Armed with good looks, an everyman appeal, and boundless self-confidence, actor Bruce Willis shot from obscurity to superstar status via both a hit television series and one of the most popular action-adventure films of all time. After beating out literally thousands of contenders, Willis’ portrayal of wisecracking P.I. David Addison on “Moonlighting” (ABC, 1985-89) made him one of television’s hottest leading men. It was, however, the character of indefatigable Det. John McClain in the blockbuster actioner “Die Hard” (1988) that solidified Willis as a legitimate action star – albeit one who ends up broken and bruised. There were periodic career slumps ahead, as evidenced by the colossal failures of “The Bonfire of the Vanities” (1990) and “Hudson Hawk” (1991). Still, as doggedly determined as McClane, Willis followed each low with stellar turns in successes like director Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” (1994). Working with cinema’s most commercially successful filmmakers, Willis helped deliver box office winners like director Michael Bay’s “Armageddon” (1998) and the landmark thriller, “The Sixth Sense” (1999). Despite the end of his 13-year marriage to actress Demi Moore, the actor channeled his sense of humor in the comedy “The Whole Nine Yards” (2000) to fine effect. More than 20 years after entering the limelight, Willis remained one of film’s most bankable stars in such hits as “Sin City” (2005), “Live Free or Die Hard” (2007) and “Red” (2010). Working constantly and playing to his strengths, the witty Willis enjoyed a career longevity that other action movie stars could only envy.
The eldest of four children, Walter Bruce Willis was born on March 19, 1955, in Idar-Oberstein, West Germany, where his father was a welder serving in the U.S. military. The family later moved to Penns Grove, NJ, where Willis spent the remainder of his childhood. Nicknaming himself ‘Bruno’ to gain confidence, Willis quickly became a popular student; even going on to become student body president. Unfortunately, Willis’ political career went up in smoke his senior year when he was suspended for three months, allegedly for smoking pot. After toiling around New Jersey and working menial jobs following graduation – namely at a nearby DuPont chemical factory and as a security guard at a nuclear power plant – Willis decided to give acting a try. While taking classes at Montclair State College, the future star also began to play harmonica in a local blues band called the Loose Goose, a regular ritual which helped the fledgling musician overcome his natural stutter.
Willis broke through both professionally and personally with the school’s production of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” With the determination of someone who knew what he wanted to do with the rest of his life, Willis promptly dropped out of MSC at 19 and moved to New York City, NY to find acting work. In 1977, Willis landed his first stage gig with a role in an off-Broadway production of “Heaven and Earth.” But for the most part, he struggled to find acting work while paying the rent with bartender gigs at Chelsea Central and Kamikaze. Willis continued to perform in other off-Broadway roles and appeared briefly in films like “The First Deadly Sin” (1980) and “The Verdict” (1982), as well as occasionally landing guest spots in episodes of “Hart to Hart” (ABC, 1979-1984) and “Miami Vice” (NBC, 1984-89). During the wild 1980s, his devil-may-care bartender attitude fit in perfectly with the night owls of the Big Apple’s surreal after-hours swirl. And like many bartenders-by-night/thespians-by-day, Willis was also developing serious acting chops.
In 1984, his first big break came when he replaced Ed Harris in Sam Shepard’s off-Broadway hit, “Fool for Love.” This led to an audition for “Desperately Seeking Susan” (1985), the Susan Seidelman-helmed mistaken identity comedy starring Madonna and Rosanna Arquette. Though he failed to land the part, Willis stuck around Hollywood an extra day to read for what became a career-launching role: playing wisecracking private investigator David Addison on ABC’s wildly successful “Moonlighting.” Arriving to the audition in combat fatigues and sporting a punk haircut, he eventually beat out 3,000 other hopefuls because of his unconventional look and cocky attitude. Starring opposite a smug, but demure Cybill Shepherd, Willis possessed the charm of a young Jimmy Cagney. Before long, the hip dialogue-driven romantic comedy became one of the most inventive shows of the decade. Unfortunately, the show’s success also bred its share of personality conflicts. Widely publicized battles involving the two stars and show creator Glenn Gordon Caron resulted in production delays and numerous repeat episodes. But the behind-the-scenes tensions helped fuel the palpable onscreen sexual energy between Willis and Shepherd. The carnal edge to their rocky relationship was finally consummated at the end of the 1986-87 season – an event considered by many fans to be the moment when the series “jumped the shark.” Willis did, however, win an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama that same season.
After appearing in guest spots on several TV shows, in addition to starring in the series pilot for an updated incarnation of “The Twilight Zone” (CBS, 1985-87), Willis headlined his own music special, “The Return of Bruno” (HBO, 1987), a mockumentary highlighting fictional blues singer Bruno Radolini (Willis) and his band, The Heaters. From there, Willis landed starring roles in two uneven Blake Edwards’s comedies, “Blind Date” (1987) and “Sunset” (1988). The actor’s charming “Moonlighting” smirk notwithstanding, little of Willis’ small screen appeal translated to the big screen and he was pegged as just another fading television personality unable to make the transition into features. But when Hollywood super-agent Arnold Rifkin landed Willis the lead role in the action flick “Die Hard,” Willis was thrust into the big time. News broke that he would earn an unprecedented $5 million payday, raising a hue and cry throughout Hollywood that no actor with such trifling films credits should command such a substantial amount of money.
