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10 Essential Bill Paxton Roles, From ‘Aliens’ to ‘Big Love’

From “Game over, man!” space marines to Mormon polygamists, our favorite turns from the late Southern character actor

Bill Paxton Best Roles

From the 'Aliens' space marine to the polygamist patriarch of 'Big Love' – 10 essential Bill Paxton movie and TV roles.

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Whether you knew him as the “Game over, man!” grunt from Aliens, the sadistic older brother of Weird Science, the polygamist patriarch on HBO’s Big Love or any of his dozens of compelling cameos or clutch supporting roles, Bill Paxton was always a reliable presence – a Texas-born utility player who could go from sleazy to sympathetic, simpering to morally sound in seconds flat. The news of the 61-year-old actor’s passing this morning filled social media feeds with fans quoting lines and namedropping their personal-best Paxton moments (who knew there were so many Hatfields & McCoys advocates out there?); frankly, boiling down a list of his most essential movie and TV roles to a mere 10 is tougher than you’d think. We’ve singled out these beyond-memorable turns, however, as our favorites of the gone-way-too-soon star.

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‘Weird Science’ (1985)

For a generation of viewers raised on John Hughes’ teen comedies, Paxton will always be Chet – the crew-cut–sporting, shotgun-toting older brother from hell. (The fact that his temporary tenure as a pus-coverdd Jabba the Hut-like creature – the ultimate comeuppance when you cross Kelly LeBrock, folks – seems less loathsome than the sibling in his human form says a lot about this character.) The actor recently told WTF podcast host Marc Maron that many of Chet’s best lines were taken from Paxton’s own past misadventures, including his infamous offer to cook our heroes “a nice, greasy pork sandwich served in a dirty ashtray.” DF

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‘Aliens’ (1986)

Paxton made such an impression as a mouthy marine in James Cameron’s explosive Alien sequel that decades later, whenever fans talk about that movie, the first thing they quote is almost always his whiny declaration: “Game over, man! Game over!” Part comic relief and part plot-driver, his Private Hudson exemplified the combination of cockiness and panic of a brute military force bulling its way into a dangerous situation. (Any resemblance to real-world parallels during the Reagan Era were, naturally, completely coincidental.) Along with Weird Science, it’s one the earliest indications that the actor was more than willing to come off as an alpha-male buffoon if the part demanded it. It’s also a great Exhibit A for what an invaluable ensemble MVP he was. NM

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‘Near Dark’ (1987)

Long before she became the only female to win the Best Director Oscar, The Hurt Locker‘s Kathryn Bigelow gave action-horror fans one of the hybrid genre’s best movies – and gifted Paxton with one of his most gloriously unhinged roles. As part of a clan of vampires roaming the Southwest in search of victims, he plays the film’s resident batshit bloodsucker, the sort of creature of the night who likes to play with his food before ripping out its jugular. Nobody alive or undead can rip apart a redneck bar (“I hate it when they ain’t shaved”) with more rock-star panache, or declare that the Type O he’s just slurped up is “finger-licki’ good” with more scenery-chewing gusto. Next drink’s on us, Bill. DF

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‘One False Move’ (1992)

Though he excelled in a variety of roles throughout his career, Paxton was at his best whenever he was cast as a not-as-simple-as-he-seems small-towner. In director Carl Franklin’s low-key, southern-fried crime picture (co-written by Tom Epperson and a still-fledgling Billy Bob Thornton), the star put a soulful spin on the character of an Arkansas police chief who knows more about a band of violent drug-traffickers than the LAPD detectives on the case expect. His local lawman – nicknamed “Hurricane” – is like a version of himself: a man whose skills and intellect are underestimated because of his thick accent, broad smile and good nature. NM

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‘True Lies’ (1994)

Paxton flexed his comedic side as a supporting role in this Arnold Schwarzenegger action flick, playing the world’s most lecherous used-car salesman – a mustachioed creep who’s been seducing spy-in-hiding Ahnold’s wife, Jamie Lee Curtis. In one of the movie’s most unforgettable scenes, he gleefully recounts how he’s seduced a housewife, unaware that Schwarzenegger is the “boring jerk” she’s married to and bragging that she has an “ass like a 10-year-old boy.” (Don’t even ask him why Corvettes are a two-bit Casanova’s vehicle of choice.) Although he has a smaller role, it leads to a memorable kicker at the end of the film. KG

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‘Apollo 13’ (1995)

While Tom Hanks was demonstrating the virtues of calm level-headedness as real-life NASA astronaut Jim Lovell, Paxton’s Fred Haise was standing in for everyone else – specifically, those audience members who’d be a lot more flustered if they were stranded in outer space on a malfunctioning module. As cranky as he is capable, the flight’s canny engineer becomes the human face of a mission gone awry, beefing at his co-workers in the air and on the ground. (And while still getting his work done, despite fighting a fever.) He’s his own kind of hero, at once a handy guy and an ornery cuss. NM

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‘Twister’ (1996)

Sure, this modern-day disaster movie about runaway tornadoes (and the people who chase them) is some primo Hollywood cheese – but if you needed proof that Paxton could pull off a lead role as well as his usual MVP supporting parts, look no further. As one half of an storm–hunting couple gunning for some extreme natural catastrophes – and whose marriage is its own kind of shitstorm – the actor gives his scenes with costar Helen Hunt a sense of battered humanity amidst the squealing-guitar soundtrack and watch-out-for-that-flying-cow set pieces. Paxton is the grounding force in a movie that’s all about picking up debris and flinging it through the air. He makes the sound and fury signify something. DF

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‘A Simple Plan’ (1998)

Paxton re-teamed with his One False Move co-star Billy Bob Thornton for director Sam Raimi’s excellent, underrated adaptation of Scott B. Smith’s acclaimed thriller novel. Though they were playing Minnesotans instead of Southerners, the actors drew on their common middle-American roots to bring life to the roles of two working-class brothers who stumble onto a dead body – and millions of dollars. Paxton’s Hank Mitchell is the smarter of the two siblings, and the one with the stronger conscience, making this another perfect part for him: a quietly decent man of action whose knitted brow and thoughtful stare reveal every worry and calculation. NM

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‘Frailty’ (2001)

More people probably caught Paxton’s Titanic turn (he’s the contemporary fortune hunter who sets up the extended flashback to that fateful voyage) in a single 1997 weekend than saw his directorial debut during the latter’s entire theatrical run. But his performance in this nerve-jangling indie thriller, about a loving father who believes God has commanded him to become an avenging angel, is way more essential – and an exercise in righteous religious zealotry run amuck. This is not your run-of-the-mill serial killer, but a man who thinks he’s doing the Lord’s work by dispatching sinners, and who thinks he’s protecting his children from Satan’s grasp every time he swings his axe. Given the movie’s intricate dramatic, you wished he worked behind the camera more than he did. Given the ferocity with which he played this delusional character, you wish Paxton’s patriarchal maniac didn’t haunt your dreams so much. DF

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‘Big Love’ (2006-2011)

One of Paxton’s most complex roles, the patriarchal polygamist in HBO’s prestige drama found him straddling the sacred and the profane – an excommunicated Mormon attempting to helm a business and run for public office while keeping his three wives and dark past a secret. The actor played the role with disarming compassion over five seasons; he could both sell you on his commitment to his faith (and his supersized family) and make you feel sorry for him as the series hurled toward its heartrending finale. KG

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