Most people call him Bill. Kevin Costner calls him Pax. I call him Billy Blockbuster. That’s because Bill Paxton has a talent for appearing in hugely successful and ground breaking projects. His big screen films include The Terminator, Aliens, Twister, Apollo 13 and Titanic. Meanwhile, on television, Paxton starred as a Mormon with three wives in the long-running “Big Love,” and now he’s heading up another kind of controversial clan altogether.
“Hatfields and McCoys” airs in three parts beginning Memorial Day, and it is the History Channel’s first foray into the scripted miniseries genre. In it, Paxton plays patriarch Randall McCoy and, oh yes, his nemesis is Anse Hatfield, played by Kevin Costner.
Though the famous feuding families sustained hostilities for generations, this TV version hones in on a bloody, 25-year span of fighting over everything from a stolen pig, to a Romeo-and-Juliet type romance. Anse and Randall started out as friends and neighbors who both went off to fight the Yankees during the Civil War. But Hatfield decided to leave the battlefield and return home to start a lumber business.
Later, McCoy returned home to an impoverished family, and resented his former friend for profiting during wartime. Paxton told me what it took to prepare for his role as the embittered veteran.
“As an actor you can read about the history and visit the place where the feud took place, but that really doesn’t give you a way in. So I grabbed a book off my library shelf that my dad had given me. It was a book of letters written by my great, great grandfather Elisha Franklin Paxton who was a Confederate general. He led Stonewall Jackson’s brigade, and died at the battle of Chancellorsville at age 35. His letters to my great, great grandmother showed this man’s sense of right and wrong, duty and honor, and religious conviction. In one letter he writes about the want of Christian charity, ‘Wheat has become $6.40 a bushel, people are profiting off the misery while my men don’t even have shoes to wear.’ That’s what helped me crack the safe, to get a deep conviction of character which I needed to play this part.”
And, like his ancestor before him, Paxton himself had to muster a lot of personal conviction just to get through the film project. For one thing, the production took place in Romania where the History Channel could save money by recycling sets that had been used for the film Cold Mountain, and which could double for the backwoods terrain of West Virginia and Kentucky. For another, Paxton was in most of the scenes in what turned out to be a grueling 73-day shoot. Then, half way through filming, Bill received word that his father and best buddy John Paxton had passed away. On the day before he left for the funeral, Bill was shooting a scene in which Randall McCoy was lamenting the death of his three murdered sons. “I told the costume designer that I should be wearing a black arm band for the scene, so that’s what we did,” said Paxton. It was a symbolic way for Bill to mourn the loss of his dad while playing a scene about loss.
“Hatfields and McCoys” is a period piece, of course, but it also has relevance to some of today’s problems, ranging from feuds between street gangs, to the partisan bickering by politicians that often gridlocks our nation from moving forward. Said Paxton, “If these two men could have found common ground, and put their differences aside, and gone on with their lives, we wouldn’t be talking about them today.”
But thanks to Billy Blockbuster, we’ll be talking about the Hatfields and McCoys even more than ever, and, hopefully, learning a thing or two about the futility of incivility along the way.
“Hatfields & McCoys,” directed by Kevin Reynolds, starring Kevin Costner, Bill Paxton, Powers Boothe, & Tom Berenger. May 28-30, the History Channel. For more information and video clips, visit www.history.com/hatfields-and-mccoys.com.
Jim Longworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11am on WMYV (cable channel 15)