In hindsight, Willis’ salary was a bargain. The action thriller, about New York cop John McClane (Willis) trapped in a corporate high-rise when a gang of terrorists hold employees hostage, spawned a franchise and launched Willis as an action-hero on par with the likes of Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Willis’ wise-guy machismo worked perfectly for the film’s hero, leading him to reprise the role in the sequel “Die Hard II: Die Harder” (1990). Meanwhile, he supplied the voice of Mikey in the hit comedy “Look Who’s Talking” (1989) and its limp follow-up “Look Who’s Talking Too” (1990), then stretched his talents with a surprisingly good performance as the cynical, shell-shocked Vietnam veteran of “In Country” (1989). Willis went on to flex his acting muscles as the low-life murder victim in “Mortal Thoughts” (1991) opposite then-wife Demi Moore, and as the hapless plastic surgeon in the horror comedy “Death Becomes Her” (1992) – both occasional high points in the midst of some extraordinary disasters. Less successful were the abysmal “Bonfire of the Vanities” (1990) based on Tom Wolfe’s novel, the self-indulgent action flop “Hudson Hawk” (1991) – for which he co-wrote the story and theme song – as well as the box office disappointments “Billy Bathgate” (1991) and “The Last Boy Scout” (1991), all of which threatened to permanently damage his career.
Once again, critics were wont to write Willis off, just as they did during his post-“Moonlighting” missteps. He defied them all, however, rebounding nicely with several offbeat roles that ran counter to his action hero persona. After spoofing himself in Robert Altman’s Hollywood satire “The Player” (1992), he emerged as a prizefighter who refuses to take a dive in Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” (1994). Though overshadowed by co-star John Travolta’s sudden return to the limelight after his career had been pronounced dead, Willis nonetheless resuscitated himself in the film’s most memorable performance. He next starred in director Terry Gilliam’s sci-fi masterpiece “12 Monkeys” (1995), playing a time-traveling scientist whose self-sacrifice alters the course of the future for the betterment of mankind. Later that year, however, Willis suited up for a third go-round as John McClane opposite co-star Samuel L. Jackson in the underrated, “Die Hard with a Vengeance” (1995).
Willis’ collaboration with writer-director Walter Hill on “Last Man Standing” (1996), a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 samurai masterpiece “Yojimbo,” turned out to be a torturous affair. As the 1990s wore on, Willis comfortably wore the mantle of action hero – despite chafing at the genre’s limitations – in such big-budgeted effects-laden efforts as Luc Besson’s “The Fifth Element” (1997), which enjoyed a tremendous worldwide box office against meager U.S. returns, and the blockbuster “Armageddon” (1998), which depicted him as an oil driller who sacrifices his life to save the world from a giant meteor. Around that same period, Willis attempted a change of pace with his first large-scale, villainous role as the titular mercenary killer in the watchable, but ultimately disappointing thriller, “The Jackal” (1997). It was back to the same ole same for “Mercury Rising” (1998), an action thriller about an FBI agent (Willis) helping an autistic child (Miko Hughes) find safety after accidentally discovering a secret code. Willis’ power hungry general also single-handedly altered the tone of “The Siege” (1998) from a serious-minded thriller to a one-dimensional, cartoon shoot-em-up.
In 1999, Willis finally made a life-long pet project, playing Dwayne Hoover, the suicidal car salesman from author Kurt Vonnegut’s “Breakfast of Champions.” He wisely chose to act in M. Night Shyamalan’s paranormal sleeper hit, “The Sixth Sense,” which presented him at his most subdued, endearing and effective opposite 12-year-old Haley Joel Osment, a boy who sees dead people. The star also undertook a role which paralleled his own life in Rob Reiner’s comedy-drama “The Story of Us” (1999), drawing on his own difficulties with Demi Moore for its sad-sack story of a marriage in trouble. In 2000, Willis continued to resist the call of the action hero, playing a fast-paced, but unhappy Los Angeles executive who gets in touch with his physically manifested inner child (Spencer Breslin) in “Disney’s The Kid.” After reuniting with Shyamalan in the supernatural thriller “Unbreakable” (2000), Willis scored a surprise hit with “The Whole Ten Yards,” a broad comedy in which he was ex-mobster and friendly suburban neighbor Jimmy “The Tulip” Tudeski.
