In a career that spans decades, Willis got his start doing theater in New York before getting his break on the TV show Moonlighting and then moving on to movies. At the age of 57, Willis seems to be busier than ever, carving out new franchises like The Expendables and RED (whose sequel, RED 2 opens later this year), while still appearing in smaller, art-house projects like last year's Moonrise Kingdom.
(1988, 131 minutes)
"Come out to the coast, we'll get together, have a few laughs!"
Moonlighting may have thrust Willis into the public eye, but Die Hard turned Willis into a movie star. Only his third big screen appearance (after 1987's Blind Date and 1988's Sunset), Die Hard became the perfect vehicle for Willis' humor and everyman quality as he played the relatable New York detective McClane, who flies out to Los Angeles to spend the holidays with his estranged wife and ends up having to save her and her co-workers from a group of European thieves posing as terrorists. The resulting movie is still considered one of the finest action movies ever made.
"The show [Moonlighting] had become popular by 1988, I think I'd already read the script for Die Hard once, but had to pass because of the show," Willis explained to EW in 2007. "As it turns out, a miracle happened — Cybill Shepherd got pregnant and they shut down the show for 11 weeks — just the right amount of time for me to run around over at Nakatomi Tower."
Willis was not the first choice to play McClane — Clint Eastwood, Richard Gere and Bury Reynolds were reportedly among the actors considered — but thankfully for Willis, and audiences, Willis was cast despite his inexperience. "The thing about the first film you have to understand is I was doing TV, I'd only been in L.A. for a couple of years, I was still really learning how to act, so most of what went into making John McClane from a character standpoint was the South Jersey Bruce Willis — that attitude and disrespect for authority, that gallows sense of humor, the reluctant hero. What I always say about John McClane is if he had the choice of someone else stepping up and doing what he had to do, he would let them do it."
Despite his inexperience, Willis was paid an alarming $5 million for the role, a salary that would become industry standard afterwards. "It was an enormous amount of money at the time," said Willis. "The day after I signed the deal, every actor in Hollywood's salary went up to $5 million."
As for the movie's catchphrase, Willis is not exactly sure who wrote it, but remembers that the line was the subject of much discussion. "I don't know if it was [Die Hard screenwriters] Jeb Stuart or Steven de Souza who wrote it. But we had a really adult conversation about what was the proper way to say it: Was it 'Yippee-ki-yay,' or 'Yippee-ti-yay'' I'm glad that I held on to 'Yippee-ki-yay.'"
(1991, 100 minutes)
"All I wanted was a cappuccino."
1991 wasn't a great year for Willis. After the blockbuster success of Die Hard 2 the previous year, Willis suffered a string of misfires, including Mortal Thoughts (co-starring then-wife Demi Moore), Billy Bathgate, The Last Boyscout and, worst of all, Hudson Hawk. Willis was no stranger to box office failure — after all, 1990 had ended with The Bonfire of the Vanities, a drama that co-starred Tom Hanks and Melanie Griffith. The movie was seen as such a massive failure that the behind-the-scenes drama was detailed in the 1991 book Devil's Candy: The Bonfire of the Vanities Goes to Hollywood by Julie Salamon (later re-released under the title The Devil's Candy: The Anatomy of a Hollywood Fiasco), which called out Willis' on-set ego as one of the movie's many problems.
Still, Hudson Hawk was solely built on Willis' star status and his ability to charm audiences with the sly smirk he had perfected on Moonlighting. Co-written by Steven E. de Souza, the co-screenwriter behind both Die Hard movies, Hudson Hawk again saw Willis as yet another sarcastic everyman caught in an impossible situation which also offered up a parody of the exact genre it was trying simultaneously emulate. Eventually nominated for multiple Golden Raspberry awards (most often referred to as "Razzies"), Willis' first major box office stumble was not his last, and the actor still stands by the movie.
