacity house from a side box, soaking up the accolades and the applause. “It doesn’t get any better than this,” he said before plopping into his seat and propping his boots on the railing, mimicking the classic James Dean publicity still for Giant. “Roll ’em, cowboy!” he shouted to the projectionist. The cheering resumed as Paxton’s image filled the screen, his arm hanging out the window of a pickup as he pulled up to a traffic light, a not-so-subtle homage to Clint Eastwood in the opening scene of Every Which Way but Loose.
The premiere and the attendant hoopla marked the return to Texas of a Fort Worth boy who, having made 44 films over a 22-year career, has finally graduated from B-movie cult status to eminently quotable character actor to leading man on every studio’s A list. He has played it hip, flip, and totally over the top as Chet, the menacing older brother in Weird Science (“Feeling queasy? How ’bout a nice greasy pork sandwich served in a dirty ashtray?”); as a crazed vampire in Near Dark (“I hate it when they ain’t been shaved”); and as Private Hudson, the paranoid soldier who doesn’t want to die in Aliens (“Game over, man”). He has also played it understated and dead-on serious, most notably as Dale “Hurricane” Dixon, the earnest, aw-shucks Arkansas police chief with a dark past in One False Move, the movie Paxton most frequently cites as his favorite. Parts in Boxing Helena, Streets of Fire, Mortuary, True Lies, and Predator 2 eventually led to the role of astronaut Fred Haise in Apollo 13 in 1995 and two juicy roles last year, as the male lead in Twister and as Shirley MacLaine’s younger lover in Evening Star, and he is in one of this summer’s big disaster flicks, Titanic. His pal Billy Bob Thornton, who co-wrote and appeared in One False Move and won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay for Sling Blade, was set to co-star with him in a movie called A Simple Plan until a squabble between producers at Paramount scuttled the project. “Now Billy Bob is writing a script about some guys who get arrested for sodomizing a turkey,” Paxton told me a few days after the premiere. “It’s a comedy set in West Texas, for me and Billy Bob and Dwight Yoakam.” He has become so ubiquitous as a co-star, he has been immortalized by the Bill Paxton Maneuver, a shortcut in a trivia game called the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, in which every motion picture star living or dead can somehow be linked to Kevin Bacon by no more than six associations.
Those performances pale, however, compared with the one he was pulling off—all flashing eyes, toothy smile, and engaging personality—as Bill Paxton, movie star and film producer promoting Traveller. He hadn’t come to Austin to bask in the limelight or hang out with directors like Richard Linklater, Robert Rodriguez, and Quentin Tarantino or actors like Uma Thurman, Woody Harrelson, and Ethan Hawke. For Paxton, SXSW was the court of last resort, a place where he could simultaneously create a buzz for his film and hustle its earthy slice-of-life soundtrack—where he could make the leap from actor to filmmaker. Following Austin, there would be whistle-stops at the USA Film Festival in Dallas and openings in at least thirteen other cities, leading up to what he called Election Day, April 18, the day Traveller would open in multiplexes across the nation.
One afternoon in the midst of SXSW, an ebullient Paxton bounded through the lobby of the Omni Hotel in a plain white T-shirt and blue jeans, grinning the grin, his charm level cranked up to eleven, buoyed by a positive review in Variety and a two-day break in Fort Worth to visit 93-year-old Clemonce Jones, the nursemaid who had raised him. Between banquet-room interviews lined up every thirty minutes, he spied rock and roll legend Carl “Blue Suede Shoes” Perkins sitting alone in a chair. Extending his hand to Perkins, Paxton said, “It’s a real pleasure to meet you, sir. Welcome to Austin, Texas.” Beaming as he walked away, he said, “Hey, I get to meet cool people too.”
Between smiles, handshakes, and autograph signings, Paxton explained why he was putting it all on the line for a movie that will neither set box office records nor win him awards. “Without doing this, the film will just wither on the vine,” he said. “With these kinds of movies, you’ve got to look at the reality of what you’re doing. You’ve got a movie that’s opening in seventy-five houses with limited funds for publicity. The only way to get people to see it is to make it a cause célèbre. The movie should be seen. I’ve got one of the great American cinematographers, Jack Green [Unforgiven, The Bridges of Madison County, Twister], making his directorial debut. And for me, I got to kind of insert myself in the role that Clint has had with [Green] for many years, where I’m the lead actor as well as the guy who’s putting it all together. So together, we got to collaborate. It was a perfect fit.”
