On the day my father died, a friend of mine 2,500 miles away stopped filming his TV show, and sent me a personal message: "Jim, I'm sorry about your Dad. I'm sure he must have been quite proud of you. Someone once wrote, 'Flowers will wilt and tears will dry, but love lives on in reverent memory.' My sympathy."
That friend was Bill Paxton, a versatile, multi-talented everyman-turned-actor, -musician, -director, and -documentarian, who never lost sight of his Texas roots or core values, and always seemed to put the needs of others before his own. Billy had the biggest heart of just about anyone I ever met, and in a cruel twist of fate, it was his heart that failed him in the end. He went in for surgery on February 14 to repair a valve, then suffered a stroke eleven days later. He died on February 25. Bill was just 61 years old. He was survived by his wife Louise, and his children James and Lydia.
I first met Billy when he agreed to participate in "A Father's Day Salute to TV Dads" which I produced and moderated for the Television Academy in June of 2009. He had already appeared in a slew of blockbuster films by then, (Aliens, Terminator, Predator 2, Twister, Apollo 13, Titanic, et al), and now, he was filming the groundbreaking HBO series Big Love in which he played a Mormon with three sister wives and a passel of kids. Joining Bill on stage were eight other iconic TV Dads: Dick Van Dyke, Bryan Cranston, Dick Van Patten, Jon Cryer, Patrick Duffy, Reggie VelJohnson, Stephen Collins, and Michael Gross.
It was a good natured group of guys, among whom there was great chemistry and mutual respect, so I knew I was on safe ground to poke fun at them during my introductory remarks. Of Billy I said, "As an actor his credits are impressive, and at the same time, pitiful. In Tombstone he failed to serve out his term as sheriff. In Apollo 13 he failed to reach the moon. In Titanic he failed to recover a prized jewel. And in one season of Big Love he failed to perform in bed with two of his three wives." Billy entered the stage laughing, and underneath the thunderous applause he received from the capacity crowd, he said to me, "Thanks Jim. What a great introduction!" In my 45 years of hosting shows and events, no one had ever thanked me for poking fun at them. But that was Bill Paxton. He was not only a great performer, he was also a great audience, and the boy loved to laugh. Strike that. You can't really call what Billy did, a "laugh". It was more like a cackle, followed by a big Texas style "Woooo!".
That night, the Academy audience also discovered that Billy was a master storyteller who could talk about poignant childhood memories or hilariously bawdy incidents with equal aplomb. For example, when asked to recall his favorite TV Dad, Billy went on an hysterical rant about unwed fathers.
Paxton: All the TV Dads I grew up with, something happened to the mother. The wife was out of the picture. The Rifleman. What was the deal there? Did he shoot her by accident? [laughter] And what was the deal with Andy Griffith and Opie? I mean was he a bastard kid? And there was the Courtship of Eddie's Father. And Uncle Bill on Family Affair. Was he really their uncle or their father? What the hell happened to Aunt Dorothy?
Longworth: You're really wound up about this.
Paxton: And you've got My 3 Sons and William Demarest as Uncle Charlie. What did he do? Knock off the mom to get on the payroll? I mean, you could keep going with this stuff. Ben Cartwright. What was the deal with the cook? [more sustained laughter as Bill's story built to a crescendo]
And then there was his show-stopping answer to my question about sex ed.
Longworth: Who talked to you about the birds and the bees?
Paxton: I remember I was about 16 years old and I wanted to talk to my dad because I had heard this term, "premature ejaculation", and I thought I was the only guy on earth who had this problem. (laughter from the audience). So one Saturday morning I rode downtown with my dad who went to pick up his mail at the office. Now I could talk to my dad about anything, so I said, "Dad I think I've got this problem." He said, "What's the problem son?" And I said, "I think I've got premature ejaculation." Well my dad liked to describe things very graphically, and he said, "Oh son, you don't have to worry about that. Hell, I used to go off on the nest all the time."
