Bill Paxton Remembered: Lessons From a Good Man

In my yet-to-be published “Intersection With History”, memoir version, I briefly mentioned a fellow Fort Worth man:

“Around the assassination’s fiftieth anniversary, I first saw a TV special that featured Bill Paxton, the actor and director who grew up in Fort Worth who is within a year of my age. He is seen sitting on shoulders above the crowd that morning, witnessing Kennedy’s outdoor speech after waiting in the rain. What memories he must have; I wouldn’t know – I never knew Mr. Paxton personally at all. I’d like to hear his story someday.”

Bill Paxton, a figure familiar to movie-goers and television viewers for the past 40 years or more, passed away over this past weekend. With over 90 roles in film and TV, he was best known for his acting roles including Twister, Apollo 13, and True Lies, and as the director of The Greatest Game Ever Played. His many TV jobs included the lead in HBO’s “Big Love”. His family said he died from “complications during surgery”, apparently involving his heart. He was quickly eulogized as a genuine talent with both a tremendous work ethic and a great appreciation for the opportunity to make a living doing something he deeply loved.

So, as if we should need them, here are further examples of how we should live our lives; and more reminders about the “you never know” aspect of life itself. It is also proof that the “someday” I looked forward to for hearing his story will never come.

Bill was hailed as, “One of Hollywood’s most reliable and prolific actors”. He worked often with renowned director James Cameron, who said of Paxton, “This guy has more integrity than anyone I ever met in my life”. Iconic actor Tom Hanks remembered him as, “A wonderful man”. Arnold Schwarzenegger called him, “A great human being with a huge heart”.

So, Lesson One: Living life to its fullest, as apparently Bill Paxton did, and being remembered the way he is now in passing – that seems what anyone could call a life well-lived.

Of course, Lesson Two has more to do with the “complications from surgery” that caused his death. I was quickly reminded of my wife’s uncle who went in for a routine colonoscopy a few years ago, and never woke up. That frailty of “anything can happen”; of “you never know”. Almost everyone knows a similar story.

There’s certainly a Lesson Three, and it’s related to why we should not put things off until tomorrow – because tomorrow may never come. That tomorrow to never come might be ours, or it might be the one that belonged to someone we want to share something with.

And granted, all of the above are issues addressed in my novel, Gabriel’s Creek. Therein lies the reason why Bill Paxton’s death is getting so much of my attention.

But no, I never knew him. I’ve found several places where we may have crossed paths when we were both young, just as I’ve thought of others where we never would have met in a million years. We both built a love for golf very early in life, but while he was a teenager caddying for Ben Hogan, the closest I might have come was my family being members at Hogan’s church. We attended rival high schools on Fort Worth’s west side: Paxton went to Arlington Heights, while I was at Western Hills.

To a great degree, he was just another kid my age growing up in the same neck of the woods as I did. He experienced President Kennedy’s Fort Worth visit first hand while I “only heard about it”. But you’d have to agree we both held an arguably unique perspective of that day; we had stories of that day that are unlike many others.

That might be why literally only a couple of weeks ago, I reflected on the fact I’d been procrastinating sending him a personal copy of Gabriel’s Creek for a long time. I decided I would do that, soon. Since we shared both being Fort Worth natives and a love for golf, I thought he would enjoy my book. Even busy people sometimes like to read, after all.

Then again, know that Paxton directed what is probably my favorite golf movie of all time, The Greatest Game Ever Played. That’s the adaptation of Mark Frost’s book about the improbable 1913 U.S. Open win of Francis Ouimet. It’s true that in my dreams of seeing my own novel put into film, Bill Paxton was always the first guy that came to mind as someone who might be interested in making that happen.

I’d been putting this contact off probably because I wanted to avoid the appearance that I had such an ulterior motive, when I felt it truly was my honest belief that we might fuse our interests in golf and art.

When I think of Gabriel’s Creek, I often think of who might be its ideal readers. They include people who love golf who are reaching an age where we begin to wonder what’s ahead. I had lunch with such an ideal reader last week, a 70-year old doctor whose family lived at Pebble Beach, for whom golf has been a large part of his life. He reached out to me to thank me for the book.

The lives this doctor and I have lived might just as well have been on different planets. The hometown connection of Bill Paxton and I would make us have more in common than the good doctor and I. While we were younger but close to the same age, somehow I always believed Paxton would appreciate my story about a man who loved golf learning he was coming to the end of his life, and wondering just what that meant. Maybe he would appreciate it the same way the doctor did.

I just didn’t want him to think I was trying to squeeze him to get my foot in the door to discuss making my book into a movie. I honestly have believed that was not my real purpose. Lying to myself? Maybe.

One of my best friends growing up was one of many people I haven’t been in touch with since graduating from high school. Some of these people I’ve thought of often in these many years since, but I’ve never gone the extra step to contact them. Within the past few years, I’ve wondered what ever happened to this particular kid with whom I shared a youthful interest in movies, a kid that seemed would surely “turn into something”. I Googled him and found to my surprise that he is a prolific television director and editor with a list of credits beyond impressive. His is a name that I’ll bet people in that industry would know quite well.

While people change over time, “when I knew him”, this kid had no interest in golf at all. Maybe that’s one reason we drifted apart. But the connection is the fact I’ve avoided making contact with this man for what is probably the same reason I never did with Paxton: not wanting him to think I was making contact only to weasel my way into a screenplay.

So I cannot claim to be in mourning over Mr. Paxton’s death. I have no place, and arguably no right to eulogize him. But maybe we can all envy the example he gave us by the way he lived his life and how that made humanity feel about him. And maybe we can learn once again that tomorrow is no guarantee for any of us.

And maybe Bill Paxton’s death has gotten through to me, and I will one day soon reach out to that old childhood friend of mine in Hollywood, with no agenda other than to say hello.

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