For all of Traveller’s artistic ambitions (“This is my first serious effort to make an American regionalist film”), its plot—about real-life Irish con artists, or travelers, running asphalt-sealing scams in the South—is Hollywood predictable with a jolt of gratuitous violence to conveniently tie the loose ends together at the end. Moreover, the $5 million expense of filming the movie in Wilmington, North Carolina, was also considered too Hollywood for the film to qualify for the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, where independent films typically find distribution. Difficulties in attracting a major distributor led to what amounts to a vanity deal, with Paxton’s production team underwriting the P&A (prints and advertising) budget. Those realities made Austin an attractive option for getting the word out on the film and generating a little sentiment for the Texas boy coming home.
“I’ve always wanted to be a filmmaker first and an actor second,” Paxton explained. “But it wasn’t until I had the clout from being in movies like Twister and Apollo 13 and True Lies that I was able to raise the money. This is my declaration of independence. By producing this movie, I’ve created a situation where I can play a great role that’s an iconoclastic role for me, like the character I played in One False Move. You play a dozen of these roles in your lifetime, you’ve got a shot at the Hall of Fame.”
THE WEST SIDE OF FORT WORTH, where Paxton grew up, was a unique melting pot where the well-bred have historically mingled with less-savory types, producing such disparate celebrities as the billionaire Bass brothers, T. Cullen Davis, John Denver, Lee Harvey Oswald, and Betty Buckley. Paxton was both a child of privilege and the kind of guy who enjoyed flirting with trouble but somehow managed to stay out of harm’s way.
High school “was a wild time,” he admitted. “To me, the coach of the football team was a Nazi. All I wanted to do was ride a motorcycle. I was watching my older brother and his friends. They were totally dropping out, getting into the whole scene. The whole thing was happening in San Francisco. All this music was coming out. People ask if I listened to a lot of country music growing up. Country music? Man, I was listening to Jimi Hendrix.”
His father, John, was an executive with the family’s wholesale lumber business and a vice president of the Fort Worth Art Museum (now the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth), passing on to his four children a refined appreciation for the arts. “He took us to movies, plays, art exhibitions,” Paxton said, “but his real ambition was to be a movie actor. I went to movies a whole lot from a pretty early age. We’d come out of a theater and my dad would ask, ‘How’d you like the props? How’d you like the lighting?’ He’d always call attention to the artifice of movies when we were little. As a kid, you don’t think about stuff like that, you know what I mean? One of the first movies that affected me was Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte, which I saw when I was about ten. The lighting, the whole mood grabbed me. Then I got into Hud and The Hustler. Then my dad turned me on to Buster Keaton. There was something about him. You never saw him working for the audience. He never tried to use sentimentality to evoke emotions from the audience.”
There were two defining moments in young Bill’s path toward a career in the movies. The first was enrolling in Rosemary Burton’s drama class at Arlington Heights High School, along with Jim Flowers, who has a bit part in Traveller and was one of its assistant directors. “I got into her class thinking it would be an easy ride, and God, this woman just challenged my thinking in a way I wanted to get home and be really prepared. She let us do any scene from any play, even if it was morally questionable. She really believed in us exploring artistic freedom.” The second was when John Paxton sent his son to school in England for the summer following his high school graduation, in 1973. It was at Richmond College in Surrey that he discovered he wasn’t the only kid in Fort Worth smitten with the idea of making movies.
“We met on the plane,” said Traveller associate producer Tom Huckabee, who came to Austin with Paxton for the premiere. He’d been making his own super 8 films while a student at Southwest High School before he found himself at Richmond sharing a room with Paxton and his high school classmate Danny Martin, who was an aspiring writer of fiction. At the end of the summer, the three returned to Fort Worth, where Huckabee and Paxton immersed themselves in super 8 escapades. “We’d work on scripts and block out movies together, but Bill always did the stunts,” said Huckabee. “I thought he wasn’t an artist, he was a daredevil. It was an excuse to do dangerous things.”
“We made films because we liked to blow stuff up,” said Paxton, grinning.
Their first collaboration, “Victory at Auschwitz,” was filmed over a six-week period using borrowed Nazi memorabilia from World War II and the Texas and Pacific rail yards by Vickery Boulevard. “We all grew up on World War II movies,” said Paxton. “That’s where I caught the bug. I think we were emulating the great movies we’d seen.” Their magnum opus was The Parable, with Danny Martin as the lead actor. “Bill and Danny loved Eastwood and all those action flicks,” said Huckabee. “So we snuck a camera into the Worth Theater and filmed some of the second Dirty Harry—Magnum Force—because The Parable is about this psychotic man who lives out his Clint Eastwood fantasy with all these dummies that come alive.”
