The actor Bill Paxton died over the weekend at the age of 61, an event that was awkwardly timed for the Oscar ceremony’s “In Memoriam” section but did assure him a special callout from the presenter of said segment, which turned out to be Jennifer Aniston.
Paxton, of course, was a fine character actor who enhanced many, many movies. I never confused him with Bill Pullman but apparently some people did. Owing to his longtime association with James Cameron, he was in an unusual number of big-budget successes, like Aliens and Titanic, but he would also pop up in diverting stuff like Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire or Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow. His finest work may have been in Carl Franklin’s excellent 1992 B-movie One False Move, in which he played a cocksure Arkansas sheriff whose easygoing facade gets tested when a pair of homicidal maniacs make their way to his small town.
Paxton originally hailed from Texas—at the age of 8, he was prominently photographed in a crowd of people in Dallas to see President John F. Kennedy several hours before Lee Harvey Oswald abruptly ended Kennedy’s life. In the mid-1970s he made his way to Los Angeles with ambitions of becoming an actor.
Barnes & Barnes were an curious new wave duo starting in the late 1970s that consisted of Robert Haimer and Bill Mumy (who as a child had played Will Robinson on Lost in Space). Their first single, and to this day their most famous release, was the childlike 1978 song “Fish Heads,” which had the infectious, Alvin and the Chipmunks-ish refrain “Fish heads, fish heads, roly poly fish heads, fish heads, fish heads, eat them up, yum!” If you were around in the 1980s, you definitely remember this song.
Bill Paxton had some ambitions as a filmmaker at that time, and it was he who directed the video; he also appeared in it. The video, which also featured Dr. Demento, was always something of an oddity in that it was produced before MTV had even started up—when it did play on MTV, it often felt like a deep cut excavated from the distant era of who-knows-when. Fellow Texan Rocky Schenck served as the cinematographer, and Haimer’s girlfriend at the time, Joan Farber, designed the costumes.
Years later, Mumy singled out Paxton for his tireless efforts to promote the video:
All credit goes to Billy Paxton. What a go-getter! Completely enthusiastic, would not take no for an answer, took his own money, flew to New York. He said to us, “I’m gonna get Fish Heads on Saturday Night Live!” And we were honestly, honestly, like ‘Yeah, right, Billy,” you know. ... And sure enough, it ran two weeks in a row.
The video played on two consecutive episodes of Saturday Night Live that aired in December 1980. It also played a key role in forging a major relationship in Paxton’s life, as it was a big part of Paxton’s calling card shortly after he met Cameron, according to Rebecca Keegan’s book The Futurist: The Life and Films of James Cameron:
Paxton had directed a funny, bizarre short film called Fish Heads, essentially a music video for a novelty song by a band called Barnes and Barnes, about all the things fish heads can and cannot do. ... Paxton invited Cameron to a screening of the short at a punk-rick club in the San Fernando Valley. Fish Heads, which would ultimately sell to Saturday Night Live and achieve early-eighties cult status, endeared Paxton to Cameron, who realized the affable Texan had ambitions beyond painting spaceships. Three years later, when Cameron needed a punk rocker to get beaten up by Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator, he thought of Paxton.
This has nothing to do with Paxton, but it seemed impossible not to include this nugget: In 2007 a performer called Buck 65 released a kind of mashup in which the lyrics of “Fish Heads” were played over the main lick from Wire’s “Three Girl Rhumba.” Here, listen for yourself:
When Paxton was still a struggling actor, he appeared briefly in the video of Pat Benatar’s “Shadows of the Night”—he played a Nazi, which is always fun:
In 1982 Paxton teamed up with Andrew Todd Rosenthal to form a new wave band called Martini Ranch. As Mike Duquette has pointed out, the title of Martini Ranch’s first single “How Can The Labouring Man Find Time For Self-Culture?” sounds rather like a poor imitation of a DEVO track—while the song itself owes a great deal to “Whip It.”
It turned out that 1986 was not the moment to unveil a new, heavily DEVO-influenced new wave act, but either way, DEVO has its fingerprints all over that track. Bob Casale, Mark Mothersbaugh, and Alan Myers all played on it, and it was produced by Casale. The only Martini Ranch album, Holy Cow, came out on Sire two years later, with Harold and Maude‘s Bud Cort contributing vocals to “Fat-Burning Formula,” while Judge Reinhold, who also appeared in that same Benatar video, whistles on “Reach.”
Here’s the video for “How Can The Labouring Man Find Time For Self-Culture?” which was directed by Paxton’s old compadre Rocky Schenk:
Here’s Bill Mumy on “Fish Heads”:
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
Bill Paxton was in an awful 80s New-Wave band. James Cameron directed their music video