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Remembering Actor Bill Paxton, Of 'A Simple Plan' And 'Twister' Fame


This is FRESH AIR. At the Oscar ceremony last night, when Jennifer Aniston introduced the tribute to members of the Hollywood family who had died over the past year she teared up when she said one of the people being mourned was the beloved actor and friend, Bill Paxton. His death had been announced earlier in the day in a statement by his family, which attributed the death to complications from surgery. He was 61.

Paxton appeared in many Hollywood blockbusters including "Titanic," "Aliens," "The Terminator" and "Apollo 13." He also starred in smaller films like "A Simple Plan," "One False Move" and the thriller "Frailty," which he also directed. On the HBO series "Big Love," Paxton played Bill Henrickson, a polygamous man trying to keep up with three wives, eight children, three homes and a small chain of home improvement stores. Paxton had just completed production on the first season of the CBS spinoff of the film "Training Day," which began airing last month.

When I interviewed him in 2002, we talked about his early memories of going to the movies in Fort Worth, Texas, where he grew up.


BILL PAXTON: I'm very close to my dad. And when I was a kid growing up in Fort Worth, my dad loved movies and plays. And he would take me and my older brother, Bob, to - downtown to Fort Worth where all the - that was where there were like three kind of main old movie palaces. I remember The Palace, The Worth and The Hollywood. My dad would never take us to a Disney film. If we wanted to see something like that then we had to go to a Saturday matinee.

My dad liked to see, you know, movies like the "Bond" films and different things. I remember seeing the "The Ipcress File" and "Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte." And when we'd come out of the films, he would talk about the artifice of the films. He'd say, I really liked the lighting or the props or the camera work or Sean Connery's tailor. And (laughter) in a way, at first we thought, what in the hell is he talking about? And then after a while, it - we started kind of digging the artifice and we would discuss it.

I guess from an early age I was aware of the illusion of filmmaking. And I've always loved the illusion. I've always loved, you know, the idea of image-makers and, you know, creating these other worlds that are fabricated.

GROSS: What did your father do for a living?

B. PAXTON: My dad worked for his father in a family-run hardwood lumber business. They were hardwood wholesalers out of the Midwest. It started in Kansas City back - oh, before the first World War. And after the - after World War II, my dad and his brothers went to work for their dad. My dad - there was a yard in Chicago. And eventually, after he married my mom, he moved down to Fort Worth, Texas, because there was a yard there as well.

And he traveled mostly calling on the trade - cabinet-makers and musical instrument-makers. He loved people, and he loved art. Over the years, he's kind of been my greatest resource. He sent me books like "Simple Plan" and "Lords Of Discipline" when they were still in hardback and said, hey, they're going to - they just sold this to the movies, you got to go in there and try to see if you can do this. And he's been a great inspiration to me.

GROSS: Now, I understand that one of your father's dreams was to act himself.

B. PAXTON: (Laughter) Yes.

GROSS: And he actually has a small part in the movie "A Simple Plan" that you starred in.

B. PAXTON: Yes, he does.

GROSS: And I thought I could play the scene.

B. PAXTON: Oh, terrific.

GROSS: Let me introduce the scene. Jump in if I don't have any of the...


GROSS: ...Details straight. OK. In "A Simple Plan," you, your brother and a friend - and your brother's played by Billy Bob Thornton - the three of you stumble on - he thinks maybe he was cheated.

B. PAXTON: He's been overcharged. Yes. Oh, yes.

GROSS: And the customer is played by your father.

B. PAXTON: It is.

GROSS: Here's the scene.


JOHN PAXTON: (As Mr. Schmitt) You listening to me, Hank? Every Monday I come down here and buy two bags of feed regular as clockwork - two bags a week, four times a month. That's eight bags I'm supposed to be billed for. I don't know how else to get through to you...

B. PAXTON: (As Hank) Well, December started on a Monday, Mr. Schmitt. So there were five Mondays in the month so you came in here five times.

J. PAXTON: (As Mr. Schmitt) Are you telling me there were five weeks last month?

B. PAXTON: (As Hank) No, sir, I'm telling you there were five Mondays.


B. PAXTON: (As Hank) Excuse me. Oh, I got it. Yeah?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Hey, Hank. It's me.