Academy members were nearly falling out of their seats laughing, while Patrick Duffy, who sat next to Billy, feigned a comic look of shock at what he had just heard. "Woooo! That's a hard one to follow!" said Billy. And so it was.
The event was a celebration of fathers, both on screen and off, so each TV Dad got to tell something serious about his own real-life father. For Billy that meant talking about his hero and best friend, John Paxton.
Paxton: My dad is the person I measure everyone by. And I'm one of the luckiest guys I know because my dad is still my closest confidant. He was a lumber salesman, always traveling, and one thing he taught me was, "take time to talk to somebody". He was a social man with great humanity.
The same could be said about John's son Bill.
In the years following the TV Dads event, Billy and I stayed in touch regularly. Sometimes we saw each other, sometimes we talked by phone, and most times we emailed each other. Sometimes we talked about people we admired, or old TV shows we used to watch. On one occasion, I wrote Bill and told him that Pam and I were spending the evening with Shirley Jones. "I'm so envious," he said. That scene in the cat house in Elmer Gantry is unforgettable. Talk about sex appeal!" And there was the time I told him that the game show Password had just been released on home video, and our buddy Dick Van Dyke was in one of the episodes. "The Password DVD sounds great. I watched a lot of hours of that as a kid," he wrote. Billy often talked with me about his work, but never about his individual performances. He always hoped that the Big Love team would win an EMMY, and when the show was cancelled, he wrote, "Jim, we went down swinging for the back fence." He was also proud of his kids, and gave me a heads-up when James was about to show up in an episode of Billy's Alamo opus, Texas Rising.
And then there was the formal interview I did with him to promote his Hatfields and McCoys mini-series. For Billy it was a bittersweet experience because mid-way through filming in Romania, he was called back home to attend his father's funeral. He was back on a plane the next day to continue working. Seems like Billy was always going somewhere or coming back from somewhere. His emails read like a travel log: "I'm on my way to Toronto", "Jim, I'm in London", "We just wrapped in Romania". He was a perpetual motion machine when it came to work.
Billy's last email to me was on February 11. He told me how much he liked the memorial tribute I wrote about our hero Mike Connors (Mannix). And he talked about his new series Training Day. "I'd like to think I'm carrying on what Mike started as a TV Crimefighter", he said. And in his last sentence he wrote, "Hope you're watching Training Day!" I told him that Pam and I loved his new show, and that Mike would have loved it too. He didn't say anything about feeling bad. He didn't mention being scheduled for surgery on February 14. Eleven days later he was gone.
I couldn't get my head wrapped around the fact that my friend had died. I put off writing this column because I couldn't find the words. I turned to some of the folks that Billy and I knew, and they also found it difficult to talk through the shock.
Bruce Dern: Bill was a prince of a guy.
Patrick Duffy: Too good, and way too soon.
Bryan Cranston: Just devastating. He was such a great guy, and a talented actor. Huge loss. Rest well my friend.
Stephen Collins: Such a terrific guy, and incredibly humble about all his success.
Michael Gross: He was indeed a lovely man.
Mary Kay Place: Bill was such a down to earth guy, so kind to everyone. A great human being, no Hollywood BS about him.
Kurt Russell: I don't know anyone who didn't love being with Billy. He was flat out one of the good guys. I sure hope it's in the cards for us to get together again. 'Till then, I'll miss him.
Fact is, anyone who knew Billy or watched him perform, will miss him too. Cowboy or cop. Soldier or scamp. William "Bill" Paxton could play them all. But as great as he was an actor, he was an even better person. He was the kind of person who once comforted me by writing, "Flowers will wilt and tears will dry, but love lives on in reverent memory." Now, I hear Billy speaking those words to me again, only this time, the tears are for him. And when they dry, my memories of Bill Paxton will be of his smile, his compassion, his talent, and that distinctive Texas laugh. "Woooo, Billy!"...you're a hard act to follow.