A Life of Twists and Turns

Bruce Newman is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Calendar

On his copy of the script for the film "A Simple Plan," Bill Paxton has written himself a simple reminder: "You don't know your true character unless it's been tested."

This is the truth that the story--which orbits more directly around discovered treasure and the consequences of greed--forced Paxton to confront. He stalks it, obsessively at times, like some great grizzly that is all the while leading him back to its lair.

"Everyone asks me, 'Would you keep the money?' " Paxton says, shaking his head disapprovingly. "It gets to be a bit inane. It's easy to sit around and be philosophical or moralistic. But unless you've been put in situations of incredible temptation, or you've been on the deck of a sinking ship, you want to believe you'll do the right thing, but you can't know."

Then Paxton, who had a featured role in "Titanic" the world's best-known sinking ship film, adds, "I guess I have this fear that I would be kicking and clawing my way to the lifeboat."

Paxton's good sense is often overruled by his obsessions, and that was evidently the case when he decided five years ago that he was born to play the morally challenged protagonist of Scott Smith's best-selling novel. The film opens Friday.

"It was almost like reading my life story," Paxton says. "I fantasized about playing Hank Mitchell as I read the book. I really believed it was me."

Paxton's father had sent him the novel with a simple directive: "You've got to make this movie." John Paxton had made a lifelong habit of believing that anything was possible for his middle son, and then leaving it to Bill to work out the details. "Bill was definitely trained by his dad for greatness," says Tom Huckabee, one of Paxton's oldest friends.

At that point, Bill Paxton was playing the cowardly lyin' car salesman in "True Lies," one of several character turns he had made memorable, but nothing that would have leapfrogged him past actors such as Nicolas Cage and Johnny Depp, both of whom had been under consideration to play Hank.

"I knew it was going to be highly sought-after by the Hollywood power players, the real Hollywood elite," Paxton recalls. "I said, 'Dad, I'll never get to do this movie.' "

But after five years and four directors, "A Simple Plan" kept falling apart, until early this year when it finally came together, starring Paxton, who had by then earned his spurs in such blockbusters as "Titanic," "Twister" and "Apollo 13."

Director John Boorman--who eventually dropped out of the project and was replaced by Sam Raimi--gave him the part after Paxton described his relationship with his older brother Bob in gripping psychological detail. In the film, fate intervenes in the brothers' relationship and sends it spinning out of control, much as a car accident had changed Paxton's relationship with his brother forever.

"What Bob and I had been through together growing up is very much like the relationship Hank has with his brother," Paxton says. "The story is a kind of a Greek tragedy in a way. I remember feeling so empathetic toward Hank as I was reading it, and hoping that after all the crap he goes through it's going to be OK somehow. But you finally get to a point where you realize there's no way back for this guy. It'll never be OK again."

In the rough-and-tumble narrative of his own life, Paxton edged up to that point several times, then found his way back. "I've had episodes in my life when some event caused kind of an earthquake of my mental stability," he says. "I just ran out of gas or something. My spirit was crushed, for different reasons."

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Paxton had set out for Hollywood from Fort Worth in 1973 at the age of 18, carrying letters of introduction to director Howard Hawks and producer Hal Wallis. The letters were written by Paxton's father, who had gotten to know the two studio giants in the '60s when they came to Fort Worth to play golf with John Paxton's friend, legendary golfer Ben Hogan.

But Hawks and Wallis were near the end of their careers and couldn't help, so the elder Paxton contacted another acquaintance who made educational films for Encyclopaedia Britannica, and that turned out to be Bill Paxton's start in show business.

When Paxton found that he could get steady work as a set dresser on Roger Corman films such as "Big Bad Mama," he happily surrendered himself to a life in the craft unions. "Coming to Hollywood really was like running away and joining the circus," he says, "but it was more of a vocational calling for me. I loved working on films, and there was a belonging there that I'd always longed for."

After three years in Los Angeles with almost no acting jobs, Paxton suffered his first serious bout of depression and decided to move to New York. "I kind of lost my center of gravity here," he says. He took classes from legendary acting teacher Stella Adler, but even that did not settle his nerves. "I never got over my fear of her. She could be incredibly cruel."

