Bill Paxton's laudable career: Watch this hidden gem from the late actor

The hubbub about the Academy Awards obscured news that broke that same day about the death of actor Bill Paxton, at 62, from complications following heart surgery.

That’s a shame -- with a few days to consider his impressive resumé (40 years, nearly 100 movies and TV shows), you realize what a fine career this talented character actor really had.

And though Paxton didn’t accumulate a stack of awards -- a SAG win for the cast of Apollo 13 is probably his biggest -- the Academy Award for Moonlight and the historic showing Sunday for black actors, writers, and directors circles back in a way to one of Paxton's best movies.

In 1992, he had what was essentially his first lead role, in a thriller called One False Move -- a small independent film, ticketed for video until it was noticed by critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, who championed the movie and earned it a limited release.

It’s a nifty little thriller, scripted by then-unknown Billy Bob Thornton, about a trio of fugitives pursued by Los Angeles detectives on their way to an Arkansas town where the sheriff (shrewdly played by Paxton) seems somehow to have anticipated the whole thing. In a tricky role, he showed the instinct that good actors have: knowing what to conceal and what to reveal. 

The movie, with its knotty racial themes, was ahead of its time. One False Move was directed by Carl Franklin, an African American, just a few years after Do the Right Thing, when Spike Lee started pushing to get more black talent on both sides of the camera, advocacy that helped lead to a day when Moonlight and Hidden Figures and Fences could all compete for Oscars. (Franklin, by the way, is still going strong,  directing mostly for television on shows like The Leftovers).

In interviews, Paxton said he regretted not finding a starring role that could have captured the public’s attention, giving him access to more leading-man offers.

But he never wanted for work and had a knack for catching the eye of good directors. By 1992, he’d already worked for Kathryn Bigelow (Near Dark) and James Cameron (Terminator), and he went  on to work with him several more times (Aliens, True Lies, Titanic). One False Move was released the same year he made Trespass for Walter Hill.

He collaborated with Sam Raimi (and Thornton again) in the taut thriller A Simple Plan and tried directing, with solid results, in Frailty.

Paxton turned to television (Big Love), and in those years I missed seeing him on the big screen, though when he turned up he was always an asset. There weren’t many movies I enjoyed more in 2014 than Edge of Tomorrow (he's the sergeant who gives Tom Cruise such a hilariously hard time), and Nightcrawler -- the latter giving us a window into what we might have seen from Paxton in years to come. He played a veteran TV news stringer contending with a younger rival (Jake Gyllenhaal), shading his character with a lived-in mixture of wisdom and world-weary despair.

It would have been fun to grow old with him. 

'Donald Cried': Cheap Laughs

Moonlight, with a budget of $1.5 million, might be the most inexpensive Oscar movie ever made, but it’s Avatar compared to Donald Cried

Writer-director-star Kris Avedisian (you think he could afford to hire actors and directors?) spent about $150,000 making Donald Cried, which opens in Philadelphia on Friday. He could make nine more movies with Moonlight money. 

There’s no guarantee they’d be as funny, though, as his debut, which made audiences laugh throughout the country last year at festivals (it won the audience award at the American Film Institute festival among independents) before picking up a distribution deal. 

“We really came in to the process blind,” Avedisian said. “We just shot a movie and submitted it. I guess that almost never works, but it worked for us.” 

Avedisian filmed the movie in his hometown of Warwick, R.I., where he lives and where he got the idea for the movie -- a Warwick man named Peter (Jesse Wakeman) who’s become a Wall Street hotshot returns after 20 years, and, marooned for a day, ends up sucked back into the orbit of the town (and past) he’s spent his adult life trying to escape. 

Pulling him back is Donald (Avedisian), a left-behind high school buddy who spends 24 hours forcibly reacquainting Peter with the bowling alleys, convenience stores, junkyard hangouts, and metal bands of their youth. 

The movie has struck a chord with audiences -- there are a lot of Peters, apparently, caught in the push-pull of past and present, urban and ex-urban. And not just Americans. 

“What’s shocking is how well the movie plays internationally. I had a guy from India tell me he grew up in a small town and feels exactly the same things. It’s crazy, and it’s awesome to hear.” 

Wakeman and Avedisian have no big-time film experience, no credits to speak of. They made a short film version of Donald that people liked and used that to launch a Kickstarter campaign to fund their modest debut. 

“It cost $45,000 to shoot, 11 days, and three days of reshoots. Kickstarter came in later, after we had shot, and we really just needed money for sound mixing and music rights, the level of polish that a movie really needs.”

They’re having their first meetings with the establishment movie industry right now. 

“We’ve kind of worked in our own little bubble for a long time,” Wakeman said. “We’re not connected to the film industry at all. I’ve been an actor, but at a really low level. I teach a little, I went to art school and was at Columbia a couple of years ago. Kris lives in Rhode Island and is a house painter. So this is a great moment for us.”