Bill Paxton was a people person. That was my perspective on the guy.
Because I am in Dallas, and work in film and with film festivals, I have many friends that have talked about, written about, and literally eulogized Bill Paxton, who passed away Saturday evening.
So, it made sense to let those that were much closer to him, that had worked with him frequently, or notably speak first, as we all process what it means to not have a man and a talent like Bill Paxton around any longer.
But it also made me think about my thoughts on Bill and my interactions with him, which occurred at AFI Dallas in the early years of the film festival. He was there the very first year, lending his support to his friend Michael Cain, who, prior to co-Founding the fledgling film festival, had worked on the crew for the classic, ONE FALSE MOVE, as a Unit Production Manager. He was there because, as many people have written and talked about – Bill Paxton was loyal. A little while later, he helped his longtime friend Tom Huckabee, start the Lone Star Film Festival in Fort Worth. And a few years later, he was back in Dallas for what was now the Dallas International Film Festival. Neither time he had a film at the fest.
What Bill Paxton had were friends at the fest.
In fact, when he was at DIFF in 2010, one of his co-stars on “Big Love,” Amanda Seyfried made the trip out – because HE was there. Neither had films screening, neither had “business” at the film festival. And both times that Bill was at AFI Dallas, and then the freshly minted, DIFF, he energized the place. Paxton knew he could “own the room,” he clearly enjoyed being the guy that could bring the party. We would have conversations during other years, when it looked as if we were having trouble getting movie stars and celebrities to come that particular year, about reaching out to Bill to see if he was around, if he might be interested in coming to the festival. And here was one of the many great things about Paxton: He got it, he understood the strength of his own celebrity, knew the value of it, yet didn’t guard it jealously. He never struck you as paranoid that it might be taken away, that his IMdB score might go down from one day to the next. He was casual about it. I think one of the reasons for that attitude was the fact that the fame didn’t come all that easily to him. Dude, had to work for it, had to earn it.
Now, of course, it is rare that actors that have “made it,” haven’t earned it in one way or the other, but some have to scrap and struggle and prove themselves and build their career by following one supporting role after another, getting directors to trust them so they get a little larger role the next time around. And then, when someone takes a chance on them and entrusts them with a lead role, a starring role, they are more than ready and knock it out of the park. I’m pretty sure that is what Paxton did. He worked with directors like James Cameron multiple times. That is like a signed certificate that everyone should have you on THEIR film set. And we definitely wanted him at the film festival almost as many times as we could get him there.
Now, here is something I remember about my personal interaction with Bill Paxton. Frequently, I have had major movie stars and filmmakers, even politicians, and important people from all walks of life at my film festivals, walking on my red carpets. I’ve moderated panels and Q&As, interviewed them, socialized with them at fests, and you get an idea of how people handle their celebrity, how generous they are with their time and presence, and how they manage their business. Paxton could handle his business. I recall being with him at an interview he was doing on KERA’s NPR radio broadcast. We had some time to kill prior to the interview because of some breaking news, I believe, and something like that can be a crisis moment. Those minutes of cooling the heels can be made miserable by the celebrity, by the star. To double down on this, Paxton had some back issues as well, as I remember, so he wasn’t entirely “comfortable.” And what he did, was keep me on point – asked me what the progress was, how many segments he was doing, what they wanted to talk about during the interview, etc. There was an implied expectation that they and I use his time wisely and respect that time. Nothing of course, said outright, but this wasn’t my first rodeo and I knew what was going on here. He enjoyed the interview, they were thrilled with the interview and we got him out of there in due time.
But here was the key with that memory and what I took from the few interactions I had with Paxton: There is a balance that someone that has achieved fame and celebrity is always re-calibrating. And it involves being a “good guy,” a “nice guy,” a “sweetheart,” etc. and not allowing themselves to be used, abused, and exploited for that fame. It is not easy, I don’t think. Holding the people around you accountable, and insisting that they “be cool” with what they are asking of you, and yet not being a pain-in-the-ass about it takes some work, actually. When I worked in personal PR, I used to say that it was easy to “train” an actor or filmmaker to be a “bad celebrity.” And one of the ways we could do that was to absolve them of any responsibility at all for their actions and behavior. No, there always needs to be a give-and-take, a balance must be struck, because after all – we are all people.
That was the one thing that Bill Paxton could communicate within seconds of meeting him – he got it. He was going to hold you to your part of the bargain, by god, but he was going to be friendly, maybe even gregarious about it, because Paxton knew that we are all people. That may sound obvious, but you work with enough celebrities – and their representatives, and you learn to appreciate those that appreciate THAT.
That is why beyond the tremendous loss of Bill Paxton, the incredibly dynamic actor, and accomplished director, I would agree with so many that the greater loss is Paxton, the person.
Because Bill Paxton was a people person.