Paxton was back in California by 1978, parking cars at the Beverly Hills Hotel when he was cast as the understudy to the lead in Sam Shepard's play "The Curse of the Starving Class." A week before the play's West Coast premiere in 1978, the lead in the show dropped out and Paxton suddenly found himself opening the show.

"I just kind of beat myself up, and pressured myself to the point of complete distraction," Paxton recalls.

What started out as a routine trip to the theater one day ended in what Paxton refers to as his "freakout," when he found himself on an airplane headed back to New York. When he got there, the first person he called was his father. "I told him I thought I had just thrown my whole career away," Paxton says.

John Paxton murmured sympathies, then made a startling announcement: He thought Bill's brother Bob was about to commit suicide.

A year earlier, Bob Paxton had downed a bottle of bourbon after being stood up for a date, and smashed up his car so badly that he was left with a broken neck and a shredded optic nerve. "It seems like in every family there's one person who ends up carrying all the skeletons, the emotional baggage," Bill says. "My brother Bob is one of the real sensitive souls of the world. He lost most of his eyesight in the accident, and after that he had a lot of emotional problems."

In "A Simple Plan," Billy Bob Thornton plays the troubled Jacob Mitchell, who has never measured up to his brother Hank, played by Paxton. "There's a kindredness between my brother and the character Billy plays," Paxton says, "which made this movie intensely personal for me."

"I'd talk to Bob on the phone, then go do a scene," recalls Thornton. "I talked to Bob several times while we were making the picture. Bill would say, 'Hey, ask him about that time when we stole those bicycles.' There was definitely a little influence there, just from talking to him.

"It was kind of where I was headed anyway. I kind of knew how Bob would be before I ever talked to him. I really wanted to capture a grown child's desire for family and love."

With his brother now out of harm's way and living at the Stewart Home School in Frankfurt, Ky., Paxton has obviously decided that the release of "A Simple Plan" is a perfect time to examine the considerable complexities of his own family life, starting with his relationship with his father.

"I'm starting to realize, at 43 years old, that maybe I've never had an original thought in my head," Paxton says. "Maybe I've been completely programmed to be my father."

John Paxton had reluctantly settled into the family lumber business by the time Bill was born, without ever completely giving up the fantasy life that he spoke of half-jokingly every time he left town on a business trip.

"I'd say, 'Where are you going?' and he'd always say, 'I'm flying out to the coast to make a picture,' " Bill remembers.

John Paxton's ascendancy in the lumber business was considerable enough that Bill attended school in Fort Worth with several trust fund babies. Or he did until his father abruptly decided one day to move the entire family to Aledo, Texas, a town of about 400 people.

Bob Paxton's shyness made starting over at a new high school particularly difficult. "My brother was affected by the move," Bill says. But urban or rural, John Paxton remained consistently larger than life, a dazzling figure to his four children (Bill also has a younger brother and sister, Steve and Ann.) The elder Paxton was a longtime friend of painter Thomas Hart Benton, collected 20th century art, had his clothes handmade by James Bond's tailor, whom he tracked down after admiring Sean Connery's suits in "Dr. No."

"My dad's always been a very strong, positive influence, a classic American guy of this century," Bill says. "Insatiable curiosity. A real joie de vivre. But maybe he was a little oblivious. He might not have recognized the problems that plagued my brothers and sister."

Paxton looks off, remembering how this felt. "He called us his owls," Bill says. "He would always say, 'How are my owls?' because we were almost like exotic pets in some ways."

Though in the end it was the father who sought to follow in the footsteps of the son--John Paxton finally took up acting in his mid-70s and now keeps an apartment in Hollywood--it seems clear that he is still the towering figure against whom Bill measures himself and everyone else.

"I don't want to embarrass the other members of my family," he will say, "but of the four children, I'm the only one who was able to emulate a lifestyle like my father's."

When Paxton and his friend Huckabee began making short films as teenagers, it was always Paxton who threw himself out the window of a three-story building, or dived into a raging river because Buster Keaton had once done it, or set his arm on fire. "I liked to do crazy stuff," Paxton says. "Especially if somebody was going to photograph it."

"The Wild Bill thing is something that he can turn on when he wants to," says Huckabee. "But it's just one side of his personality."

Ask Paxton about the two cars he has supposedly totaled--one of them belonging to his father--and a hard glare-frost forms around his eyes. "People try to make me out to be this wild man," he says, shaking his head sorrowfully. "I'm not Wild Bill. I'm not some crazy cowboy."

