'Twister' at 25: Looking Back at Bill Paxton's Leading Role in Tornado Thriller (Flashback)

The late actor gave ET an on-set tour of the 1996 blockbuster.

Bill Paxton had the time of his life behind the scenes of Twister. The late actor gave ET a tour of the film’s destruction sets, including the house that Paxton and Helen Hunt memorably drove through after the home got relocated by a tornado’s fury into the pathway of their truck. 

“I'm in a great mood,” Paxton told ET on the Oklahoma set in 1995. As he should have been. Up until that year, Paxton had been a reliable supporting actor (Aliens) and scene-stealer (True Lies) for a decade. But following his role in Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, a critical and box office hit, Universal Pictures handed Paxton his first leading role in a big-budget summer blockbuster. “A lot of dots are starting to connect after a long time.” 

Paxton was giddy as he played tour guide for ET, unabashedly showing his excitement at having to literally climb across the house’s inverted floor so he could seat himself in a sofa chair bolted down at a 45-degree angle. He likened the set to something out of The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari. The surroundings also inspired him to sing multiple verses from the Blood, Sweat and Tears hit "Spinning Wheel." What goes up, must come down…

“So much about tornadoes is almost surrealistic. They can do things that defy the laws of physics,” Paxton said. “It's almost like they've got this weird entity. They're not like other storms.”


Universal Pictures

It’s been 25 years since Twister applied the man vs. nature conflict on tornadoes, seemingly the first major film release to do so since The Wizard of Oz. Viewers met die-hard storm chasers Bill (Paxton) and Jo Harding (Hunt) on the verge of finalizing their divorce. But their romantic trajectory took a turn, with drive-in theater obliterations and the wrath of an F5 tornado becoming the backdrop of their reconciliation. The mission: find a tornado worthy enough for their group’s meteorological tech that promises key data for predicting the titular weather phenomena. The plot featured co-writer Michael Crichton’s signature of placing a spotlight on -- and creatively enhancing -- a burgeoning new field of technology. Arguably, Twister had its foot planted a little more in reality than say Jurassic Park or Congo

“Let's see if we can navigate these stairs,” Paxton said, looking upon the house’s busted-up staircase that would have sent the studio’s insurance agents into a panic had they been present. Paxton joked, “This is gonna be on ‘Twister: The Ride.’ While the people are waiting in line, they'll have to walk up steps like this.” It was an unknowing moment of clairvoyance. Twister...Ride It Out premiered at Universal Studios Florida in 1998, with Paxton starring in the attraction's intro video. (The ride ran for nearly two decades before it was replaced by Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon in 2017.) 

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“This movie is going to do for tornadoes, I think, what Jaws did for sharks,” Paxton surmised. The prediction wasn’t too outlandish considering Steven Spielberg’s company, Amblin, produced the movie. “It's going to make people a little intrepid when they see wall clouds.”  

Paxton never experienced tornadoes firsthand growing up in Fort Worth, Texas. Still, coming of age in “tornado alley” had instilled a healthy appreciation of their capacity for destruction. He noted how they had become a cultural trademark of the country’s midwest, calling tornadoes a “quintessentially American phenomenon.” 

Twister ended up grossing $495 million at the worldwide box office. It was a significant milestone for Paxton’s career, as one of the movie’s co-leads, even if that figure wound up paling in comparison to the returns from Titanic the following year, when he stepped back into a supporting role for longtime pal James Cameron

Upon his untimely death in 2017 at age 61, due to complications from surgery, the wave of tributes that poured in highlighted the impressive filmography Paxton had left behind. In reaction to his passing, Hunt tweeted an image of her and Paxton from Twister. She wrote, "He made this movie great -- he acted his heart out. What a talented man.”

Watch how Amanda Seyfried remembered her Big Love co-star in the video below. 



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