On Saturday, February 25, 2017, we lost another great actor too soon – the incredibly-talented Bill Paxton, who died from a post-surgical stroke following heart surgery. The Fort Worth, Texas native was just 61.
Bill Paxton was a veteran actor, with an incredible resume that spanned four decades. Though he apparently was in the 1981 Bill Murray gem, STRIPES (as a soldier) I don’t remember Bill in that movie. I’ll look for him next time though. His first big movies were prolly THE TERMINATOR and STREETS OF FIRE, both from 1984.
The first movie I remember Bill in, however, was the 1985 John Hughes film, WEIRD SCIENCE. It’s my least favorite of John’s 80s teen films, but as the asshole brother, Chet, Bill Paxton played the role so brilliantly. Seriously, not many people could convincingly pull off playing a giant turd. And I mean that in the highest regard. I loved him in that role.
I loved Bill in many other roles, too, including films like TOMBSTONE, TRUE LIES, TWISTER, TITANIC, ALIENS (for which he won a Saturn Award) and APOLLO 13 (for which he won a Screen Actors Guild Award). He also had a TV resume that spanned four decades as well, including roles on MIAMI VICE, TALES FROM THE CRYPT, FRASIER, AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D., and his HBO series, BIG LOVE, for which he was nominated for three Golden Globe Awards. He was also a main character in the brand-new TV reboot of the 2001 film, TRAINING DAY. All of the 13 episodes had been completed before his death, and just wrapped shooting in December 2016.
In 1976, Bill Paxton met Seymour Stein, co-founder of my favorite record label, Sire Records (and future Rock And Roll Hall Of Famer and Vice President of Warner Bros. Records). They became friends, and Seymour took Bill to see acts on his roster at the time, like The Ramones and Talking Heads. Can you imagine? Hot damn. Seymour was also encouraging with Bill and his acting work. More on Bill’s connection with Sire Records in a bit.
What many folks don’t know about Bill Paxton, is that, when he wasn’t acting, he was involved with music. Before his big break in film and TV, Bill directed a music video in 1980 for a popular 1978 novelty song that had a lot of love on the Dr. Demento show over the years – “Fish Heads” by Barnes & Barnes.
Bill met up with the fictional twin brothers Art and Artie Barnes (actor Bill Mumy of LOST IN SPACE and singer / songwriter / musician Robert Haimer), and volunteered to direct the $2,000 video. He also starred in the video, along with Dr. Demento himself, who had a cameo as a bum. The video for “Fish Heads” aired on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE on December 6, 1980 (eight months before MTV), and the following week.
Bill Paxton’s video filmography didn’t stop there. He also appeared as a Nazi officer in Pat Benatar’s “Shadows Of The Night” video in 1982, and New Order’s “Touched By The Hand Of God” video in 1987. Bill was in a couple more videos in the 80s, but they were a bit more personal.
In 1982, vocalist and guitarist Andrew Todd Rosenthal thought up the idea for a band whose sound (a sorta different twist on New Wave) ended up being a precursor for late-80s Devo. That band was called Martini Ranch.
The idea behind the name Martini Ranch? According to the liner notes of 1988’s Sire compilation, JUST SAY YO: VOLUME II OF JUST SAY YES, the answer to the “philosophical query” is that Martini Ranch is “a neither dry nor dusty concoction that cheerfully assimilates all media forms in order to regurgitate a colorful, satirical audio-visual mélange of Life As We Know It. Got that, Martini fans? Then drink up.”
Between 1986 and 1988, Andrew, Bill and keyboardist Robert O’Hearn – as Martini Ranch – released, on Sire Records, two 12” singles and a full-length album, HOLY COW. Speaking of Devo, from that lone Martini Ranch album, the first single – “How Can The Laboring Man Find Time For Self-Culture?” – was produced and engineered Devo’s Bob 2 – Bob Casale, Jr. (who we sadly lost in February 2014), and featured Devo drummer Alan Myers (who we also sadly lost in June 2013), and Devo vocalist Mark Mothersbaugh on keyboards.
Also making appearances on this interestingly quirky album were Cindy Wilson of The B-52’s, famed New Age artist and film composer Mark Isham, actor Bud Cort (of HAROLD AND MAUDE), and actor Judge Reinhold (of FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH, the BEVERLY HILLS COP trilogy and more).
Judge Reinhold’s appearance on HOLY COW consisted of a sole credit – as the whistler on the album’s second single (and today’s “song of the day”), “Reach.” The song had a kind of cowboy-meets-New Wave sound (Boys Don’t Cry’s “I Wanna Be A Cowboy” comes pretty close), with a hint of Dead Or Alive.
For a song that was mostly just a fun College Radio hit, Martini Ranch picked up a pretty impressive director for the video of “Reach” – James Cameron.
Long before James Cameron became an Academy Award winner and “King of the world!” with two of the top three domestic films of all-time (AVATAR, No. 2 and TITANIC, No. 3, behind 2015’s STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS), he was an up-and-coming Sci-Fi writer-director, having directed and written – by 1988 – THE TERMINATOR and ALIENS.
Bill Paxton had appeared in both of those films (and would also appear in James Cameron’s TRUE LIES and TITANIC), and I’m betting his friend James directed the seven-and-a-half-minute cowboy-themed video for “Ranch” as a favor for Bill.
The number of cameos in this video is impressive, including James’ future third wife (of five), Kathryn Bigelow, who not only directed the New Order video for “Touched By The Hand Of God,” but would become (to date) the first female director (finally!) to win an Academy Award for Best Director (for 2009’s THE HURT LOCKER).
Cameos in the “Reach” video also included ALIENS and TERMINATOR star Lance Henriksen, actor Paul Reiser, the aforementioned Judge Reinhold and Bud Cort, and actor Adrian Pasdar (who I remember most for the role of Nathan Petrelli of the NBC series, HEROES).
The video for “Reach” appears in the brilliant 2005 Rhino / Sire 3-CD/1-DVD box set, JUST SAY SIRE: THE SIRE RECORDS STORY, which features 61 classic Sire gems spanning many genres and decades, and a DVD (which includes “Reach”), featuring 20 videos like M’s “Pop Muzik,” The Ramones’ “Rock ’N’ Roll High School,” “Let’s Go To Bed” by The Cure, “Like A Prayer” by Madonna, “Enjoy The Silence” by Depeche Mode and Talking Heads’ “Once In A Lifetime.”
In the liner notes for that box set, Bill wrote about Seymour in a way anyone who knew Bill or loved his work would prolly write about Bill:
“As anyone who has ever pursued a recording, theatre, or film career knows, it can be a very discouraging road. I think I speak for all of the artists who have been represented by and associated with Seymour over the years, in so much as when he believes in someone’s talent, he believes all the way. He will not be swayed by pressure or popular opinion. I believe that this positive, unflagging support is what has driven many of us to succeed when we might have lost faith. His great talent comes from a deep, deep love of what he does – finding and nurturing talent.”
Bill Paxton was definitely a great talent, and had a deep, deep love for what he did. And I’ll miss that. And I’ll miss Bill. R.I.P. Bill, and many, many thanks…