Then he smiles. "And it's more than two cars," he says.

Sometimes Paxton couldn't turn Wild Bill off when he needed to. When he was 24, he ran into a girlfriend from Texas he hadn't seen in five years and asked her to marry him. The marriage ended fewer than three years later, according to Paxton, when his wife got tired of waiting for his Hollywood dreams to come true. "It devastated me emotionally," he says. "It just killed me. I had nothing now. I had myself and Hollywood."

And Hollywood hadn't done much for him at that point. "I'd already put in 10 years by the time I realized this might not work out," Paxton says. "I was 27 years old and I was throwing newspapers, making $500 a month. I had friends my age who had taken the bar exam, friends who were interning at big hospitals."

But Paxton hung in and eventually began to get work in low-budget horror films. That led to his first featured role in the 1983 release "The Lords of Discipline," for which he was actually listed in the credits as "Wild Bill Paxton." (He also met his current wife, Louise, while the film was shooting in London. She was 17 and headed to the orthodontist. He chased the bus she was riding on until he caught her. Wild Bill rides again.)

He followed that with attention-grabbing performances in "Weird Science" and "Aliens," the sci-fi thriller directed by James Cameron, who was to play a very important role in his career.

Paxton was on his way. And then he wasn't.

"I was the scared, hysterical Marine in 'Aliens,' and I thought I had pushed the part too far," he says. "I came back home after that and just slid into this well of depression. I decided that I wasn't going to be an actor anymore. I needed something that would change my life radically, challenge me as a man."

He decided to join the French Foreign Legion. No, really. The guys in the funny hats, not some grunge band. "I did try to join the French Foreign Legion, and I was upset to find out they had a two-year waiting list if you weren't a French citizen."

It was six years between "Aliens" and his next success in "One False Move," in which he co-starred with Thornton, who had also co-written the script. (The small but acclaimed film was directed by Carl Franklin.)

"We both always believed that it was going to happen somehow," says Thornton. "I think we're both a little naive. Or innocent. I think there was a little wide-eyed wonder that pulled him through."

"We'd had a little success but we were just one step away from going back to work at Shakey's pizza parlor," Paxton says. "I guess there's kind of an eternal-underdog vibe about my pursuit out here. To get to the top of the pyramid, to become a Hollywood fixture, it almost seems like an impossible thing to accomplish."

He is not unmindful of the fact that his roles in Cameron's films, including "Titanic," and several other box-office monsters such as "Twister" and "Apollo 13," have landed him in some of the most commercially successful films of the past decade. "I've kind of succeeded by degrees, but the cumulative effect is pretty amazing," he says.

Disney's 800-pound Christmas gorilla, "Mighty Joe Young," should add to Paxton's bottom-line heft, while "A Simple Plan" gives him added critical weight.

If all goes well, director Raimi could come in for a little of both, and he could use it after the spectacular flameout of his last film, "The Quick and the Dead," which he made five years ago. Raimi had become known for dazzling shot-making in such genre pictures as "The Evil Dead" and "Army of Darkness," a technique he then tried to transfer to the Sharon Stone western. "I think he got beat up pretty bad on that movie," Paxton says.

What was needed for "A Simple Plan" was a straightforward, Gothic style more suggestive of Alfred Hitchcock than a hip horror auteur. "Hitchcock was one of the ultimate Hollywood voyeurs, a little bit disengaged," Paxton says. "And I think Sam is definitely channeling that."

Whatever channel he was tuned to, Raimi picked up the high-beam frequency of John Paxton, who badly wanted to be part of "A Simple Plan." He wrote another one of his letters to Raimi, this time asking for a chance to audition for a part that would give him a brief scene in the feed store where his son's character works. Bill Paxton didn't know his dad had charmed Raimi until he arrived in Minnesota and found his father's 8-by-10 glossy hanging in the production office.

Paxton stared at the director coolly. "Well, he better be good," he said finally.

This was to be the test, then, a role in which "you don't really know where the person ends and the actor begins," Paxton says.

It was just as well that his father, who had given him the chance for all of it in the first place, should be there to see it. "I guess I've been trying to join the club out here for a long, long time," Paxton says. "I think I might have finally passed the exam."

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