If there is one actor who has proved that he is never, ever – at any point in the near future at least – going to just…go away, it’s Bruce Willis. The fifty-seven year old’s acting career hasn’t even lasted thirty years but the guy has accumulated a whopping sixty-something credits within a diverse range of genres on both the big and small screen. He’s excelled in dramas and proved time and time again that he has perfect comedic timing. He’s fluctuated between leading and supporting roles and has become the exemplary model for the present day action hero. He’s progressively aged from his breakout in the mid-1980s and has fully embraced the ‘aging badass’ role that has alluded so many other actors in the past and present. He’s worked with a plethora of famed directors like John McTiernan, Quentin Tarantino, M. Night Shyamalan, Tony Scott, Terry Gilliam, Robert Rodriguez, Rian Johnson, and Wes Anderson, and he’s found massive critical acclaim and awards recognition for his numerous credits. And yet, despite his regular reliability and his resilience to be forever typecasted, he’s unfortunately managed to allude Academy recognition, he was never approached to play a role that seemed to be tailor made for him even though it was created years before he was born (Captain America), and I bet you didn’t know that his first name was actually Walter. Bruce Willis is an impressive performer who has always been a member of the A-list and it usually takes a person a few minutes to realize just how talented the man is. With the fifth installment of his twenty-five year old Die Hard franchise hitting theaters today, there’s no better time to review the history of the continually impressive Bruce Willis.
Born in Germany, 1955 to an Army-enlisted father and a German mother, Walter Bruce Willis was raised in Carneys Point, New Jersey after his father was discharged from the Army two years later. Living amidst and being raised by “a long line of blue collar people,” Willis attended Penns Grove High School and fought a King’s Speech like stutter that earned him the nickname ‘Buck-Buck’ among his peers. He soon learned that the best place to truly express himself happened to be the same place where his stutter was least frequent: The stage. His high school career was marked by numerous stage performances and a leadership role as student council president. Odd jobs followed graduation – security guard at a nuclear power plant and a private investigator – before Bruce leaned back toward the direction of acting. Enrolling in the drama program at Montclair State University led to a ballsy move to New York City where work as a bartender led to steady self-support and off-Broadway stage productions gave Willis sufficient training and performance experience before an audition for a new sitcom, entitled Moonlighting, presented itself.
ABC’s Moonlighting ran a total of five seasons with nearly 70 full-length episodes and proved to be the first successful combination of comedy and drama (and transitively romance), introducing the contemporary dramedy subgenre of television. Willis and co-star Cybil Shepherd played romancing private detectives, a role made easier for breakout Willis after his own experience as a private detective only a few years before. During the height of the show’s popularity, Seagram’s hired Willis to be their pitchman for their Golden Wine Cooler products, making him a multimillionaire for a two-year contract. He decided not to renew the contract when the time came because he vowed to stop drinking alcohol in 1988. The 80s continued to be very nice to the up-and-coming Willis; Blake Edwards’ Blind Date signified Willis’ feature film debut and Edwards had Willis work with him again on Sunset, but it was in 1988 that Willis catapulted himself into full fledged A-list stardom with John McTiernan’s against type casting of him as New York police officer, John McClane, in the multi million dollar action hit, Die Hard. The ingenious actioner pits McClane against international terrorist thieves in a busy highrise in downtown Los Angeles. Willis gave personality to an archetype and deflated the original tough guy image – popularly illustrated by iron pumpers like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone – down to the everyman (which has been adopted by today’s standards with built yet averagely sized, slightly superhuman action leads like Jason Statham, Liam Neeson, and Tom Cruise). With a resonating personality, a ring of sarcastic wit, and that famous smirk pasted on his face, Willis owned Die Hard and immortalized the character of John McClane into cinema history. A supporting role in the drama In Country continued his headfirst dive into motion pictures and his inspired voice casting in familial comedies Look Who’s Talking and Look Who’s Talking Too made him recognizable audibly as well as physically.
