The night I met Bill Paxton was the Dallas premier of The Greatest Game Ever Played (2005), which he had directed. I was working for Michael Cain (not the actor) at the time, as an assistant editor on Michael’s documentary, TV Junkie (2006), and he wanted to reward me for the extra hours I was putting in by taking me to this special event.
If you haven’t seen it, The Greatest Game Ever Played is the story of a legendary matchup at the 1913 US Open. A 20 year old nobody, Francis Quimet (Shia LaBeouf), took on his idol, a former US Open Champion from England, Harry Vardon (Stephen Dillane), and won. What I remember most about the film is the way they shot the golf swings, like we were following the club around through the air before it made contact with the ball. It brought a high speed element to a normally sedate game and worked well, though it was arguably a bit overused.
After the screening there was a small party at the bar next door. I remember talking to a producer who introduced me to Shia. He was friendly enough, shaking my hand and pretend it was, “nice to meet you,” or something like that, but he quickly turned back to the producer and asked when he could, “get out of here?” You see, there were these girls – he motioned to a couple of young women nearby – and they, “had some weed,” and wanted to, “get back to his hotel room.” I couldn’t quite hear what the producer said but it wasn’t long before Shia and the girls were gone.
Paxton was having dinner with his father and some other people. He grew up in Fort Worth, which is why he wanted to have a Texas premiere. Michael told me we should get going, he didn’t want to both Paxton with his family, but he was just going to say, “goodbye.” I hung back and thought this was as close as I’d come to meeting the man, then I heard Paxton get all excited about how nice it was to see Michael again and he insisted we come back to the hotel.
It was a big suite, with a couple of bedrooms and a large balcony. Paxton saw his father to bed and told us to grab whatever we wanted from the minibar; “Disney’s paying for it.” We went outside to not disturb his dad and hung out for quite some time. The thing I remember most was Paxton turning suddenly to me, locking in on my eyes and asking, “So, what’s your story?” It’s a line I’ve used a lot on other people since then.
The other thing I can recall about our conversation was Paxton quizzing us about how much we liked the film. This was only the second feature he had directed and his first, Frailty (2001), was much darker and very different. He made it clear that he had high hopes this time around, doing a feel-good production that had the potential to be an award winner. Seabiscuit (2003), the story of a race horse during the Great Depression, who shattered expectations and inspired many people, was the analog he came up with to express his optimism. “We are Seabiscuit,” he said with a beaming smile. “Nobody expects us to win but we can break out of the pack and do this.” I liked the film but did not share his optimism. Obviously I wasn’t going to let on to him about this and I listened enthusiastically. It struck me as charming and very human that despite all his success over many years in Hollywood, he could still sound like a kid, brand new to the business and super hopeful that great things lay ahead. In the end, I don’t think it matters that the film wasn’t the Oscar Winner he was hoping for; what matters is that he continued to be hopeful.
It was sad to wake up to the news today that he had passed away, on the morning of this year’s Oscars. I trust they will be saying nice things about him tonight. When I put on my headphones and opened up Spotify I nearly unconsciously went to David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust album and started playing it. I had listened to about a hundred times last year after Bowie’s passing and I guess it’s now become my soundtrack for a celebrity death; or at least for a celebrity that actually matters to me. It’s funny the way the minds works, don’t you think?
RIP Bill Paxton. My thoughts go out to his family and to our mutual friends, Michael Cain, Jeff Scheftel, and Tom Huckabee. I know they loved him like a brother.