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An actor's actor, Bill Paxton had the rare ability to move seamlessly through time

"It's game over, man."

When you improvise one of the most famous lines in one of the most famous films in history, it tends to haunt you.

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The role of Pvt. William Hudson in James Cameron's "Aliens" came relatively early in Bill Paxton's long and varied career, but the youthful meltdown Hudson has midway through the 1986 film — "game over" refers to the then-still relatively new world of video game playing — cemented the relatively small character into pop culture history.

It followed Paxton, who died this weekend at the age of 61, everywhere — through all his subsequent films, including "Titanic," "Twister" and "The Terminator," and into his television career.

Even when best known for playing spiritually tortured polygamist Bill Henrickson in HBO's groundbreaking and award-winning "Big Love" or the increasingly crazed Bible-thumper Randolph McCoy in "Hatfields & McCoys," Paxton often heard his famous line thrown back at him when he walked down the street.

And he was fine with it, he said on more than one occasion, just as he was fine with the endless mixing-up of his name with Bill Pullman's. "There are worse problems to have," he told me once, with a smile and a shrug.

Paxton was an actor's actor, more journeyman than star, although he was most certainly a star. That square jaw and Texas drawl could be stretched or softened according to need, the eyes beneath the receding hairline cushioned or steeled, but always in service to character rather than brand.

And though distinctly American, able to slip as easily into an astronaut's gear for "Apollo 13" as into Civil War-era gear for "Hatfields and McCoys," Paxton had the rare ability to move seamlessly through time. The man behind that famous line of futuristic gamer-speak was just as compelling as a religious zealot or, more recently, the rogue cop in the TV incarnation of "Training Day." To stories set in the past, present and future, Paxton brought a universal humanity to whatever role he had. He was even a believable bright spot in the lamentably ragged "Texas Rising."

But it was as "Big Love's" Bill Henrickson where he made his deepest mark. Although canon names "The Sopranos" and "Sex and the City" as the precursors to television's recent renaissance, "Big Love," the story of one man living with his three wives in suburban Salt Lake City, was without a doubt a braver and more ambitious show.

Polygamy as high drama makes sense, but polygamy as a richly textured, soulful look at marriage, religion and family? That was the revelation of Will Scheffer and Mark V. Olsen's series.

With a cast that included Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloe Sevigny, Ginnifer Goodwin and Grace Zabriskie, "Big Love" was, among many things, a female-centric oasis amid all the broken anti-heroes that defined "prestige television" at the time.

But Bill, Henrickson and Paxton, was the linchpin on which the whole improbably beautiful thing turned.

At first presented almost comically as a husband with literally every marital challenge known to man, Bill slowly became a man torn in far deeper and more disturbing directions — between past and present, ego and humility, the spiritual world and the visceral.

For an actor, the role presented a formidable challenge. As the near-biblical head of the house, Bill was an anachronistic, and essentially antagonistic, character. But for the show to work, he had to be likable. Audiences had to believe that three smart women had willingly entered into a marriage that most people would find abhorrent, and that they stayed for reasons beyond religious dictates or low self-esteem.

Every episode, Paxton had to walk the crazy/sane tightrope of rigid patriarch and loving husband, and in virtually every episode for five seasons, he did, delivering a performance that both deepened his character and allowed everyone around him to shine.

There was a decency at the core of every character Paxton played. In some cases, it had been corrupted, or overlaid with pain or insecurity, but he was a man whose work always began on solid ground.

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Which is why it inevitably stood so tall.

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