When I talked to Billy Mumy in 2015 in conjunction with the Blu-ray release of Lost in Space: The Complete Series, the topic of conversation was squarely on the show, as well it should’ve been, given that that’s why we’d gotten on the phone in the first place. Before hopping off the line, however, I had to at least make brief mention of the fact that he actually featured as one of the characters in one of my favorite stories that I’ve ever gotten as a pop culture journalist.
The storyteller? Bill Paxton.
It was during a 2010 conversation with Paxton for Bullz-Eye tied to HBO’s Big Love, but having become aware that he’d been a part of the video for Barnes & Barnes’ classic track, “Fish Heads” (for those who know the video, he’s the one who’s throwing the party), I couldn’t resist noting that my daughter Ally – now 11 years old – had recently become aware of the song and had fallen in love with it. When I brought it up, it was literally intended as a closing line, since we’d been talking for about an hour. Instead, I got one last anecdote…and it was worth waiting for.
Bullz-Eye: Oh, and I do just have to tell you in closing that my daughter is four years old, and she won’t stop singing “Fish Heads.” So, uh, thank you, I guess…?
Bill Paxton: Oh, she’s going to be a handful.
BE: She already is.
BP: God, that’s so funny: we were just talking about “Fish Heads.” It came up in something we were…I think SNL is putting together a show of their greatest short films, and it was included in that. It’s funny, because…how old are you?
BE: I’m 39.
BP: Oh, okay, so it was a little before your time, but Billy Mumy was the guy who wrote that song with his partner, Robert Haimer, and Bill Mumy, when I was a kid growing up, was on a huge hit series called Lost in Space, with June Lockhart.
BP: And he also had appeared in a couple of Twilight Zone episodes, which made him uber cool. I got to meet him through Sissy (Spacek), and…okay, I’ll give you this last anecdote. Sissy’s best friend when she moved to Hollywood with Jack was a gal named Janit Baldwin. Janit was an actress, and she and Sissy had co-starred in a movie with Lee Marvin and Gene Hackman called Prime Cut. You’ve got to dig that one out. It was about the meat packing business in the Midwest and white slavery. I mean, who would have figured? And so I got out here, I got to know Jack and Sissy, and they introduced me to Janit…and that’s how I met Billy. And him and his partner were writing these novelty songs, Dr. Demento had given them huge airplay, and they talked about making a video for that. This was back around ’79 or ’80. And I said, “God, would you give me a chance to make it?” Because I had been making short films. And so he let me do that, and that summer, I kind of put that whole thing together. Ultimately, I took it to New York, and I literally had to wait in the waiting room at Rockefeller Center for two days before anybody would even see me. And then finally they came out to take the ¾ inch tape, one of those big honking fucking things, and I started to get up with them to walk in the back, and they said, “Uh, no, you stay here.” [Laughs.] I was like Rupert Pupkin!
And then, God, they must have put it in the machine right away, and obviously they played it, because they came out five minutes later and said, “Come on back, we want to put it on next week’s show.” And I’m suddenly in like Flynn. The next week, I was back in L.A., and I got together with a bunch of friends and all of this, and we were going to watch it live. We had a hotel room…well, somebody had a hotel room at the old Hyatt Riot House…up on Sunset, and we watched it, and that night when I went to bed, I thought, “Oh, my God, that thing…” I mean, I had plugged into the main cable for five minutes. That thing was shot out to Canada and Hawaii and across the United States and Alaska. And I thought, “My God, maybe next year I can make another one of those!” [Laughs.] It’s funny how you build your career. But it’s all been kind of a journey of innocence in some ways for me. And naïveté.
BE: From Barnes and Barnes to Big Love.
BP: There it is. We’ve covered the gamut, Will!
RIP, Mr. Paxton. Innocent and naive though it might’ve been, you had a hell of a journey.