Bill Paxton not only plays Sam Houston on television, he's related to him.
Paxton takes on the role of the legendary Texan in the History Channel's epic miniseries "Texas Rising." It's the story of Gen. Houston's defeat of Mexican Gen. Santa Anna following the massacre at the Alamo. His acting career has included parts in "Titanic," "Twister" and "Apollo 13" and he starred with Kevin Costner in "Hatfields & McCoys," another award-winning History miniseries. The 59-year-old grew up in Fort Worth.
Did they know you were related to Sam Houston when you got the part?
No, they didn't know that and I vaguely knew, but I didn't go to the trouble of really verifying it 'til this job. Sam Houston and I share common grandparents going back six generations. His mother would be a great-aunt of mine. That makes Sam Houston and me second cousins four times removed.
You are related — that is all that matters.
Which is crazy! My dad was always a huge fan of Sam Houston from the book "The Raven," that won the Pulitzer in 1930, by Marquis James. I'm first-generation Texan. He was a Missourian and my mother was from Illinois. He had said, "You know, Sam Houston's mother's name was Elizabeth Paxton." She was from where a lot of my relatives are from, which was Rockbridge County, Virginia. I had tried to get an audition years ago for "The Alamo," but I never got in because I guess Dennis Quaid got the offer early on.
Growing up in Texas, did you get a lot of Texas history in school, especially the part where Texas was its own country?
It was for 10 years. That is why it is the Lone Star state. It really is fascinating. You know, it's always been a source of pride that Texas always had this kind of independent spirit and that it was its own country. It was really fought for mostly by frontiersmen who were from Tennessee or Virginia or Kentucky. Growing up there, you are very steeped in Texas history. I remember my dad taking my brother and me for a trip down to San Antonio when I was probably about 8. We stayed at the famous Menger Hotel, which was right across the street from the Alamo.
What was your first impression of the Alamo?
It was amazing! You know, the Alamo is that Mission-kind of facade. There is really just a chapel. That is all that is left. That became the symbol. ... It is just one of those things — "Remember the Alamo!" It remains and always will be this symbol of valor. These men were able to take on 5,000 Mexican professional soldiers against, I think, 182 men. They held the Alamo for 13 days. It is really kind of the greatest story of the American frontier.
Our miniseries picks up as the Alamo has fallen. It carries on to the battle of San Jacinto. Sam Houston is most remembered for being the victorious commander and leading the Texas army against Santa Anna. The battle, weirdly enough, only lasted 20 minutes, but changed the geo-political face of the nation. The killing went on for several hours (after the battle). He and his officers couldn't stop the retribution and the slaughter of Mexican soldiers even after they put up their hands and surrendered.
Since you lived in the west, did Westerns have the same impact on you?
You have to remember that Fort Worth in the late '50s, early '60s and until the '70s when I left ... I was pretty much a suburban kid. We were watching "Batman" on TV and listening to all the British bands. I never was a super Texan. I was always proud to be from there. I got to go to school for a couple of months on a foreign exchange program when I was 17 to London. One thing I noted when Brits would ask me where I was from and I said, "Texas," they would kind of light up. It did have this kind of mythic Western thing about it.
Tell me about your horseback riding. You look pretty natural.
(Laughs) Oh God, I went to a Western camp as a kid in Wyoming with my brother, Bob, called Teton Valley Ranch Camp. I was pretty comfortable on a horse after going there three summers. We did everything on horseback. We had horse races on Sunday. There is nothing like being in a horse race on a quarter-mile track. You come around that final turn and if you are not in the lead, boy you are eating a lot of dirt.
I have to say as an adult I haven't been around horses that much. On "Tombstone," Sam Elliott and I were kind of the townies. You know, we came in on a buckboard. It was really Kurt (Russell) and Val (Kilmer) who had to do all the horseback riding. Doing "Hatfields and McCoys" which was supposed to be in Eastern Kentucky hard woods (but filmed in Romania), the horses there were unruly and would try to take you into tree trunks. I got through it but I found that very disconcerting. If it was going to be a big shot where you couldn't tell it was me, I would let a Romanian stunt cowboy do my riding for me there.
What about "Texas Rising"?
(Laughs) Roland (Joffe) put me through my paces. I remember Leslie (Greif, executive producer) kept telling me, "You know Ray (Liotta) is riding every day." (laughing) I would say, "Leslie, don't worry. I will be ready."
I got there 10 days before filming and we started working with the Mexican cowboys and wranglers. They were really good. I was still pretty uncomfortable until about halfway through the shoot. It was a five-and-a-half month shoot. It all kind of came back to me.
So it's like riding a bike?
(Laughing) It is, but you know the bike doesn't have a mind of it's own! It was fun. Every male actor and probably female actor wants to do a Western. For me, this was quite something. If you had told me when I was this kid going to visit the Alamo with his dad that I was going to grow up and play Gen. Sam Houston, I would have said, "You gotta be kidding me." But, like I said, I was never a super Texan. I never wrapped myself in the flag, but I am really proud to have been a part of this thing.
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