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Bill Paxton, star of Titanic, Aliens, Apollo 13, and Twister, is dead at 61

His roles were wide-ranging, iconic, and often surprisingly subtle.

48th NAACP Image Awards -  Backstage and Audience Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for NAACP Image Awards
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Bill Paxton, the veteran actor known for his roles in several famous films, is dead at age 61. In a statement, Paxton’s family said he died due to complications from surgery and requested “privacy as they mourn the loss of their adored husband and father.”

In a film career that spanned more than four decades, ranging from major action films to serious drama, Paxton contributed to many of the most culturally iconic films in recent memory. His early turns in The Terminator (1984), where he played the punk with the famous blue mohawk, and Aliens (1986), where he played the terrified hothead soldier Hudson, made him a breakout character actor, and by 1987 he was taking on lead roles like the deranged Severen in the classic vampire Western Near Dark.

Paxton was especially a visible Hollywood presence during the ’90s, particularly in major ensemble blockbusters like Tombstone (1993), Apollo 13 (1995), and Titanic (1997) — in which he deftly managed to imbue greedy treasure hunter Brock Lovett with a surprising amount of charm and wry humor. Paxton was skilled at transforming supporting turns into memorable roles, but could just as easily carry the lead in hit flicks like Twister (1996).

In one of his most memorable and underrated films, the pitch-dark A Simple Plan (1998), Paxton co-starred alongside Billy Bob Thornton; the two played a pair of long-suffering, doomed brothers whose plan to make off with a found pile of cash goes horribly awry.

Paxton proved in such films that he was capable of a depth and nuance he got to showcase far too infrequently. This became clear later in his career when he took on the manipulative polygamist Bill Henrickson in Big Love. The series might have been the best use of Paxton’s inherent screen persona, as it presented him (somewhat convincingly) as an upstanding pillar of his community — who nevertheless was keeping two of his three wives hidden from the world. The role in the series, which ran for five seasons from 2006 to 2011, earned him three of his four Golden Globe nominations.

After Big Love ended, Paxton transitioned to more work in television, including a recurring role in the first season of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. He nabbed an Emmy nod for his leading turn in 2012’s miniseries Hatfields & McCoys.

Paxton also made a few forays into directing. In 2001, he directed himself and Matthew McConaughey in the well-received crime thriller Frailty. He also directed several shorts as well as a 1980 segment of Saturday Night Live and the 2005 biopic The Greatest Game Ever Played, which starred Shia LaBeouf as the amateur golfer Francis Ouimet.

Paxton worked up until his death; his final role as the corrupt cop in CBS’s television remake of Training Day began airing earlier this month. (He’s playing the TV show’s version of Denzel Washington’s character.) Though that show is still unspooling its first season, its weak ratings made it unlikely for renewal even before Paxton’s death. Still, the grizzled, take-no-prisoners cop role seems like a fitting final note for an actor whose career was as hard-hitting as they come.

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