B. PAXTON: (As Hank) Hang on a second. Listen, check the calendar over there if you don't believe me, sir.

GROSS: That's Bill Paxton and his father John Paxton in a scene from "A Simple Plan." What's the story behind the scene?

B. PAXTON: Well, there's a few stories. I mean, my dad sent me this book when it was a hardback, and I think it had only been out about four weeks. This is the debut novel by a great writer named Scott Smith. And he sent it to me, and he said you won't be able to lay it down. It's got a lot of hair on it. I don't know what that means, but that means it's good, especially coming from my dad. I sat down to read this book. I could not lay it down. And I called my dad after I read it, and I said, dad, I'll never get to play this part. It's a brilliant part, but I'll never get to do it. I think there'll be a lot more prominent actors who will be lining up to do this.

And over five years, I had watched other actors who were slated to do it, but for one reason or another, the film kept capitulating. And eventually, I kind of won the role by default, one of the greatest roles I ever got to play. I go up to star production - Sam Raimi directed the picture - and we started production actually in northern Wisconsin. But the production office I landed in was in Minneapolis. I walk into the production office to see Sam, and I'm looking up at the wall. And they usually put our, you know - the actors' 8x10s on the production office wall. You know, there's Billy Bob. There's Bridget Fonda, Brent Briscoe. There's my dad. There's Chelcie. Wait a second. What's my dad doing up there?

Now, my dad - I've got to back this up a little bit - my dad retired from the lumber business about 10 years ago, and basically said I really always wanted to be an actor. And I said, oh, my gosh, you mean my life's work is just some continuation of your fantasy? And, anyway, he had written Sam Raimi a letter and said I've always admired your films, and I was wondering if there were any small parts that I'd possibly be right for.

GROSS: And he didn't tell you he was doing that?

B. PAXTON: And he didn't tell me that. And I - and Sam, a real gentleman, said, well, I liked your dad's letter, so I thought I'd give him a chance.

GROSS: Oh, that's great. Was it bizarre to work opposite him in a scene?

B. PAXTON: It was very bizarre, very bizarre, and I realized he was - you know, he's an older guy. And he's - he was kind of falling into a rhythm with his lines, and so I had to kind of shake him up a little bit. And I said, you know, come in and give me the business like you give it to me as Bill, you know?

Like, my dad will want me to send an autographed picture to some guy in an auto body shop, and, boy, he will fax me, he will call me, he will just rail me till I take care of it. And so I said this is - give me some of that. Once I thought I had him - a good froth worked up with my dad, they rolled the cameras. And he really nailed it.

GROSS: We're listening to an interview with actor Bill Paxton recorded in 2002. He died Saturday. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to our 2002 interview with actor Bill Paxton. He died Saturday at the age of 61.


GROSS: Now, I want to play another scene from "A Simple Plan." And, again, in this movie you, your brother played by Billy Bob Thornton and a friend come upon this plane that's crashed - a small plane, and there's $4 million there. You decided to keep it, although your character knows that it's morally the wrong thing.


GROSS: But you do it anyways because it's too irresistible. You have to cover up that you're keeping the money and then you commit a murder, and you have to cover up the murder. And one bad deed leads to another bad deed.

B. PAXTON: Once you start digging that hole, the more you dig the deeper you get in.

GROSS: Right. In this scene, your brother who's kind of a little mentally slow and socially slow, your brother played by Billy Bob Thornton has asked you to meet him at the farm that your parents used to own and...

B. PAXTON: Poignant scene.

GROSS: Yeah. You've already both murdered somebody. Your brother's asked you to meet you at the farm. It's now broken down in total disrepair. Your brother tells you that he'd actually like to buy back the farm and live there. Let's hear the scene.


B. PAXTON: (As Hank) Jacob, farming? Come on. You don't just buy a farm. You got to work it. You got to know about machinery and seed.

BILLY BOB THORNTON: (As Jacob) I know that.

B. PAXTON: (As Hank) No, you don't. Fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, drainage, irrigation, the weather - come on, you don't know about any of that stuff. You're going to end up just like dad.

THORNTON: (As Jacob) Why do you think he ended up like that?

