Over a decade ago, HBO was looking to launch a second successful drama series to join its runaway hit The Sopranos.
After a few tries, the network bet on novice creators, Mark V. Olsen & Will Scheffer, backed by producers Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman, and a provocative premise: a series about a polygamist family man. Long before it was cool for movie stars to do TV, the project was able to get Bill Paxton with the help of Paxton’s Apollo 13 co-star Hanks. Big Love became HBO’s second hit drama series, running for five seasons and producing one of Paxton’s most celebrated performances. A day after news broke of Paxton’s untimely death, Olsen and Scheffer penned a touching remembrance of their star. Here it is:
We don’t want to be writing this. The expression of these thoughts and feelings forces us to admit more of a loss than we are as yet even now able to accept. We mourn the passing of a dear friend and fellow artist, who was taken from us unfairly and much too soon. The outpouring of people making tribute, connecting, sharing condolences tells us we are all struggling to carry and share the sadness that so many in the world are feeling for a man that was so well loved. For us in particular, Bill Paxton was our hero. Quite literally. When we were blessed with the task of casting the main character of our HBO series, Big Love, in 2004 — the first thing we needed to do was to cast our hero. In Hollywood parlance, Number 1 on the call sheet.
Bill Henrickson, the character’s name from our show, was described in our pitch as an Everyman. A good husband and father who was overwhelmed by the escalating demands of modern life. The demands of being a good provider and patriarch at a time when the very nature of those roles, the very acceptability of fulfilling those roles in any traditional way, were changing. Bill H. was a man of faith and integrity who lived with many secrets and moral uncertainties, who actively struggled with “right” and “wrong,” and someone who was proudly, deeply “American.” It didn’t take long for us to realize the part had been written for Bill Paxton.
These were back in the days when it was rare, almost unthinkable of nabbing a bona fide movie star to be in a TV series. And we were greener than most show-creators who got this kind of a chance, again, back then at least. But we had Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman as our godfathers and they understood the importance of Number 1 on the call sheet much better than we did. You are setting sail, joined at the hip in something akin to a marriage, for the long haul, and in TV much more so than in a movie; there’s no “divorce,” no return to port, if you’re lucky, for five, six years. It HAS to work— for crew morale, for creative excellence, for whether your lives are a joyous or miserable affair — because, really, when a show is on the air, it IS your life. Thus the question: what did it mean to depend on this Number 1, captain of the ship, over the course of eight years (more or less the time it took to shoot our 5 seasons?)
We cannot think of any actor, any man, who you’d ever want to be captain of your ship over the long and arduous journey of television making than Bill Paxton. He was smart and collaborative and curious. He was a leader, a raconteur, a mentor. He was talented, vulnerable, generous and strong. Overconfident and humble. If a ‘Force Majeure’ hit the set, you knew Bill had seen worse and he could whistle you through any calamity with that signature smile and a tall tale. He was a Forth Worth kid at heart, and proud of it. He was a family man. He was a collector of art. He was the most genuinely ‘nice guy’ guy we’ve ever had the privilege to know. If a fish indeed rots from the head down, the obverse is also true, and the joy that was Big Love, for cast and crew, for audience as well, radiated from our beloved Number 1. As the profound shock of his loss and the ensuing expression of love and grief proves — he was a man it was impossible not to love.
A TV show about family IS a family in more ways than one. We’re grateful to have the opportunity to speak for our Big Love family and HBO in sharing some thoughts about Bill Paxton and what he meant to us all. Our hearts are profoundly with Bill’s real-life family as they struggle to bear the unbearable. May Bill’s love and radiance continue to illuminate us all.