Birth Date: March 19th, 1955 - Idar-Oberstein, West Germany
Bruce Willis is one of Hollywood's most beloved and iconic leading men. The actor sports a cocky, ever-present smirk, projects a constant stream of wise-assed quips, and has virtually mastered the slow burn, but unlike some of his contemporaries with that approach, Willis never hesitates to let the audience know that it's partially done in goofy jest, or to reveal, at closer glance, a level of soft-hearted affability buried beneath it all. This juxtaposition initially served Willis well in big- and small-screen comedies, but in the late '80s, he switched gears by headlining John McTiernan's Die Hard (1988). In so doing, Willis carried his persona into barrel-chested action roles with equal force, and instantly established himself as one of the most bankable and versatile stars in contemporary filmdom.
Born Walter Willison -- an Army brat to parents stationed in Idar-Oberstein, West Germany -- on March 19, 1955, Willis grew up in New Jersey from the age of two. As a youngster, he developed a stutter that posed the threat of social alienation, but he discovered an odd quirk: while performing in front of large numbers of people, the handicap inexplicably vanished. This led Willis into a certified niche as a comedian and budding actor. After high-school graduation, 18-year-old Willis decided to land a blue-collar job in the vein of his father, and accepted a position at the DuPont Chambers Works factory in Deep Water, NJ, but withdrew, shaken, after a co-worker was killed on the job. He performed regularly on the harmonica in a blues ensemble called the Loose Goose and worked temporarily as a security guard before enrolling in the drama program at Montclair State University in New Jersey. A collegiate role in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof brought Willis back in touch with his love of acting, and he instantly decided to devote his life to the profession. During his junior year, he impetuously packed up, dropped out of college, and headed off to New York, trying unsuccessfully to land parts in innumerable Broadway productions. Not long after (in 1977), the 22-year-old aspiring actor succeeded and began a temporary stage career.
Two years later, in 1980, Willis transitioned to film with a bit role in Brian G. Hutton's The First Deadly Sin, starring Frank Sinatra, and two years after that, a bit role in Sidney Lumet's The Verdict, starring Paul Newman. Willis didn't land broad exposure and enter the public eye, however, until 1984, when he auditioned for TV series creator Glenn Gordon Caron -- among 3,000 hopefuls -- to play the lead in Moonlighting, an ABC detective comedy series. Sensing Willis' innate appeal, Caron instantly cast him opposite the luminous Cybill Shepherd. It was a brilliant move.
The series, which debuted on March 3, 1985, sported a charming premise with a complex backstory. Shepherd played Maddie Hayes, a top fashion model. Mercilessly cheated out of her fortune by a conniving manager, Maddie discovered at the last minute that her assets included a hole-in-the-wall Los Angeles private-investigation firm, The Blue Moon Detective Agency. Willis portrayed David Addison, its impossibly hip yet slovenly principal employee. Though Maddie initially intended to fire David and liquidate the business, he connived his way into hanging onto the position, and the two paired up on a series of detective cases, with David coarsely and aggressively attempting to wheedle his way into Maddie's heart over the course of the series. (His bag-of-tricks included wolf whistles and '60s bubblegum tunes.) Moonlighting swept audiences off of their feet, but the series ran into a host of ugly problems, thanks in no small part to ongoing creative differences between Caron, Shepherd, and Willis. This delayed production constantly and resulted in frequent repeat episodes, but the series weighed heavily on stylistic invention and innovation and held a loyal following. It ultimately lasted four years and wrapped on May 14, 1989. During the first year or two of the series, Willis and Shepherd enjoyed a brief offscreen romantic involvement as well, but Willis soon met and fell in love with actress Demi Moore, who became his wife in 1987.
In the interim, Willis segued into features at the behest of Blake Edwards, who cast him as geeky Walter Davis -- a businessman who takes Kim Basinger out on the most destructive date in movie history -- in the madcap 1987 comedy Blind Date. The picture received mixed reviews but did respectable box office for TriStar. That same year, Motown Records -- perhaps made aware of Willis' experiences as a musician -- invited the star to record an LP of blue-eyed soul tracks. ^The Return of Bruno emerged and became a moderate hit among baby boomers, although as the years passed it became more a punchline than anything.
In 1988, Willis broke box-office records when he starred in John McTiernan's Die Hard for producer Joel Silver. This bloody, bone-crunching action saga cast Willis as John McClane, a working-class cop who confronts an entire skyscraper full of terrorists when the brutes take captive McClane's estranged wife and a host of other innocents one fateful Christmas Eve. McTiernan and Silver employed an unusual strategy: they used Willis' wiseacre television persona to constantly undercut the film's somber underpinnings, without ever once damaging the suspenseful core of the material. This, coupled with a smart script and wall-to-wall sequences of spectacular action, propelled Die Hard to number one at the box office during the summer of 1988. The film ultimately broke many box-office records and led to several lucrative sequels.
