Possessing a special talent for totally immersing himself in his roles, Bill Paxton did not always get the recognition he deserves. Tall, rangy, and boyishly good looking, Paxton's career was a curiosity that found the character actor-turned-filmmaker succeeding in intermittently pulling the rug from under filmgoers' feet with a constantly expanding sense of maturity and range.
Paxton's interest in films emerged during his teens when he began making his own movies with a Super-8 camera. He formally entered the entertainment industry in 1974 as a set dresser for Roger Corman's New World Pictures. Paxton made his acting debut as a bit player in Crazy Mama (1975), and afterward, the young thespian moved to New York to hone his skills. Following performances in a couple of horror quickies, Paxton formally launched his Hollywood career with a tiny part in Ivan Reitman's Stripes (1981) and this led to a steady if not unremarkable career in film and television during the '80s. In addition to acting, Paxton made short independent films such as Fish Heads, (1982) which became a favorite on NBC's Saturday Night Live.
Paxton's acting career got a much-needed boost in 1985 when he was cast as Ilan Mitchell-Smith's obnoxious big brother Chet Donolley in John Hughes' Weird Science. Some of Paxton's more memorable subsequent roles include that of a cocky intergalactic soldier in James Cameron's Aliens (1986), a crazed vampire in Kathryn Bigelow's Near Dark, and sickly astronaut Freddie Hayes in Ron Howard's Apollo 13. In 1996, Paxton landed a starring role, opposite Helen Hunt, in the special-effects blockbuster Twister; his career took an upward turn and Paxton got more leads than ever. Though few audiences saw it in its limited release, critics were quick to praise Paxton's turn as con-artist Traveler in the 1997 movie of the same name. Following a doomed voyage on the Titanic the same year, the workhorse actor once again intrigued filmgoers as a small-town dweller struggling with his conscience after stumbling into over a million dollars in usually flamboyant director Sam Raimi's strikingly subdued A Simple Plan. A quiet and intense performance enhanced by a talented cast including Billy Bob Thornton and Bridget Fonda, the psychological crime drama once again provided further proof that Paxton's impressive range of emotion stretched beyond what many filmgoers may have previously suspected.
Though subsequent performances in Mighty Joe Young (1998) and U-571 (2000) did little to backup the promise shown in A Simple Plan, Paxton still had a few tricks up his sleeve, as evidenced by his directorial debut Frailty (2002), a surprisingly competent and genuinely frightening tale of religious fervor and questionable sanity. Though cynical filmgoers may have initially viewed the trailer-touting praises of former collaborators Raimi and James Cameron as favors from old friends, the taut tale of a father who claims that God has provided him with a list of "demons" that he and his sons must cast from the earth blind-sided critics and filmgoers with its disturbingly minimalistic yet complex psychological thriller that recalled the thematic elements of previous efforts as Michael Tolkin's The Rapture (1991). His performance as a loving father who reluctantly embarks on God's mission was a vital component of the films emotional impact, and was once again proof that this former supporting player still had a few tricks up his sleeve.
Though he hadn't paid much attention to television since his early career, in 2006, Paxton took on the lead role in HBO's Big Love, playing a polygamous husband with three wives. The show was a hit and garnered critical acclaim, including three Golden Globe nominations for Paxton. When the show wrapped up after five seasons, Paxton joined the miniseries Hatfields & McCoys, earning his only Emmy nomination of his career for the role. In 2014, Paxton took on a recurring role in Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., playing the villainous John Garrett. He also played Sam Houston in 2015 miniseries Texas Rising. In 2017, his new network show Training Day (a small-screen version of the film) aired only three episodes before Paxton suddenly died of complications from surgery at age 61.