The 1990s began with box office failure after box office failure – The Bonfire of the Vanities, Striking Distance, and Hudson Hawk, which Willis co-wrote – but Willis’ work never became inconsistent. What mainly kept the star’s head above water was the massive success of Renny Harlin’s sequel, Die Hard 2: Die Harder. Though not nearly as groundbreaking (or good, for that matter) as its predecessor, it was a stepping stone nonetheless that secured Willis’ stability as an action star and paved the way for the phenomenal third chapter, Die Hard: With a Vengeance. Luckily for Willis, he never became known as only John McClane and continued to branch out as the mid-90s neared. A little independent picture by the name of Pulp Fiction from the mind of Sundance/Cannes breakout, Quentin Tarantino, co-starred Willis amidst its long list of ensemble cast members and spotlighted the actor in the film’s most unusual, and most disturbing, story segment. As the lethal boxer, Butch Coolidge, Willis provided his charismatic charm to the selfish backstabber who defied the mob and put money on himself so he could live a life of luxury outside of the United States with his French girlfriend. Unfortunately, a personal item is forgotten at his apartment and he finds himself in a frightening situation alongside the very mobster that wants him dead. The major success of the film put him back on the map and its cult status, combined with the successes of both 1998 and 1999, allowed misfires like The Jackal, Mercury Rising, Breakfast of Champions, and Last Man Standing to kind of fade into the background. Michael Bay’s melodramatic, yet highly enjoyable ensemble disaster film, Armageddon, achieved worldwide commercial success and M. Night Shyamalan’s breakout mystery-thriller, The Sixth Sense, featured Willis in his finest dramatic role to date. As the troubled child psychologist, Malcolm Crowe, Willis is completely toned down and gives a strong, professional, and deeply emotional performance – especially when the film reaches its jaw-dropping climax (that is now world-renowned as one of the best twists in movie history). Personal favorites like Twelve Monkeys and The Fifth Element also debuted in the mid to late 1990s and have resurfaced countless times in recent years.
Willis decided to open up the 21st Century with comedy starring in The Whole Nine Yards and appearing on Friends as a guest star. Though The Whole Nine Yards has unfairly been forgotten, it was evidence that Willis’ comedic charm had not dwindled, and his appearance on Friends earned him his second Emmy (following a win for Moonlighting in 1987). By this point Willis was pretty untouchable and has remained as so throughout the past decade. For every hit, there’s a disappointment or straight up failure: The Kid and Shyamalan’s excellent sophomore effort, Unbreakable, were followed by Bandits and Hart’s War; the underwhelming sequel The Whole Ten Yards and tasteless thriller Hostage were sandwiched in-between Antoine Fuqua’s brutal war picture, Tears of the Sun, and Robert Rodriguez’s opus (and one of my Top 10 favorite films of all time) Sin City; the long-delayed Alpha Dog, Richard Donner’s so-so 16 Blocks, and the cringingly bad erotic murder mystery Perfect Stranger were foiled by the Tarantino-esque Lucky Number Slevin, the riotous animated film Over the Hedge, and Planet Terror, Robert Rodriguez’s half of the love letter to B-movie filmmaking, Grindhouse. In 2007, over ten years since the supposed final installment of the Die Hard franchise, John McClane came out of retirement to save New York City (and, I guess, the world) in the abysmal Live Free or Die Hard. Opposite Justin Long and Timothy Olyphant, Live Free or Die Hard’s reception was surprisingly positive (not from me!) and its box office take ensured that this would not be the last time we see John McClane.
The sinuous trend continued into the late 2000s and into very recent years with What Just Happened, Surrogates, and Kevin Smith’s Cop Out (from which Smith has multiple horror stories detailing what shooting a Bruce Willis film feels like) juxtaposed with Red, testosterone overloads The Expendables and it’s sequel, and Moonrise Kingdom. The latter, a Wes Anderson gem, starred Willis in his most unusual role to date. He wowed critics and viewers as he stepped in Anderson’s quirky, heavily nuanced world and didn’t miss a beat. In my opinion, it’s some of his finest work since The Sixth Sense and probably his most against type casting since he led the original Die Hard. In the fall of 2012, he starred in Rian Johnson’s phenomenal Looper as an older version of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s time-warping assassin, Joe. While I’m not trying to knock Willis for any of his previous roles, it was refreshing to see Willis in something as intellectually stimulating as Looper, and again he absolutely nailed the performance. On the horizon, he has mostly sequels in the works or nearing release including G.I. Joe: Retaliation, which was delayed from this past summer (apparently to add more Channing Tatum), Red 2, and the long-awaiting Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. He also has the video game adaptation, Kane & Lynch, co-starring Jamie Foxx, which has recently moved into pre-production.
As I’ve said, Bruce Willis is consistently busy, churning out movie after movie, nicely interspersing smarter, heavier dramatic fare with actioners, comedies, and sequels (the catalyst for this article is A Good Day to Die Hard). As long as I’ve been conscious of film, way before I even began paying attention and truly studying film, Willis was one of the actors that I just…knew. He has always been around, active and available, positively reinforcing the armed forces – coming from his familial military background – making as little controversy as possible (outside of his ‘Walter_B’ positings on Ain’t It Cool News and his accidental slip of the famous Die Hard catchphrase during a TV Interview at a Nets game), and three complete musical solo albums. He has a star on the Walk of Fame and, in my mind, has the potential to one day be, at the very least, nominated for an Academy Award. He’s proved, time and time again, that he has the capability to be taken seriously and conquer serious material and I’m hoping that one day he’s viewed just as seriously and fairly rewarded for it by the Academy of his peers. With plenty of work on the way, even more beyond that, and many great works to look back on, Bruce Willis is a defining actor of the present generation and doesn’t seem to be leaving us any time soon.
Article by Mike Murphy