Career Breakthroughs: Bruce Willis

Bruce Willis has made a name for himself as an action movie star, but he has performed in many different types of roles across nearly every genre. In addition to his prolific career in film, he has acted on stage and television. He is also a producer and singer, having released three solo albums. Altogether he has been featured in an acting or voiceover role in 88 feature films since 1980, which altogether have grossed more than $3 billion at the US box office. He is currently the 9th highest grossing actor of all time in a leading role.

Bruce Willis is perhaps best known for his role of John McClane in the 5 films (so far) that have made up the Die Hard franchise. His other best-known films include Death Becomes Her, Unbreakable, Armageddon, Pulp Fiction, The Sixth Sense, 12 Monkeys, The Fifth Element, Looper, and Red. On the small screen, he is best known for his leading performance in the series Moonlighting, and his work as a guest star in Friends. Willis has been nominated for 4 Golden Globes (winning one), and three Emmys (winning two). In 2006, Bruce Willis was awarded a star on the Hollywood walk of fame to honor the contribution he has made to the entertainment industry.

Of course, Bruce Willis’ success didn’t happen over night. It was the result of a lot of hard work, determination, and some good fortune. This is the story of how Bruce Willis got his start in the industry and how Die Hard made him a star.

In The Beginning…

Bruce Willis was born in West Germany in 1955. His father was an American soldier and he did not live in the US until his father was discharged and the family moved to New Jersey when he was 2 years old. From a young age, Willis suffered from a stuttering disorder and was ridiculed because of it. One day he auditioned for a part in a school play, which was A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. When he walked on stage and began his performance, he noted that his stutter went away. But afterwards it came back. From that point on he decided he needed to do more acting.

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This led to an interest in drama that continued the rest of his life, although he didn’t get to pursue that interest right away. His charm and sense of humor made him popular, and in high school he was elected class president. He also was a wrestler until he endured a shoulder injury that required surgery. His first job out of high school was working as a security guard at a nuclear power plant. Later he worked at a chemical factory and then did a stint as a private detective.

Starting a Career…

Willis enrolled as a drama student at Monclair State University in New Jersey and got a role in a school production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. However, Willis dropped out before graduating and moved to New York to try and find work as an actor. He landed his first role in the off-broadway play Heaven and Earth in 1977. Soon after, he got the lead role in the off-Broadway play Bullpen. To make ends meet during this time, he worked as a bartender where he made quite the name for himself. He was known for his flair and his ability to entertain his patrons. He met other struggling actors at the bar, including John Goodman, and caught the eye of a few producers. In 1979 he landed his first movie role as an extra in the Paul Newman film, The Verdict. The same year he replaced Ed Harris in Fool for Love.

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In the early 1980’s, Willis was able to find work in television. He appeared in Miami Vice and later in an episode of The Twilight Zone. In 1984 Willis travelled to Los Angeles to audition for the film Desperately Seeking Susan. He did not win that part, but decided to stay in LA for another day. On that second day he went to an audition for the TV show Moonlighting. Willis auditioned for the lead role wearing army fatigues and with a punk haircut. He won over the TV executives with his charm and social nature, beating out more than 3000 other actors for the role. In the role, Willis played a wisecracking private detective, and so it had helped him that he had actually worked as a private detective for a period of time.

The Breakthrough…

Moonlighting became a big hit for ABC and made Bruce Willis a star, establishing him as a comedic actor. The show lasted for 5 years and was one of the first pioneers of the comedy-drama on network television. Audiences appreciated the show for its style of humor and high production values. The show received 16 emmy nominations in its second season, and one win for Willis in 1987. The exposure that Willis received as a result of the show’s success opened up many more doors for the continuation of his career. First, he landed the lead role in the 1987 romantic comedy, Blind Date. Second, he received a lucrative contract to be the spokesperson for Seagrams. Then, he got the chance to star in a new action film, Die Hard.

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Bruce Willis was not the first choice to play John McClane in Die Hard. The role had been offered to Al Pacino first. And then Arnold Schwarzenegger. And then Sylvester Stallone, and Richard Gere, and James Caan, and Burt Reynolds. They all turned it down. This was a time when action movies weren’t seen as being very prestigious. They didn’t tend to make any money, and they often did little to advance an actor’s career. The writer of Bruce Willis’ first film gave him a copy of the script for Die Hard, and Willis expressed his interest in wanting to do the movie to the producers. Bruce was afraid that he wouldn’t have a career in film, and so he was somewhat desperate to make another movie, but he also didn’t want to make a bad one. However, Blind Date didn’t perform very well in theaters or with critics, and Willis began to get cold feet about Die Hard. He thought that if he made another bad movie, no one would hire him to make more.

Twentieth Century Fox was not exactly confident in having Bruce Willis as the star of their new action film either. In fact, interest towards the film was waning due to their inability to attract a big name star. However, the producers of the film really liked Bruce’s personality and they thought that he would work in the role. Bruce was reluctant because he was not an action star and didn’t want to be criticized for taking a role that wasn’t right for him. Bruce’s agent was able to negotiate with the studio to make it work for everyone.  It was basically a gamble by Fox, but the studio agreed to pay Bruce $5 million for the role, which was a very large amount of money for an actor at that time, especially one without significant screen credits. This large salary brought attention to the film, but it also helped to legitimize Willis as a film actor. Most importantly, if the movie didn’t work out Willis would still have made a good amount of money in the process. Die Hard went on to become a huge hit, and changed the reputation of action movies overnight. Willis became a household name and his performance and choice to do all his own stunts helped to establish himself as an action star. The large amount of money that Willis received for his work despite being relatively new to film also started a trend in the industry where big-name actors began getting paid much higher salaries.

Check out last week’s story: Career Breakthroughs: Steven Spielberg