Even after 25 years in the movie business, and despite his fair share of flops, Bruce Willis still has the power to surprise
Published 31/03/2013 | 05:00
Bruce Willis reminds me of one of those heads carved into the side of Mount Rushmore: his face has been around for so long that everyone takes it for granted. Since breaking into the big time with Die Hard in 1988, he's appeared in 70-odd films of bafflingly uneven tone and quality.
He tends to be dismissed as a mere action star, but that's not entirely fair, because while Willis has appeared in more than his fair share of dumb thrillers, he's a much better actor that people give him credit for. His track record over the last 18 months or so perfectly illustrates how difficult a star he is to pigeonhole.
Earlier this year he starred in A Good Day to Die Hard, a loud, crass and thoroughly disappointing sequel, and that's not the worst film Bruce has done in recent times.
He looked vaguely embarrassed during his brief appearance in Sylvester Stallone's tacky war film Expendables 2, might have wished he had not said yes to the truly awful crime caper Fire with Fire, and is on even dodgier ground in his latest film, G.I. Joe: Retaliation.
Watching G.I. Joe: Retaliation, a mindless and nonsensical big budget action film based on a popular children's action figure, one might be tempted to conclude that Bruce has given up the ghost in terms of his acting career and is simply coining in the money while he still can.
But every now and then he surprises you, and reminds you just how instinctive and effective a screen actor he really is. He brought a quiet authority to his portrayal of a futuristic contract killer in Rian Johnson's excellent 2012 sci-fi thriller Looper, was excellent as a professional gambler in Stephen Frears' drama Lay the Favorite (2012) and gave his best performance in some years playing a police captain in Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom (also 2012).
On his day Willis can hold his own with anyone, and although he's now 58, he recently said he hopes his best work may be ahead of him. While 1980s action contemporaries like Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger have attempted comebacks, Bruce has never really gone away, and despite the odd slump has remained a bona fide A-list star for over 25 years.
Not bad for a man who made his name in television and almost gave up acting before he got his first break.
Although a staunch patriot, Willis was not born in America. Walter Bruce Willis was born in Germany on March 19, 1955, in a small town in the Rhineland where his soldier father was stationed.
In 1957 the Willis family relocated to Carney's Point, New Jersey, and Bruce was raised in a solid blue collar neighbourhood. As a boy he suffered badly with a stammer, until he turned to acting.
"I had a terrible stutter," he recently told GQ. "But then I did some theatre somewhere, probably in high school. And when I memorised words, I didn't stutter, which was just miraculous."
Bruce became an enthusiastic member of his high school drama club, but didn't initially consider acting as a career when he graduated. Instead he worked as a security guard, tended bar, even dabbled in private investigation.
But in the mid-1970s he returned to acting, briefly studying drama at Montclair State University before moving to New York to become a Broadway star – or so he hoped.
Willis was 22 when he landed his first professional acting role in an off-Broadway play called Heaven and Earth, and that led to regular work. He spent four years playing the lead in Dennis Watlington's play Bullpen, but it was while tending bar in lower Manhattan that he was spotted by a Hollywood executive.
He moved to Los Angeles in 1984 after scoring a string of TV auditions. He made walk-on appearances in shows like Miami Vice and The Twilight Zone, and in 1985 was asked to read for a new comic drama being devised by Glenn Gordon Caron.
Apparently more than 3,000 actors auditioned for the role of David Addison in Moonlighting, but the inexperienced Willis won out. The show, which co-starred Cybil Shepherd, was a huge hit and ran for five seasons. And fairly early into its run, Bruce began getting film offers.
He made his big screen debut opposite Kim Basinger in Blake Edwards' romantic comedy Blind Date in 1987. It was so bad it could have ended Bruce's movie career before it began, but then Die Hard came along. Based on a 1970s pulp thriller by Roderick Thorp, the idea for Die Hard had been knocking around for years and had originally been intended as a vehicle for Frank Sinatra.
Willis only got the part after Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Burt Reynolds, Mel Gibson, Harrison Ford and Richard Gere had turned it down. And although he had next to no movie experience, Bruce used the high profile that Moonlighting had given him to negotiate a whopping $5m fee.
With its pithy script and impressive action sequences, Die Hard was the perfect vehicle for Willis's talents, and he was excellent as the wisecracking, indomitable John McClane. Die Hard was one of the biggest films of 1988, and all of a sudden, Bruce was a movie star.
In the late 1980s he and his new wife Demi Moore became one of Hollywood's hottest couples, and for a time nothing seemed beyond Bruce's grasp. He even branched out into pop music, scoring several hit singles in Britain and the US.
He didn't always choose wisely when it came to scripts, however. Although the 1990 sequel Die Hard 2 proved even more popular than its predecessor, Willis's film career was stalled in the early 1990s by a string of flops that included Bonfire of the Vanities, Hudson Hawk and The Last Boy Scout. To add insult to injury, he also began going bald.
He responded to all this adversity with typical aplomb. "Hair loss," he announced, "is God's way of telling me I'm human", and his shaven head would later become a trademark. And in the mid to late-1990s he revived his screen career with a series of fine films.
Willis took real risks in films like Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys and M Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense, but also revealed hidden depths in smaller projects like Robert Benton's Nobody's Fool.
The 2000s were a mixed bag for Willis, but he did turn up in Robert Rodriguez's groundbreaking 2005 thriller Sin City, a sequel to which is in the works, and in the odd clever action movie, such as 16 Blocks.
At his best, Willis has a simple intensity and easy charm that recalls the charisma of his great acting heroes Gary Cooper and John Wayne. He has a natural touch for comedy, as he proved in his excellent cameos in the TV show Friends.
After a relatively inactive few years between 2008 and 2010 he's now busier than ever, and as usual is interspersing roles in witless action films with work of real quality.
He's just had his fourth child with new wife Emma Heming, an underwear model 25 years his junior, seems a very sprightly 58 and why wouldn't he? Bruce has dismissed any idea of retiring from films, and has even hinted that he'll make a sixth and last Die Hard movie.
"At the moment I can run and I can fight on screen. But there will come a time when I no longer want to do that." Let's hope that's no time soon.