Returning to the small screen for a three-episode arc on NBC’s hit sitcom “Friends” (1994-2004), Willis picked up his second Emmy playing the disapproving father of a college co-ed dating the character of Ross (David Schwimmer) who winds up romancing Rachel (Jennifer Aniston). On the big screen, Willis was back to being laconic in “Bandits” (2001), playing a prison escapee who robs a number of banks with his hypochondriac partner (Billy Bob Thornton), even though both fall in love with a runaway housewife (Cate Blanchett). Willis was used to better effect as an American P.O.W. presiding over a murder trial in the WWII drama “Hart’s War” (2002), then as the leader of a special operations force on a search and rescue mission in the jungles of Africa in “Tears of the Sun” (2003). That year he also voiced the animated canine Spike in “Rugrats Go Wild” and had an unaccredited, nearly unrecognizable cameo in “Charlie’s Angels 2: Full Throttle,” the comeback vehicle for friendly ex-wife Moore, before reprising Jimmy the Tulip for the dreadful sequel “The Whole Ten Yards.”
He popped up with another cameo appearance, playing himself in “Ocean’s 12” (2004), the rather unworthy sequel to the 2001 caper comedy hit. Willis returned to the thriller genre with the Miramax-produced “Hostage” (2005), with a screenplay written by best-selling novelist Robert Crais. In the film, he was a failed LAPD hostage negotiator who, as a suburban police chief, finds himself forced to rely on his old skills to save his estranged family. Though the film had merits, it failed at the box office. He was better served in the highly stylized “Sin City” (2005), Robert Rodriguez’s visually arresting adaptation of Frank Miller’s crime noir comic book series. In the film’s best segment, “That Yellow Bastard,” Willis had the plum role of Hartigan, a noble, but world-weary and heart-troubled cop who goes to jail rather than lead the corrupt family of a pedophile to the victim he saved, only to become embroiled again with all of the players in his past.
Returning to animation, Willis voiced the manipulative and opportunistic raccoon, RJ, in DreamWorks’ “Over the Hedge” (2005), an amusing though standard comedy about a group of forest critters trying to reclaim a neighboring backyard after waking from their long winter’s nap. In “Lucky Number Slevin” (2006), he was a notorious hit man who helps a man (Josh Hartnett) trapped between two crime bosses (Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley). After a small part as a big-wig cattle supplier in “Fast Food Nation” (2006), Willis made a cameo as a retired astronaut who tries to convince a determined farmer (Billy Bob Thornton) not to build his own rocket ship in “The Astronaut Farmer” (2006). Willis returned to leading man status in the well-made popcorn thriller “16 Blocks” (2006), playing a hard-drinking, hard-living New York City cop tasked with transporting a petty criminal (Mos Def) to his grand jury testimony against a corrupt cop (David Morse), only to learn the hard way that the cop wants the witness dead.
Willis made another off-kilter cameo, this time as a macho military fanatic in the “Planet Terror” segment of “Grindhouse” (2007), a compilation of two 90-minute horror flicks from Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez that was a throwback to the days of bloody, sex-fueled, low-rent double features that played in seedy 42nd Street theaters in New York City. He then reverted to playing the heavy in “Perfect Stranger” (2007), a dull and lifeless thriller about an investigative reporter (Halle Berry) who poses as a temp at an advertising agency in order to unravel the murder of a friend connected to a powerful ad executive (Willis). Meanwhile, action fans had cause to scream a celebratory “Yippee-ki-yay, motherf*cker!” in the summer with the long-awaited return of hero John McClane in the fourth installment of the “Die Hard” series, “Live Free or Die Hard” (2007). Returning to the signature role he created nearly twenty years earlier, Willis played an older, less resilient John McClane entering middle-age who, when duty calls, would prove that once an action hero, always an action hero. He then played a bearded, overweight parody of himself in “What Just Happened?” (2008), Barry Levinson’s satire about a middle-aged Hollywood producer (Robert De Niro) struggling to hold onto the last vestiges of his flagging career.
In March of 2009, Willis married Emma Heming, an English model-actress 23 years his junior. In attendance at the wedding ceremony were his three children, ex-wife Moore and her own much younger husband, actor Ashton Kutcher. Professional flops like the sci-fi thriller “Surrogates” (2009) and the Kevin Smith-directed “Cop Out” (2010) were offset by another box office winner, the action-comedy “Red” (2010). Co-starring such acting luminaries as Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman and John Malkovich, the comic book adaptation followed a group of begrudgingly retired C.I.A. operatives blissfully returning to the cloak-and-dagger world of espionage. As well as “Red” had performed in theaters, it was writer-director-star Sylvester Stallone’s bloody ensemble action-adventure “The Expendables” (2010) that made fanboys giddy with anticipation over a brief scene that, for the first time ever, united Sly, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Willis on screen. The following year was relatively uneventful for the star, with the direct-to-DVD offerings “Set Up” (2011) and “Catch .44” (2011) comprising his output. One year later, he returned to screens with his biggest release slate in recent memory. Among them were such projects as idiosyncratic filmmaker Wes Anderson’s coming-of-age tale “Moonrise Kingdom” (2012), the military action-figure franchise sequel “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” (2012) and the highly anticipated time-travel thriller from writer-director Rian Johnson, “Looper” (2012). As an added treat, he once more appeared alongside Schwarzenegger and Stallone in the bullet-ridden sequel “The Expendables 2” (2012), this time in a greatly expanded role as the film’s primary villain.