Illustration: Jonathan Fehr

Bill Paxton cut in front of me in line once.

When I heard he’d died, it was the day of the Oscars. Just a few days before, I’d been writing about him for a story about Fort Worth, his hometown till he took off after high school to try his luck acting. I’d completely forgotten about the time I was standing a few inches from him in Ojai, California, his longtime home after making it in Hollywood.

Bill Paxton seemed like the nicest normal guy. I base this on my belief that you can’t fake the everyman quality that made him so likable on screen. (From the tributes pouring in since his untimely death, it’s apparent that quality was real off screen, too.)

And I base it on the 20 seconds or so that I was shoulder to shoulder with him. That’s exactly what I thought at the time: What a nice, normal guy.

He had cut in front of me when I was paying for something at a thrift store in Ojai. But he did it in the politest possible way.

I was at the register fumbling for money, and he nudged up on my left needing something in a pressing non-emergency. He seemed to be on a first-name basis with the gal at the register and after momentarily making apologetic permission-seeking eye contact with me asked her if she could make change for him.

It was a perfectly human moment. He didn’t have an air about him in the least. It wasn’t till after he’d finished his transaction that it dawned on me who he was.

So it was easy to be nonchalant when I turned to my friend and said, “Hey, that was Bill Paxton.” If I’d had a Sharpie and he’d had a moment, I might have asked him to sign whatever I bought. As it was, he was in and out without leaving any trace of ego in his wake.

He played guys like that, or he brought that unassuming something to guys he played.

In the story I was writing about Fort Worth, I was going to quote some things Paxton had said about his hometown. The text was going to read like this:

“Fort Worth native son Bill Paxton grew up here, exposed to both Cowtown and capital-C Culture, enjoying excursions into the arts with his dad and taking guitar lessons from the late and legendary songwriter Stephen Bruton, who co-produced the Crazy Heart soundtrack and tutored Jeff Bridges on guitar for the role. ‘I like to come back to Fort Worth,’ Paxton told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 2015. ‘I love to go to the museums: I love the Modern, I love the Kimbell, I love the Amon Carter. I like to just drive around. I like to go out to Shady Oaks and walk around the golf course, hit the north side — it’s a great area. I always try to hit [Mexican restaurant] Joe Garcia’s, and I like to hit the Railhead for a barbecue sandwich. ... Fort Worth has changed quite a bit ... but I like coming back. They say the fallen leaf goes back to the root.’”

Nice, normal guy.

He once said of his movie career that he’d had a lot of base hits but never a home run. I don’t know about that. Bill Paxton was a nice guy who left Texas and became a big movie star but stayed down-to-earth enough that he knew how to cut in line with the sincerity of a well-mannered cowboy. To me, that’s out of the park.

Photography: W. Ben Glass

FROM THE C&I ARCHIVES ...

• Contributing editor Joe Leydon discusses Paxton through the lens of his performance in Hatfields & McCoys here.

• Leydon interviewed Paxton extensively for C&I’s May/June 2015 cover story. Read it here.

C&I celebrated the 20th anniversary of Tombstone — in which Paxton played Morgan Earp — back in 2013.

• Visit C&I’s Facebook post on Paxton’s passing to weigh in with your tributes and read others’ thoughts.

 

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