The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A young Bill Paxton wanted to see the president. He did — hours before John F. Kennedy was shot.

Long before his movie star days, Bill Paxton was a schoolboy in Fort Worth jostling over a telescope one November evening with his older brother. It was late on a school night in 1963, and they were trying to get a better look at cars that had lined up outside for a momentous occasion: President John F. Kennedy’s arrival in their home town.

Paxton could not know then that his childhood was about to intersect with one of the most significant days in U.S. history.

Perhaps sensing their excitement that night, Paxton’s father told his young sons — Bill and Bob, then ages 8 and 11 — to hop in his Oldsmobile.

“C’mon, we’re going to go see the motorcade go by,” Bill Paxton recounted in 2013 to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “Just grab a robe and jump in the car.”

They drove a few minutes away to an intersection near Carswell Air Force Base, where the president and first lady had touched down in Air Force One. There, they watched the presidential motorcade pass by, an encounter Paxton would be able to vividly recall, down to the exact street names, 50 years later.

Their excitement spilled over into the next morning — Nov. 22, 1963 — when Paxton’s older brother begged their father to drive them to the Hotel Texas, where Kennedy had stayed overnight.

“You promised to take us to see President Kennedy,” Paxton remembered his brother saying, adding it had been drizzling rain that morning. “[My dad] thought it might be a bit of a hassle … but my brother used the two words you never want [to hear], you know: ‘You promised!’ ”

And so, back in the car they went, driving until they found a parking spot about six blocks away from the hotel, Paxton remembered. Their family soon merged with a crowd of 4,000 to 5,000 people, who buzzed as they waited for Kennedy to emerge. Decades later, Paxton told the Dallas Observer that a man they had just met had hoisted him upon his shoulders for a better view.

Finally, at 8:45 a.m., the president appeared — and a young Paxton was in awe.

“It was amazing to see President Kennedy because, God, I had mostly seen him on television in black and white, and there he was in living color,” he told the Star-Telegram. “And I couldn’t believe how red his hair was.”

Kennedy was wearing a navy suit and was standing on a makeshift stage that Paxton would later learn was a flatbed truck with some bunting, a lectern and the presidential seal.

“He seemed in very good spirits,” Paxton remembered, according to the Star-Telegram. “He made a joke about Jackie not being there, but of course she took a little bit longer to get ready, but she looked a lot better.”

Paxton was too young, he said, to remember any of the speech itself, an impromptu address before a scheduled breakfast with the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce at the hotel.

“I remember just a really euphoric crowd,” he added.

On Sunday, images of a young Paxton waiting in the crowd for Kennedy would resurface on social media, amid news that the actor had died at age 61 of complications from surgery, according to a statement from a family representative.

In 1963, what Paxton wouldn’t realize until much later was that he was witnessing Kennedy giving his final public speech. Hours later, the 35th president of the United States would be assassinated in public view as his motorcade passed through the streets of Dallas.

Paxton said he found out about Kennedy’s death as he was coming in from the playground at recess at St. Alice, a Catholic school.

“We came back in — this was one of those old cinder-block, one-story grade schools, with a central hallway and classes on both sides — and we were told to put our heads on our desks,” Paxton told Texas Monthly in 2007. “The radio was on, and the nuns were all crying. Then it was announced that he had died in Dallas. I couldn’t believe it. I’d seen him alive!”

Paxton would go on to have a long acting career, appearing in films such as “The Terminator,” “Apollo 13″ and “Titanic.”

Actor Bill Paxton, known for his roles in movies like “Aliens,” “Apollo 13” and “Titanic,” died at the age of 61 from complications due to surgery. (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

For decades, Paxton could retell his story of being outside the Hotel Texas that fateful morning, but didn’t have photographic proof until 2007, when he went on a private tour of the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, according to the Dallas Observer. There, he reviewed footage shot by a KTVT-TV camera man, and sure enough, spotted himself in the crowd.

In the black-and-white images taken from that video, he is at least a head above the rest of the crowd — thanks to the kind stranger who had lifted him up — smiling toward the front in a white outfit. Around him, several women can be seen mid-clap.

Deborah Marine, a spokeswoman for the museum, told the Dallas Observer in 2007 that Paxton had been thrilled to find the pictures. There were two images of Paxton, she said: one where he was looking straight into the camera, which coincided with when Lyndon B. Johnson introduced Kennedy to the crowd, and another in which a “smiling, clapping Bill” watched Kennedy’s speech.

Paxton told Texas Monthly that visiting the museum and finding himself in those pictures made him “rediscover the whole event in a strange, personal way.”

“It made me realize that no one’s ever made a movie just about what happened,” he told the magazine. “There hasn’t been a movie that follows the characters and the way it all went down. A movie like JFK is beautifully made, but it’s about fringe characters. What angers me is that three out of four people believe it was a conspiracy, believe the government was somehow culpable. To me, the only culpability was that a lot of people were napping on the job that morning.”

Paxton bookended his involvement in that chapter in history by narrating the 2013 National Geographic documentary “JFK: The Final Hours.”

“I was eight years old that day, and I remember thinking it was like seeing a movie star,” Paxton said in promotional material for the documentary, according to Entertainment Weekly. “There stood a man at the peak of his life and his career, but little did he or any of us know that in three hours he would be murdered in cold blood.”

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