The Parable inspired Paxton to set out for Hollywood in 1974, his father pulling strings to land him a job as a set dresser—finding props to decorate scenes—for Encyclopaedia Britannica educational films. Within a year he found work as a set dresser for Roger Corman, the king of B-movies, and got Danny Martin hired too. Set dressing led to a one-line speaking part in Steve Carver’s gangster moll cult classic Big Bad Mama, starring Angie Dickinson. Meanwhile, he kept making his own movies.
The early going was rough enough to break up a brief first marriage and bring on bouts of depression (Paxton has been married to his second wife, Louise, for ten years). In 1978 he enrolled at New York University, where he took drama courses from the legendary Stella Adler, but dropped out. “After two years I didn’t see any point in a degree, I didn’t see where I’d be filling that in on an application for any kind of job.” He returned to Los Angeles, again working as a set dresser, and began to pick up small acting roles, including a bit part in Night Warning. In his spare time he made a $2,000 video for the Barnes and Barnes novelty song “Fish Heads,” made popular on the nationally syndicated Dr. Demento radio program. Paxton submitted the video to Saturday Night Live, which aired it several times, and it was picked up by MTV. That led to another music video, this time for Martini Ranch, a warped country-disco group he played in that was signed by Sire Records.
By the mid-eighties the acting offers had started rolling in. But Paxton still wanted to make films, not just star in them, and Traveller was his ticket to doing what he wanted most. In addition to worrying about his lines, there were other responsibilities, like watching the bottom line and putting together the soundtrack. “We ran into problems during postproduction that I attribute to our naiveté, especially with the music,” Paxton said. “I didn’t have a score. The score never worked out. I was going to have to put in these library music cues. Then I realized I really didn’t want to use a score. I wanted to use more source music, stuff you hear on the radio driving through the South.” Sire Records’ Seymour Stein, who signed Martini Ranch, saved the day by bringing in some new country acts he was developing to cover some old country standards. The soundtrack, an Asylum release, should garner attention for artists Mandy Barnett, Royal Wade Kimes, and Tina and the B Side, augmented by Lou Ann Barton, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Paxton’s friend Randy Travis, whom he met filming the HBO movie Frank and Jesse, doing “King of the Road.” “It’s one of those cross-promotional things, where a soundtrack can help promote the movie because we can’t buy TV ads or anything like that,” said Paxton. “We get a song like ‘King of the Road’ on the radio, and it’s like building a machine, a Little Train That Could.”
THE SXSW BLITZ SPUTTERED TO AN END on a dreary Sunday. At the second screening of Traveller the day before, the projector had gone on the fritz, causing a half-hour delay. The big Saturday night street concert Paxton emceed was staged in blustery weather, keeping the crowd count under two thousand. It had been a weird week. Premiering his movie was one thing. “Next thing you know, you’re kissing babies and then you’re dressed in a silly outfit for a photo shoot,” he said. “All your life you’re trying to be taken seriously as an artist, and people still want me to be the clown.” He wants to be a leading man, but he knows it’s his goofy charisma that brought him to the dance in the first place.
“I’d love to do more Alan Ladd type of roles, a couple of Gary Cooper parts,” Paxton said. “Clint Eastwood was a role model in that way, because he had some success, then he started doing his own thing, making his own films. I like the idea of being able to help yourself and create opportunities for friends, colleagues, people you want to work with. That sounds a little idealistic, but hey, we started in this field because we were idealistic. We never did this for the money. The glory was in making films.”
And so Bill Paxton has set his course, his desire to run his own show subsidized by his ability to act. “If it’s Chet in Weird Science or Gus in The Dark Backwards, you gotta get off the boat and go all the way,” he said. “You can’t be a wallflower. But it’s nice to pull back and do some interior kind of work too. The subtlety of my performance in One False Move gives me a lot of pleasure, that I was able to play it that laid back, that relaxed, and really pull it off. That gets me excited.
“I am a traveler. I am a confidence man. I get in front of that camera and I make people believe. That’s what a confidence man does,” said Bill Paxton, Hollywood star, sounding more like a kid from Texas who grew up at the movies.