Thereafter, Willis occasionally attempted to expand his range beyond traditional action and comedy, but the results proved somewhat lackluster, from disappointing (the 1989 Norman Jewison drama In Country, with Willis as a Vietnam vet) to downright ludicrous (Brian De Palma's 1990 film The Bonfire of the Vanities, with Willis as a British reporter). He fared better with more traditional genre work, such as Amy Heckerling's 1989 hit comedy Look Who's Talking, in which he voiced Mikey, a baby whose thoughts are comically projected aloud for the audience to hear. (Like Heckerling, Willis made the mistake of signing on for its incorrigible sequel, 1990's Look Who's Talking, Too, though, mercifully, not for the third installment.) He also signed on for the second installment of the Die Hard series in 1990.
In 1991, Willis scraped rock bottom -- and then some -- when he launched a "vanity project," the multi-million-dollar heist comedy Hudson Hawk. This off-the-wall, action-laden farce, about a mad-as-a-March-hare cat burglar, found Willis posing a triple threat (lead actor, first time co-screenwriter, and co-author of the title song). The mega-budgeted Hawk became one of the most notorious stinkers of all time, was despised by critics, and cost its studio millions of dollars.
Willis' turn as a "master of disguises" in Rob Reiner's equally disastrous 1994 children's comedy North didn't help much, either, but (like John Travolta, who had slipped further and had fallen harder by 1994) Willis bounced back with a key role in Quentin Tarantino's 1994 cause célèbre, Pulp Fiction. Willis, Travolta, and many of the others in the cast reputedly agreed to work on the project for scale -- quite a jaw-dropper given Willis' ability to command six figures for a typical Hollywood role. As the pugilist Butch, who risks his life to retrieve his father's prized watch but takes violent revenge on spate of demented, S&M-happy rednecks, Willis won favor with audiences around the world and landed back on top of his game. He doubled this up with an affable supporting role as Carl Roebuck in Robert Benton's beautifully realized character study Nobody's Fool, starring Paul Newman, that same year.
A torrent of equally successful (albeit more traditional) genre roles followed for Willis throughout the '90s. He swung into action as John McClane for a third time, in 1995's blockbuster Die Hard: With a Vengeance, provided the voice of Muddy Grimes for Mike Judge's Beavis & Butthead Do America (1996), and teamed up with mega-producer Jerry Bruckheimer for the ripping sci-fi action yarn Armageddon (1998), while contributing witty guest-starring appearances to such prime-time comedy series as Ally McBeal, Mad About You, and Friends.
Willis landed one of his biggest hits, however, when he signed on to work with writer/director M. Night Shyamalan in the supernatural thriller The Sixth Sense. In that film, Willis played Dr. Malcolm Crowe, a child psychologist assigned to treat a young boy (Haley Joel Osment) plagued by visions of ghosts. The picture packs a wallop in its final minutes, with a now-infamous surprise that even purportedly caught Hollywood insiders off guard when it hit U.S. cinemas in the summer of 1999. Around the same time, tabloids began to swarm with gossip of a breakup between Willis and Demi Moore, who indeed filed for divorce and finalized it in the fall of 2000.
Willis and M. Night Shyamalan teamed up again in 2000 for Unbreakable, an oddball fantasy about a man (Willis) who suddenly discovers that he has been imbued with superhero powers and meets his polar opposite, a psychotic, fragile-bodied black man (Samuel L. Jackson). This byzantine fantasy opus divided critics but drew hefty grosses when it premiered on November 22, 2000. That same year, Willis delighted audiences with a neat comic turn as hitman Jimmy the Tulip in The Whole Nine Yards. (He followed it up four years later with a cloying -- and cleverly named -- sequel, The Whole Ten Yards.)
A handful of somewhat lackluster, low-profile films followed from 2001-2002, including Bandits, Hart's War, and True West, a filmed version of the Sam Shepard play, which Willis also executive produced. In 2005, he played Hartigan in Robert Rodriguez's graphic-novel adaptation Sin City, and retread his Die Hard role with the poorly received thriller Hostage, as a former hostage negotiator-turned-cop who revisits old haunts when he must deliver a small-town family from a cadre of psychotic criminals holding them hostage.
In 2006, Willis threw himself into his work with full abandon; he appeared in no less than seven major productions. These included Richard Donner's 16 Blocks (as an alcoholic cop required to transport a criminal on a hazardous journey to the courthouse), Richard Linklater's Fast Food Nation (in a funny cameo, as the adversary of fast-food rep Greg Kinnear), Paul McGuigan's thriller Lucky Number Slevin (as diabolical hitman Mr. Goodkat), and Nick Cassavetes' based-on-actual-events crime drama Alpha Dog, as the father of adolescent gangster-kidnapper-drug pusher Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch). The next year, the actor played a murder suspect in James Foley's psychological thriller Perfect Stranger, opposite Halle Berry, and reprised his role as everyman superhero John McClane in a fourth installment of the Die Hard series, Live Free or Die Hard, directed by Len Wiseman.
Bruce Willis is, along with fellow actors Tom Selleck, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dennis Hopper, and John Milius, one of the few outspoken conservatives in Hollywood, and reputedly a staunch supporter of the Republican party. He has three children by Moore: Rumer, Scout, and Tallulah Belle. ~ Nathan Southern