B. PAXTON: (As Hank) I'll tell you how we ended up like that. He had two mortgages riding on the place. He couldn't make the payments.

THORNTON: (As Jacob) Where do you think the money went?

B. PAXTON: (As Hank) He was a bad businessman.

THORNTON: (As Jacob) Where do you think the money went? No, you think he spent it all on the farm. I'll tell you exactly where the money went - four years of college, bud. Yeah. Didn't you ever think about how he paid for that? Didn't that ever occur to you?

B. PAXTON: (As Hank) No, my tuition was...

THORNTON: (As Jacob) Listen. I'm supposed to get the farm. What do I get? I'm supposed to get the farm.

B. PAXTON: (As Hank) Jacob, you got the whole world. You can...

THORNTON: (As Jacob) I don't want to hear that.

B. PAXTON: (As Hank) You can go anywhere you want.

THORNTON: (As Jacob) This is what I want. This is where I want to be. It's my home, Hank.

GROSS: That's Billy Bob Thornton and my guest Bill Paxton in a scene from "A Simple Plan."

B. PAXTON: That's a very poignant scene, the idea that the brother Jacob wants to stay and fix up the old farm. That movie has - is an intensely personal film for me because my relationship with my older brother, Bob, who is a - one of the great gentle lambs of the world, but I think in his heart of hearts he wishes we still all lived on Indian Creek Drive in Fort Worth, Texas, and he's had a tough adulthood and been through a lot of stuff. I drew off of that relationship. So for me, being in the movie was, again, it was very, very personal.

GROSS: In what other ways does he remind you of the brother in your movie?

B. PAXTON: He has the same kind of sly sense of humor, my brother, and has kind of a penchant for saying the, you know - the appropriate thing at the awkward moment. Actually, I had Billy talk to my brother on the phone several times, and he drew his character from my brother as well as kind of the innocence of his own relationship and the innocence of his own children. He was kind of playing that innocence in the role.

GROSS: Did you feel a responsibility to guide your brother in the same way that your character feels a responsibility toward his brother in the movie?

B. PAXTON: Yeah. I've been very involved in my brother's life. He's kind of my closest sibling in many ways just because physically we grew up together. We went to camps together, and after his accident when he was 24.

GROSS: What accident?

B. PAXTON: He was in a car accident and lost most of his eyesight, and he had had emotional problems before that and just compounded everything. He came up and lived with me in New York City. I was struggling. I remember I was working as a doorman at the Paramount Theater up on - up in Columbus Circle there. And we lived in a - kind of a one-room flat with my girlfriend down in the East Village. And those were kind of tough times, but we look back, and we laugh about it now. We've always been close, my brother and I.

GROSS: You got started in movies working on Roger Corman low-budget films. Which ones did you work on?

B. PAXTON: My first film, I was as a set dresser in the art department on a movie called "Big Bad Mama" that starred Angie Dickinson, William Shatner, Tom Skerritt and Linda Purl. I had a 20-foot van, a panel van just full of everything from phony Saguaro cactuses to all kinds of period furniture and things. This was a period film set in the early '30s, so I had an old - I think - 1929 Sears and Roebuck catalog that I kind of used as a guide to pick out furnishings.

GROSS: What's the coolest or most unusual thing you had to find?

B. PAXTON: Well, that's a good question. Let me - I'd have to think back. Those Saguaro cactuses were pretty bizarre from Walter Allen Plant Rental. I remember going to places like - that are no longer - this was, you know, in the mid-'70s I remember going to Western Costume. It was a giant eight-story costume house right next to the Paramount Studios. You'd pull the shirt off the rack, and it might say made expressly for Tom Mix or John Wayne or Gary Cooper.

And the people that who had to work there - it was kind of a generational-type of job. There were people who worked there going back to silent films, and I guess I've always loved the history of the business I'm in, and it's a shame that more of it hasn't been preserved out here.

GROSS: Bill Paxton died Saturday at the age of 61. Our interview was recorded in 2002. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about the connection between bipolar disorder and creativity. My guest will be Kay Redfield Jamison who has written extensively on this subject. Her new book focuses on the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Robert Lowell and the connection between genius and mania in his life. Jamison is also the author of a memoir about her own experiences living with bipolar disorder. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.