June 11, 2007 12:00 PM

Recognize this guy? Bill Paxton doesn’t expect you to. “I’ve always disappeared into roles,” says the actor, 52, whose juiciest characters include a polygamist in HBO’s Big Love (returning June 10), a tornado chaser in Twister and a treasure hunter in Titanic. Here are 10 things you should know about him:

1. He actually admires his Big Love character.

Though married to one wife, Louise, 41, a homemaker, for 20 years, Paxton won’t judge the devoutly religious polygamist he plays. “He has a strong moral code—he’s not sneaking around,” says Paxton. “[He and his three wives] are adults who’ve entered into a contract and all that entails: camaraderie, pettiness, joy, anxiety. They’re on a spiritual quest.”

2. Tom Hanks is his buddy.

The two kept in touch after costarring in Apollo 13, and now Hanks is an executive producer of Big Love. “We write each other letters,” says Paxton. “I love that I’m working for Tom again. [Apollo 13] forged an alliance.”

3. He’s always loved women.

“When I was a kid, I’d play with a group of girls at All Saints’ Episcopal School,” he says. “I never had a problem doing girly things, like playing tag.”

4. Art is a big part of life. Really big.

His Ventura County home is filled with huge oil paintings of California streets and Buster Keaton portraits. The kitchen alone is a museum of crafts by his kids, James, 13, and Lydia, 9. For Paxton’s May 17 birthday, the whole family added to his gallery. “My wife drew a setting of [the park] where we first met, my daughter did a collage of her hand,” he says. “And my son drew a jaguar that said, ‘You’re still the king of the jungle.'”

5. He built a tree house for his children.

Teaming up with a welder and a few carpenters, Paxton followed his “crazy plan” for a 14-ft.-high leafy hideaway (including a pulley system to bring up loot) for James, Lydia—and, sometimes, Dad. “It’s a wonderful place to meditate,” he says.

6. His parents taught him how to party.

His father, John, 86, a retired lumber salesman turned actor, and his mother, Mary Lou, 81, a homemaker, would send Paxton and his siblings with a nanny to a nearby motel whenever they threw festive bashes at their house in Fort Worth. Says Paxton: “My earliest memory of my mother is in a ball gown. I could smell the perfume, cigarettes and wine. It was this ambrosia kind of smell.”

7. The man can decorate.

“I know a lot about periods of furniture, drapery and wallpaper,” says Paxton. “My dad was into architecture. He took me to art exhibits and furniture factories—not football and basketball games.”

8. He paid his dues.

Before acting success, his odd jobs include modeling for a mannequin mold, set dressing on B-movies like 1981’s Galaxy of Terror—and stuffing Jane Fonda workout tapes into envelopes.

9. His dad played the butler in all three Spider-Man films.

When his father, John, decided to attend acting school, “I said, ‘Don’t do this to yourself,'” Paxton jokes. But at the Spider-Man 3 premiere, Paxton admits, “I got teary-eyed. It’s given my father a new lease on life.”

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