Here's a piece of useless movie trivia perfect for dazzling bored friends at parties: Bill Paxton is the only actor to be killed on-screen by a Terminator (in 1984's Terminator), a xenomorph alien (in 1986's Aliens) and a Predator (in 1990's Predator 2). It's pretty much the Triple Crown of American sci-fi action cinema.
And it speaks to the memorable utility of Mr. Paxton, who passed away suddenly at 61, following complications from surgery. Throughout the 1980s and early 90s, Bill Paxton was a memorable bit player, the sort of smug, suave, overconfident guy you'd want on your side when you're going toe to toe with cinema's most formidable baddies.
Born in Fort Worth, Tex., in 1955, Mr. Paxton emerged on-screen in the early eighties, with small roles in Ivan Reitman's Stripes, Walter Hill's cult-film musical Streets of Fire and James Cameron's Terminator, where he played a giggling punk with spiked blue hair and tire treads running across his face, who is (presumably fatally) assaulted by Arnold Schwarzenegger's jacked-up time-travelling robot. Mr. Paxton would reteam with Mr. Cameron for a number of films, playing the brash, smart-alecky space marine Hudson in Aliens (known for fan-favourite lines such as, "I am the ultimate bad ass! State of the bad-ass art!" and "Game over, man!"), a snivelling used-car salesman in True Lies and a undersea treasure hunter in 1997's Titanic.
As an action star and tough guy, Mr. Paxton was always slightly unconvincing: too gawky and big-lipped to seem really threatening. Even if he wasn't quite "the ultimate bad ass," he covered for it with his comic chest-puffing and outsized arrogance. Characters such as Private Hudson, militaristic big brother Chet in Weird Science or Predator 2's Detective Lambert, configured Mr. Paxton's hyperbolic machismo as comic relief – a sly, winking criticism of testosterone-juiced male bravado.
His talents proved most effective when his weirdness and intense comedic presence overshadowed the burly theatrics. In Kathryn Bigelow's masterful 1987 Southern-fried horror flick Near Dark, in which Mr. Paxton slurped up the scenery as the most unhinged, openly psychotic member of a family of roving vampires.
The 1990s saw Mr. Paxton productively playing against type. In True Lies, his wannabe-tough-guy shtick was laid bare when, menaced by a burly rival (Mr. Schwarzenegger again), his blubbering, chucklehead greaseball admits to being a "complete coward" with a small penis ("It's pathetic!" he howls at gunpoint).
Mr. Paxton also took more subdued leading roles in a run of crime thrillers – One False Move, Trespass and Sam Raimi's taut, snow-swept caper A Simple Plan, an ostensible Fargo knockoff casting Mr. Paxton as a bored Minnesotan husband drawn into an increasingly complex theft of a duffle bag of mob money. There were also the big-ticket blockbuster appearances: Apollo 13, Twister, Tombstone and, of course, Titanic.
During what would tragically end up being his late career, Mr. Paxton's trademark mix of everyman-ish looks and seething ferocity would be put to more subtle use. He starred in HBO's intricately built, lamentably undersung Mormon drama Big Love as Bill Henrickson, a suburban Salt Lake City hardware-store impresario secretly practising "The Principle" (that is, polygamous marriage) with his three wives.
While early episodes of Big Love may have overestimated an audience's appetite to see Mr. Paxton heaving over multiple women in protracted sex scenes, the show developed a complex image of American family and religious life around Mr. Paxton's polygamist patriarch, a complicated character torn between his family, his ambitions and the contentious tenets of his faith.
Recent turns in Steven Soderbergh's oblique arthouse actioner Haywire and the high-concept Tom Cruise science-fiction spectacular Edge of Tomorrow saw Mr. Paxton drawing from his reserves of eighties sci-fi-action blockbuster cred, evoking the most memorable performances of a funny, electric, uniquely talented actor who always worked best just at the edges of the action, and of Hollywood stardom itself.