I never met Bill Paxton.
But he was one of my all-time favorite actors. (Also, yes – that is his signature tattooed on the outside of my wrist.)
And after years – decades, really – of watching his films, seeing him charm the hosts and audiences of late night TV talk shows, and soaking up every bit of information offered in this entertainment publication or that I felt like I had a pretty good handle on the attributes that made him who he was.
And who he was… was a movie star, a family man, a story teller, a goof ball – and a simple guy with a genuine soul.
All of the things I thought I knew were more than validated on Father’s Day 2017. I was invited to attend a tribute for Bill in Manhattan, at which the people who really knew him shared their memories of going to school with Bill, or rooming with Bill, or performing with Bill.
They read poems and delivered prayers. They recited Shakespeare. They quoted Bill and a character or two from his movies.
There was mention of “the third rail” and Bill’s fixation on that story and the specifics of way it was told.
His friend Rachel recalled walking across town with Bill one winter day; she was wearing a favorite dress, she said. A group of workmen noticed her, and her recollection of how Bill described them checking her out was no doubt heard in his unmistakable voice: “Those guys looked at you like you were a ham sandwich.”
And for a brief moment, Bill was there. And there was laughter.
We heard about Bill’s ability to make a “spectacular omelette.” The secret apparently lies in whipping the Dijon mustard just right.
They told of the risks Bill took to produce forbidden performances in obscure places – on subway platforms or the rooftop tennis courts above the library (that’s a thing??) at New York University.
We learned of a production of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and the invention of the “Shoeshine” character.
I listened as these friends and former roommates recalled meeting Bill and talked about their first impressions of him. Some were fascinated with him, some not-so-much – at first.
There were descriptive tales of Bill’s unwavering confidence, and his Texas drawl, and his interest in the intricacies of people and things – and their history or what made them specifically unique. His friends talked at length about Bill’s passion for aesthetics and his enthusiasm for art.
Bill’s son James talked about his dad’s boundless energy and how he’d go into drill-sergeant mode to get James up and moving in the morning: “Get your ass outta bed,” James jokingly grumbled, mimicking his dad’s articulation. “You’re burnin’ daylight.”
Again, it was Bill’s voice uttering those words. And again there was laughter.
I didn’t just listen to these stories; I watched how they were told – with enthusiasm and fond remembrances.
I observed their body language as each friend or family member spoke; there were grand gestures and tremendous smiles and looks off into the distance as details and emotions came flooding back.
I saw the smiles on their faces and the tears in their eyes. I heard them laugh and sniffle and pause, their words and movements and gazes of reflection altogether revealing the adoration in their hearts.
To them he wasn’t Bill Paxton, the actor; he was Bill Paxton, their friend.
And then there was that video.
Bill’s longtime friend and collaborator, Tom, put together a heartwarming collection of documentary footage of Bill with his dad, John. As it played out, the video morphed into a sort of memorial for Bill.
Our laughter turned to tears.
The movie clips and video snippets and personal photos and wistful piano all were beautifully combined in this visual poem detailing Bill’s “extraordinary life,” and the emptiness felt by everyone in that room was overwhelmingly realized.
Later at Toad Hall, we all raised a glass to Bill.
And it was there that I asked Bill’s friend Donal to tell me a “happy story about Bill.” Then I sat in wide-eyed delight as he walked me through the comprehensive and animated account of how Bill met the woman who later would become his wife.
It. Was. Amazing.
Donal is an insanely gifted storyteller. And I watched as the nostalgia of that tale brought a smile to his face, which in turn brought a smile to mine.
I was beyond grateful to have spent time with these people who were so welcoming and willing to share their memories, so that I could better know the man whose movies were and are such a huge part of my life.
There’s no question that Bill Paxton was one of my absolute favorites. Learning more about him through his family and friends made me sense his absence on an even grander scale. But I also felt a connection that I hadn’t before, like I was no longer just a fan.
I had learned more about Bill from those closest to him. Their memories of him had us laughing together and crying together. To think about all the lives touched by him and to understand the ways in which he touched them truly is its own reward. And that’s such a Bill thing.
No, I never knew Bill Paxton.
But I feel like I have a better and more personal idea of who he was – the story teller, the practical joker, the art enthusiast, the Hollywood actor who never forgot his roots, the dedicated family man, the lifelong friend. He will be remembered always.
This was my first time in New York; I took the trip solely for this event.
And being in that place on this day with these people was exactly where and when and with whom I needed to be.
You have just enjoyed the insights of Movie Addict Mel, a Bill Paxton fan who wrote this post to recognize what would have been the actor’s 63rd birthday. Follow her on Twitter @movieaddictmel, and “like” her Facebook page www.facebook.com/movieaddictmel. You also can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.