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Bill Paxton Tribute: The Man Behind The Actor

Deadline logo Deadline 2/27/2017 Anita Busch
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I knew Bill Paxton for a couple of decades. I can’t remember at what party we were at (this was back in 1990 or 1991; it was before his indie success One False Move), but we hit it off. We were both Catholic, both grew up in small towns and ended up out here. We both felt like fish out of water in Hollywood. Anyway, that’s how our friendship started. Years later, we would start talking about John F. Kennedy. My earliest memory had to do with John F. Kennedy’s funeral. That’s when Bill told me about his experience growing up and Kennedy. He was older than I was, so his memory was different, but equally impactful.

As a little boy living in Texas, Bill told me that his dad (who died a few years ago) drove him and his older brother Bob to see President Kennedy right before he departed for his ill-fated trip through Dallas. Bill told us that a man hoisted him up on his shoulders so he could see “the great man” and watched Kennedy’s speech. He said that he and the President even made eye contact. It was in a parking lot right off a field, he said, behind a hotel. He said it was one of his most treasured memories he had from childhood.

Bill and I would see each other from time to time and when cell phones came onto the scene we talked to each other more. Then we lost touch for a little while as our careers both started taking off.

Years later, when he and Tom Hanks were huddling on a Kennedy miniseries for HBO, I told him, “It’s time that you meet Milt Ebbins.” Milt, who was like my second father, was an unofficial liaison between Hollywood and the Kennedy administration during the Rat Pack days. Milt represented and was in business with Peter Lawford, so he was in the inner circle. He was also close to all the older generation of guys (since he was one himself) at the William Morris Agency and would consult Norman Brokaw and others inside the agency’s board meetings.

Milt and Peter even shared an office with Frank Sinatra, so when CAA started, he sold the furniture (antique desks, etc. from their offices) to Phil Weltman’s “boys” who were just beginning CAA. He was a regular guest at the White House and on Air Force One. He was involved the night of Marilyn Monroe’s death; he also helped plan JFK’s inaugural party with Sinatra. He was involved at the time of the Frank Sinatra Jr. kidnapping, and he helped push the original Ocean’s Eleven into production. He and his brother, Bernie (road manager for Billy Eckstine), were family for me in Los Angeles.

So when Bill was researching this Kennedy project, I called his agent (as he was not at the same number) and told him to have Bill call me. Within minutes, I heard that Texas accent and “How are you? Where’ve you been? I didn’t know how to get ahold of you.” I had been a victim of crime and had changed my phone number.

We caught up on our lives. I said, “There is someone you need to meet.” I talked to him about Milt. He couldn’t wait to meet him. I introduced him to Milt so he could hear firsthand the history not written in the newspapers. I knew that Milt would love Bill as I did, and that they, too, would become fast friends.

Bill and I would spend hours together with Milt. Bill enthusiastically helped me go through five steel filing cabinets in Milt’s garage that were filled with history — handwritten letters from Rose Kennedy, Jackie Kennedy, pictures of Bobby Kennedy never seen before, a letter from Ted Kennedy about putting together a permanent memorial for Bobby, reams of correspondence from Joe Kennedy, the original scripts and handwritten deal memo for Ocean’s Eleven, Rat Pack photos never before seen, the original ransom note from Frank Jr.’s kidnappers (yes, the original), things from Air Force One and the White House. Stories about Jack Kennedy and Hyannisport. Just the behind-the-scenes history of Hollywood and of the Kennedy administration that an adoring public never knew.

One day in the garage, I handed Bill something and said, “Unfold that would ya?” I knew what was coming, but he didn’t. He started unfolding once, twice, three, four times until the entire document as big as a wall map was spread out before him on the hood of the car. It was the seating chart for the Kennedy Inaugural. He was laughing like a little kid and just in awe. I’ll never forget the look on his face.

When Bill and I heard about the intern known as Mimi (this was years before she came out to the press to admit she had an affair with “Jack,” as Milt called him), Bill and I looked at each other for a moment in disbelief. Milt told us everything. He said, he wanted the truth to be known before he died. Bill soon understood that he was learning the true history of Hollywood. Bill would drive miles in from Ojai to see his dad and before or after would hang out at Milt’s.

Milt later told us about Monroe and the man she was truly in love with, what happened the night of her death, what happened at the morgue, where her diary went and all the other secrets he held. Bill and I referred to him as “the keeper of secrets.” And that he did until he needed to share it — he knew he didn’t have long to live.

One day after Milt was in the hospital and I had all the handwritten Kennedy letters around me trying put everything in order for his estate, I got a call from my aunt, who was the genealogist in the family. “I just found out that we are related to Honey Fitz.” Huh? “Who?” I asked. “Honey Fitz. John F. Fitzgerald, Rose Kennedy’s father.” (John F. Kennedy’s grandfather). I was dumbstruck. I called Bill, and we marveled over the coincidence that didn’t seem like a coincidence.

Bill came and stayed the entire day — from morning to night —  with me and Milt’s son Gary and his wife at Cedars-Sinai when Milt’s wife was going through surgery. Hours and hours passed. Bill was a talker, so he told us stories about his adventures in Hollywood and growing up. He kept our minds off of worry. He stayed until we got the OK from the surgeon.

Later, Bill called me wondering if he had angered or hurt Milt, as he said he seemed always to have an excuse for not meeting with him. With Milt’s permission, I told Bill that his old friend had become very sick.

Bill came almost every day to see his friend in ICU. Many a time, I would walk into ICU and see Bill already there in his gown and mask. We would sit there together and talk to Milt and Bill would tell him stories. We didn’t know if Milt could hear us or not, but we pretended he did so Bill would keep him in the conversation regardless. We never left each other without a bear hug and he would say, “You need to take care of yourself and get some rest, too, OK?” I’d nod and he’d say, “I mean it. Why don’t you go home now? I’ll stay longer if you need me to.” That was the kind of friend Bill was. To Milt. To me.

When Milt recovered a bit and moved into another room, there was Bill again. Loyal. Compassionate. A great friend. We began tag-teaming visits when we could so he wouldn’t be alone. Bill would sit and talk with Milt’s son as well just to keep his spirits up. It was also Bill who paved the way for Milt’s entry into the Motion Picture Home where he would live out his last days.

The last time Bill and I spoke, we talked about his dad who had died and his family (we talked about his son, who is an actor — “followin’ his dad’s footsteps” he said with a laugh) and we talked about Milt again. We also talked about him maybe remaking The Greatest Game Ever Played, which he had directed.

Bill had no airs about him. He was down to Earth. He was sweet and thoughtful. He had unbounding energy. Very compassionate. He was just a great guy. He never forgot where he came from. He never lost — or maybe never let go of — his Texas accent. My love goes out to his family. I know what a special person he was, too. May God rest his sweet soul in peace.

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