"I still take pride in that film," Willis told The Huffington Post last year. "It was just a little outside the realm of what people [expected]. You know, some people come to the theater and they go, 'I only want to see him do this kind of film.' And that was, it was satire. We were trying to make each other laugh — make the actors laugh. We had a really funny cast, and a lot of people didn't get to see the film because the critics chose this picture to, you know, take the trash out on. Every once in a while the press wants to say, "Now we're just going to take this card out and throw down the ace of spades and say, 'We're not going to like this film.'"
Among critics, Hudson Hawk was not well-received, with a 22% approval rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes, yet the movie has been earning more favor over the years, with The A.V. Club recently claiming it a "must watch," adding: "Anyone can throw the hero out of an ambulance and have him barrel down the highway on a gurney, but it takes a cherishably warped sensibility to have him catch another driver’s discarded cigarette butt, take a puff, and then complain that it’s menthol."
(1999, 107 minutes)
"I see dead people."
The rest of the 90s was kinder to Willis, including the releases of hits like Pulp Fiction, 12 Monkeys, The Fifth Element and Die Hard With a Vengeance, but ended the decade with his most successful movie to date, The Sixth Sense. Earning $672 million worldwide, The Sixth Sense was a bigger hit than Armageddon, which had come out the previous year, and became a worldwide phenomenon, based on the movie's twist ending.
"When I read Sixth Sense, I was as fooled when I turned that
last page, that last couple, the last three pages of that script, I was blown away by the fact that my character was dead," Willis told Reader's Digest in 2002. "I didn’t see it coming. And that’s what made me want to do it. I went, 'If we can pull this off, it would be brilliant.' And no one thought we could. We didn’t think we could. We worked so hard every day on the arithmetic of how to fool the audience. And even when we were done, we still didn’t quite know whether or not we were going to be able to fool the audience."
And fool them they did. The Sixth Sense not only further cemented Willis' marketability as a movie star, but it catapulted the status of writer-director M. Night Shyamalan, whose only notable movie, up until that point, was 1998's Wide Awake. The two would reunite for 2000's Unbreakable as well.
"[Night] is — and I don’t use this word very often — a genius," Willis told Reader's Digest. "He’s a consummate
storyteller. He’s my favorite kind of film director: Great with actors. Loves working on those little tiny moments in a film."
(2012, 118 minutes)
"Do not play detective. This is not a book. This is not a movie."
Willis has remained steadily busy over the past 13 years, jumping from comedies like The Whole Nine Yards to comic book adaptations like 2005's Sin City to returning to his beloved Die Hard franchise with 2007's Live Free or Die Hard. In recent years, Willis has appeared in smaller fare to go along with sequels like G.I. Joe: Retaliation, including turns as a small-town police captain in Moonrise Kingdom and an aging, mafia hitman brought back in time to be killed by his younger self (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in Looper.
"It's better than anything I've ever done," Willis told Esquire last year. "[Writer-director] Rian [Johnson] did an amazing thing. He conceived an original story. He wrote it, sold it, stuck with it, directed it, and finished it. That's just tough to do in this town. Someone always weasels into the process. That didn't happen here. And if he never did anything else except that Herculean effort, he'd have made it in the business. Amazing. It's more than an original story. It's a story people are going to talk about, and see twice. And argue about."
Made on a $30 million budget, Looper went on to make $166 million worldwide and was critically beloved. Willis told The Huffington Post that his decision to take roles in Looper and Moonrise Kingdom was "just taking a shot" while working with directors he wanted to collaborate with.
I was just taking a shot. I wanted to work with Wes Anderson and I wanted to work on Looper and work with Rian Johnson. And that was about the acting work — my contribution is just that. I just had my own drive to work with these storytellers. Because telling a good story, on any level -- telling a good story in a bar, telling a good story on a film, telling a good story in a book, in an article — always remains a challenge, doesn't it? And even if you tell a great story, it's never a sure thing to know which films or which stories are going to get noticed. Or get more noticed than other stories do.
Willis' comment could just as well be about his entire career. Taking shots in various projects in various genres and hoping that maybe, just maybe, a good story will be told as a result.