BY GABE LICHT
DELANO, MN When actor Bill Paxton died due to complications from heart surgery Feb. 26, many Delano residents took notice.
Not only did they know Paxton as Bill Harding from “Twister” and Brock Lovett from “Titanic,” but they had met him personally while he was playing Hank in “A Simple Plan,” which was filmed in Delano in 1998.
“You talk to the guy once, and he doesn’t know you, but you feel bad for a person,” said Larry Bartels, who was an extra in “A Simple Plan.” “I think he actually was a fantastic person . . . He seemed like a regular guy.”
Others had the same impression of Paxton.
“He was a good guy,” Steve Gilmer said. “I’m very sad to see he passed.”
Gilmer was an undertaker in the film and also talked to Paxton when he visited State Bank of Delano, which was located downtown at the time.
“I just interacted with him when he stopped by the bank to say hello to staff,” Gilmer said. “It’s not common, but it was him.”
As for the movie, Gilmer recalls one particular scene fondly.
“I stood right next to him and Billy Bob Thornton and Bridget Fonda at the funeral service,” Gilmer said. “I thought, ‘My gosh, I’m going to have a good scene here.’ My right ear was in the final film, I think.”
Christopher Gallus was not only in a scene with Paxton, but he said two words to him when Paxton’s character asked what he and his friend were doing and if he could join them.
“My part was to say, ‘sledding,’ and ‘no,’” Gallus said.
That did not sit well with the 5-year-old who had been asked to be in the movie after watching it being filmed from Coast to Coast, where his mother, Bev Gallus, worked.
“I thought saying no was being mean,” Gallus said. “Bill came into my mom’s work and assured me I was just doing my part and there were no hard feelings.”
That meant a lot to Gallus.
“For him to come up and say that to my face, it made a huge difference to me that for someone like that to take time out of the day and say, ‘You’re just doing your part; don’t worry about it,’” Gallus said.
He doesn’t remember much else about Paxton, but he is reminded of his role in “A Simple Plan,” on a regular basis, when he receivese residuals.
“For the two words I said, I got paid $630. Now, I get $1 to $2 every once in a while,” Gallus said. “It’s still cool to see the checks coming in from the movie.”
He was sad to see the news of Paxton’s passing.
“When I saw on Facebook he had passed, I was shocked,” Gallus said. “He was a great actor. It sucks.”
Paxton also had a penchant for being behind the camera, a passion he shared with local photographer Joe McDonald.
“One of the opening scenes Bill was in, he walked right past the studio,” McDonald said. “He’d come in to warm up and check his hair and makeup. He was a fan of photography. He’d ask about my portraits and talk about composition and exposure. We had that connection of photography. It was fun to talk about that.”
McDonald pointed out that Paxton’s performance in “A Simple Plan” came on the heels of his role in a highly successful film.
“At that point, ‘Titanic’ was up for several nominations for Academy Awards. It was the film of the year,” McDonald said. “When you have a star from ‘Titanic’ come in to visit about photography and Hollywood, it’s pretty exciting and cool.”
In addition to his role as a hearse driver, McDonald found himself behind his camera taking numerous photos of everything related to the movie, including photos of locals and extras with Paxton. But, there was one photo he didn’t get.
“My wife (girlfriend at the time) asked to get a photo with him. I shot the photo and later realized I didn’t have any film in the camera,” McDonald said.
He needed to make it right, but he was nervous to approach Paxton about it. When he helped arrange Paxton and Fonda for a wedding photo, he told Paxton he was in hot water for not getting the photo, but he didn’t think he’d get another chance.
“A couple days later, he came back to the studio,” McDonald said. “I was nowhere to be found . . . She never got her photo. I had a ‘Titanic’ book. She asked him, ‘While you’re here, will you autograph this book?’, which he did.”
McDonald wasn’t the only one to make a film faux pas, as a fight scene between Paxton and Thornton that was filmed in front of Rieder Meat Market was lost after being flown to California for processing.
“A week later, they had to recreate the scene and shoot for a half day for a 10-second scene,” McDonald said. “What was cool was, because they had to reshoot it, it garnered a lot of attention in town. Townspeople had missed it the first time. Many people got a photo with Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton because of that scene.”
John Jaunich, who was Delano’s mayor at the time and was an extra in the theater version of the film, said that wasn’t the only thing that went wrong.
“We had very little, if any, snow,” Jaunich said. “When crews came to town, they had to create false snow on the main road.”
There was another hurdle to clear before the crews even arrived in Delano.
“I know there was a little controversy because some people who read the book thought having it shot in Delano, because it’s negative and depressing, would be negative on the town,” said Bartels, who was on the Delano City Council at the time. “I thought it was a nice little thing. It was a little bit of revenue and good publicity for the city.”
Pluses for the city included renovation of the upstairs of what is now the Delano-Franklin Township Area Historical Society, which was used as the sheriff’s office, not to mention the revenue the cast and crew brought into the community. A visible souvenir remains: the sign from the fictional Tippy’s Town Tavern moved over one building and is the sign for Dave’s Town Club.
Paxton’s passing reminded Jaunich of when the movie was filmed.
“My mind went back to 1998, when all those people were in town and took over the town with their equipment, and apparatuses, and all the movie stars,” Jaunich said.
He was very surprised to hear Paxton had passed.
“I was very sad by that because, first of all, it was very shocking,” Jaunich said. “He was only 61.”
Jaunich remembers having personal conversations with Paxton, and he also remembers Paxton and others helping to raise money for Sam Peterson, a high school student who had cancer and died.
“We had T-shirts printed and auctioned them off,” Jaunich said. “All the main cast members signed the shirts. I still have one of them.”
It serves as a reminder of Paxton and what he meant to so many people in the community.
“Everyone felt he was a personal guy,” Jaunich said. “He went out of his way to talk to people and find out who they were and what they were about.”