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Dr. Demento remembers versatile actor Bill Paxton, the director of Barnes & Barnes’ music video for “Fish Heads”
We were saddened to learn of the death of versatile actor Bill Paxton, at age 61, after suffering a fatal stroke eleven days after surgery to replace a heart valve and repair damage to his aorta. Night Flight reached out to Barret Hansen, a.k.a. Dr. Demento, who recalled for us the day he spent with Paxton back in 1980 when they were both involved in filming of the Barnes & Barnes short film/video for “Fish Heads,” a cult classic which aired on “Night Flight” several times during the 1980s.
Robert Haimer of Barnes & Barnes with Bill Paxton (right)
The novelty song “Fish Heads” was recorded in 1978 by Barnes & Barnes, a comedy rock duo comprised of fictional twin brothers Art Barnes and Artie Barnes, who are based in “Lumania,” a fictional mythological civilization (similar to Lemuria or Atlantis).
The song and their creators are both beloved by fans of “The Dr. Demento Radio Show.”
Dr. Demento as an enthusiastic bum in “Fish Heads”
We asked the good Doctor to tell us about it:
“I was very sad to hear about the sudden passing of Bill Paxton, way before his time. I spent a day with Bill back in 1980 making the ‘Fish Heads’ short film/video with Barnes & Barnes. This was years before Titanic, Apollo 13 or any of the innumerable major studio films and TV shows that let the world see his talents and consummate professionalism.”
“In the prologue to the ‘Fish Heads’ song, Bill’s character buys a large fish head from a seafood store. As he’s unwrapping it on a nearby loading dock, he encounters a homeless person (me) who gazes at it in wonder, leading into the song (which went on to be the most requested song in the entire history of ‘The Dr. Demento Show’).”
“I never got to know Bill well, but the memories I have are very good ones. I’m no actor, and the prologue was shot on the fly, but Bill was sympathetic and got something worthwhile out of me. It was a micro-budget production based on a novelty song, but people still enjoy it some 37 years later, largely on account of Bill’s talents, energy and resourcefulness.”
Bill Paxton in “Fish Heads”
The total cost of the video — shot on Super 8 with a hand-cranked Bolex camera — is reported to have been about $2000, mostly in film processing charges.
Paxton also made appearances in several of Barnes & Barnes’ videos, including “Fish Heads.”
Check out “Love Tap,” and “Soak It Up,” both directed by music video director Rocky Schenck (the latter featuring an homage to the Salvador Dalí‘s sequence from Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound), and Paxton also makes a highly-disturbing and funny little cameo in their music video for “Ah A.”
Barnes & Barnes are played by actor/musician Bill Mumy (as “Art Barnes” – Mumy is also known for his work on mostly sci-fi TV shows like ” Lost in Space” and “Babylon 5,” as well as memorable episodes of “The Twilight Zone”) and Robert Haimer (as “Artie Barnes”), a musician, singer and songwriter who originally became friends with Mumy in 1965, at his school’s Halloween carnival day.
They formed Barnes & Barnes in 1970 — the surname “Barnes” comes from a Bill Cosby comedy routine (“Revenge”) in which a character named Junior Barnes throws a snowball at Cosby as a child — and began recording novelty recordings with a two-track tape recorder, which they originally never meant to share with anyone else.
Billy Mumy, Dr. Demento and Weird Al Yankovic
They were huge fans of Dr. Demento’s radio show, however, and after they re-did a couple of their best songs on a 4-track TEAC recorder (“Fish Heads” and “Boogie Woogie Amputee”) and then pressed them up as a single on their own Lumania Records in 1979, they sent the recordings to Dr. Demento, who played them on his show and made them famous.
Subsequent Barnes & Barnes releases came out on Rhino Records, beginning with Voobaha in 1980.
Bill Paxton in Barnes & Barnes’ “Love Tap”
Paxton became an integral part of the Barnes & Barnes creative world in their early days, and in addition to directing the video for “Fish Heads,” he helped to get it seen by producers of TV’s “Saturday Night Live,” who then aired “Fish Heads” on “SNL” for two weeks in a row back in 1980.
In 2010, Paxton told journalist Will Harris that he’d met Billy Mumy through his friend, actress Janit Baldwin, who was friends with actress Sissy Spacek (Baldwin and Spacek were both in a 70s movie called Prime Cut, which starred Lee Marvin and Gene Hackman).
Barnes & Barnes
Paxton had moved to Los Angeles — he born and raised in Fort Worth, Texas — and met Billy Mumy at a party in the late 70s, through Baldwin and her friendship with Sissy Spacek, who threw the party along with her husband, film production designer, art director and film director Jack Fisk, whom she married in 1974.
Mumy was at the party too, and Paxton excitedly told him that he was a fan of their music and asked if he could direct a music video for it, because, in addition to acting, he’d also been making short films.
Bill Paxton in Barnes & Barnes’ “Soak It Up”
As Paxton remembered it, they got together in the summer of 1980 and shot the film, and Paxton then took it to New York City, where he had a very “Rupert Pupkin”-esque experience, going to the offices of “Saturday Night Live” and then waiting in their waiting room at Rockefeller Center for two days before anybody would even see him.
Eventually, they did agree to take a look at the 3/4-inch video tape that the Super-8 film had been transferred to, and Paxton recalled that they came back about five minutes after he’d given them the tape, saying, in Paxton’s own words, “Come on back, we want to put it on next week’s show.”
Paxton — who flew back to L.A. — watched “Fish Heads” being broadcast on December 6, 1980, introduced by Joe Piscopo, while hanging out in a hotel room at the so-called “Riot House” (the Hyatt) on the Sunset Strip.
Haimer and Mumy in Derailroaded
Haimer — both he and Mumy were featured in Derailroaded, which we told you about here — says his wife, Eileen, ended up hiring Paxton to do odd jobs in Los Angeles, while he was still auditioning for acting jobs, and recalled yesterday on Facebook that Paxton was working as a paperboy and he later made a short film, Scoop, about some of those experiences.
“He was always enthusiastic and ready to go. He was limitless. We made four Barnes & Barnes films with Billy and he was always fearless and brilliant. A sweet, funny, talented actor who loved the Golden Age of showbiz and especially Buster Keaton. Although our relationship had become one of Christmas card exchanges and an occasional phone chat, Billy was family. Our deepest condolences and love to Louise, James & Lydia. We are utterly shattered by this.”
Here’s the official statement released by the Paxton family representative:
“It is with heavy hearts we share the news that Bill Paxton has passed away due to complications from surgery. A loving husband and father, Bill began his career in Hollywood working on films in the art department and went on to have an illustrious career spanning four decades as a beloved and prolific actor and filmmaker. Bill’s passion for the arts was felt by all who knew him, and his warmth and tireless energy were undeniable. We ask to please respect the family’s wish for privacy as they mourn the loss of their adored husband and father.”