Patience pays off for an adventurous actor
HOLLYWOOD, CALIF. — Bill Paxton looks out the window from the presidential suite in a high-rise hotel. Looking down at the crescent-shaped driveway, he says, half to himself, "I remember when I was a car jockey at the Beverly Hills Hotel." Then, turning around, he smiles and he spreads his arms wide. "Now I'm living like royalty." The path to success hasn't always been smooth, acknowledges the actor who stars in the current films "A Simple Plan" and "Mighty Joe Young" released within two weeks of each other. In fact,"it's been a bumpy ride," Paxton says. As he settles into a sofa, Paxton runs his hand across the rich damask upholstery and talks about his career. He is perhaps best known for his adventure roles in "Twister" (as a tornado chaser), "Titanic" (a deep-sea treasure hunter), and "Apollo 13" (an astronaut). Last weekend, he showed his humorous side, hosting TV's "Saturday Night Live." Unlike many young actors, he gained enthusiastic support from his parents from the start. "That part was easy," he says. When he confided to his dad, a successful businessman, that his dream was to act, his father replied, "Me too!" "My dad has always been my great resource in life. He was the one who called from Texas and told me to read Scott Smith's book 'A Simple Plan.' He said, 'You won't be able to put it down, it has a lot of hair on it.' That was dad's way of saying it was a great read," Paxton says. The movie, hailed by many critics as an Oscar contender, centers on two brothers and a friend who discover a bagful of money and decide to keep it. Dad was right, says Paxton: "I felt an affinity for the role. My older brother, Bob, and I are not unlike Jacob and Hank, the two brothers in the story. I admitted to dad, 'You're breaking my heart; I'll never get to play this part.' " It took four years of waiting and trying. First, Nicolas Cage was mentioned for the role; then the project was shelved. Then Billy Bob Thornton was attached to the project and interest was renewed, but there was a change in directors. Finally, Oscar-winner Thornton, who was to play Jacob, volunteered that he thought Paxton should play Hank. Paramount decided to make the film. What's more, Paxton even made his dad's wish come true. In a scene at the beginning of the film, a farmer comes into the feed store where Hank (Paxton's character) works. The farmer thinks he's been overcharged, until he learns there were five Mondays in that month. "The man playing the farmer is my dad," John Paxton. The younger Paxton readily acknowledges that patience has been an asset. Success has "been a long time coming, but this has been a very special time for me." Speaking of "A Simple Plan" and "Mighty Joe Young," Paxton says, "Both projects had a kind of strange providence behind them. Ben Johnson, who starred in the original 'Joe Young,' was a hero to me. As a kid, my dad would tell me about this larger-than-life gorilla and his adventures. Then, a few years before Johnson died, I had the privilege of working in two movies with him. "Instead of going to his trailer while a scene was being set up - Johnson was of the John Wayne-John Ford school - he'd sit in a chair, tilt it against the wall, and tell me stories about making his favorite film, 'Joe Young.' " When producer Tom Jacobson called to ask Paxton if he'd star in a remake of "Joe Young," Paxton thought to himself: "How fast can I say, 'Yes'?" - while still trying to play it cool. There was a time when the movie offers weren't so frequent. Hollywood "can chew you up and spit you out," Paxton says. "If it hadn't been for my wife, Louise, I might have been discouraged when the skies weren't so rosy." In addition to parking cars, Paxton has been a gofer on an educational film for Encyclopedia Brittanica, a set dresser on a Roger Corman film, and "atmosphere" in a host of youth and horror movies. Finally, he got a part in "The Lords of Discipline" (1983). "It was my first appearance in a studio film, and it was being shot in England. Since my role was small, I had some time on my hands, and I decided to walk around the village near the sound stages. I spotted this pretty girl waiting for the bus." The girl's name was Louise. They met the next day for ice cream, and they've been married 14 years and have two children. "She is the best thing that has ever happened to me," Paxton says. When he got his first agent, the manager asked, "What is your goal?" He replied he'd like to have a career as an actor in motion pictures. She said, "OK, but you're going to starve to do it," he recalls. "You won't go out for [the television] pilot season, or any of that. You've got to stick with the goal." That turned out to be wise advice, Paxton says. "It was discouraging at times, when others were making movies of the week and television series, and I just kept auditioning for motion pictures. Now the cumulative effect is really coming around.... "My wife said the other day, 'Honey, this is your year,' " Paxton says. "I told her, "Mark McGwire had a pretty good year,' but before she could say any more, I added, 'but I'll tell you, I had a good one too! "