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Bruce Willis's Tragic Mask

The Star, Following His Own Tough Act

By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 10, 2005; Page C01


Bruce Willis won't read this. We know because Bruce Willis doesn't read newspapers, or magazines or tabloids or anything else with a date on it, for that matter. It's not that Willis dislikes the printed word -- he's fond of novels and history books and he plows through plenty of screenplays. But news? Forget it.

"I don't watch it on TV either," he says quietly, as he twirls a spoon around a cup of coffee. "If something big is going on in the world, somebody's going to tell me about it. But I've come to believe the news is manipulated. On some higher level, someone is saying, 'We can tell 'em this, we can't tell 'em that.' "

"I try to live in the moment," says Bruce Willis. At this moment he's promoting his new thriller. (Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)

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He pauses a moment. "Just a theory."

This man sure looks like Bruce Willis. As he sits on a stool in the bar of the Peninsula Hotel one recent afternoon, there is the familiar pate with the buzz-cut sides, there's the Dick Tracy nose and the etched-in lines that frame his mouth, like parentheses. This guy has Willis's low-key swagger, too, and, dressed in a gray V-neck sweater, jeans and cowboy boots, he's got the man's unfussy style.

But this doesn't sound like Bruce Willis. Not the one who plops down on David Letterman's upholstered chair every now and then, looking like he's just been rousted out of bed after a bender. Not the harmonica-playing, porn star-dating Willis, or the smirking action hero known for his signature "yippy-ki-yay [expletive]" from the three "Die Hard" movies. Nor does it seem like the Willis who apparently worked out a perfectly amicable child-sharing truce with his ex-wife Demi Moore. Everything about that Willis says, "You can't take any of this seriously. Because it's too much fun."

"That's one of the cards in my deck," he says, when asked for the current whereabouts of Good Time Bruce. Then he grins, as if suddenly recalling some recent debauchery.

"I'm having a ball. One of my mottos is to live it up." Just as quickly, he's serious again. "It doesn't come out of 'woo-hoo!' live it up. Early in life, I lost some friends, in freak accidents. We know that death is out there, waiting for us all, but most people are surprised by death. So I try to live in the moment."

Well in the moment you're living now, superstar, you're bumming us out. Junketing through town to promote "Hostage," a thriller that opens tomorrow, Willis seems subdued and reflective. Perhaps he's channeling the character he plays in the film, a beleaguered cop who must rescue a family from a collection of miscreants and shadowy criminals in order to save the life of his own wife and daughter. (It gets complicated.) As Jeff Talley, Willis spends much of this two-hour film coping with the most dreadful possibility a husband and father can face. Maybe if he was pushing a comedy -- you know, one of those "Whole Nine Yards" type of things -- he'd be in a lighter mood.

Another theory: This is press interview No. 378 (or so) in a career that now spans about 20 years and dozens of movies, and maybe it's hard to get bubbly every time out. At 49, Willis is entitled to some world-weariness. He's survived the nonstop batterings of the tabloids, which were obsessed with his married life and now seem just as interested in his bachelorhood. He's endured his share of box office fiascos, too, though he's never fallen off Hollywood's roster of A-list talent. He has about him the air of a man accustomed to being overscrutinized and underestimated. And a little misunderstood. At the moment, in this bar, he appears to be trying his best to be polite, drink his coffee and sell his movie.

"I'm from South Jersey," he says at one point, explaining the origins of what he calls his rebellious attitude. "I knew hundreds of guys with tattoos that said 'South Jersey. Only the strong survive.' "

Willis has been written about almost ceaselessly since 1984, when he pulled off a Hollywood newcomer fantasy and beat out 3,000 actors for a starring role in "Moonlighting," a huge television hit with Cybill Shepherd. At the time, Willis was a part-time bartender and New York stage actor who'd appeared mostly in off-off-Broadway productions, in theaters that held 300 people, tops. His transition from obscurity to fame didn't go smoothly.

"I still haven't recovered from it," he says. "I don't think I handled it very well, the first few years. I was 29. I wasn't equipped for it and there's nothing that prepares you for it."

That was just the beginning. Willis became a bankable movie property in 1988, with "Die Hard," his third film, which earned him a then-stunning $5 million fee and eventually launched a rickety fleet of imitators. (It also started a franchise. "Die Hard 4.0" is in the works.) The role of John McClane set the template for Willis in big-screen hero mode -- the wisecracking Everyman, wincing between white-hot rounds of semiautomatic gunfire. Superpowers wouldn't befit this guy. He's supposed to struggle like any of us in a jam, only with sharper aim and better quips.

Willis could have rehashed variations of this theme, but to his credit he took genuine risks. He did comedy ("Death Becomes Her"), sci-fi ("12 Monkeys"), psychological drama ("Color of Night") and a period piece ("Billy Bathgate"). Some of these were hugely successful ("Look Who's Talking," in which he provided the voice of a talking baby), others bombed ("Hudson Hawk," which was flayed by critics and ignored by the public).

"You make choices," says Arnold Rifkin, Willis's former agent and since 1990 his partner in Cheyenne Enterprises, a production company. "Sometimes you make the right choice, sometimes the wrong choice. We never wanted the audience to feel that they already knew what they were getting when they went to a Bruce Willis movie. In 'The Jackal' he played a bad guy. In 'Armageddon' he dies."

But the Bruce Willis character that audiences want to see is the last man standing.

"He has constantly challenged himself as an actor, and most stars don't do that," says Jeffrey Katzenberg, the CEO of DreamWorks, a studio that is planning an animated film with Willis as one of the star voices.

For years, no matter what he did, Willis in the public imagination often seemed like an action guy grasping for extra credit. Then came "Pulp Fiction," the daddy of all independent films, released in 1994. In it, Willis is an aging boxer named Butch, who risks his life to scam a bullying underworld boss paying him to throw a fight. Willis plays the character as a wily stoic who is just barely suppressing his fury and terror. There's hardly an extra gesture, barely any visible emotions, but you know that under the surface Butch is boiling. Willis's inspiration here was Al Pacino in the "Godfather" movies, a minimalist performance and for Willis a major influence.

He describes "Pulp" as a divine gift that he nearly didn't receive.

"I have to thank Harvey Keitel," Willis says. "He lived down the beach from me, his daughter played with my daughter and she was over at the house when he came to scoop her up. And he came in for a while and we caught up."

Willis had loved "Reservoir Dogs," a Quentin Tarantino film in which Keitel had recently starred. Keitel then told Willis about "Pulp Fiction," which was being cast at the time, and Willis wound up the next day at a barbecue at Keitel's house attended by Tarantino.

"So I talked to Quentin for a couple hours and I said I'd be happy to do anything in this film."

Willis wanted the role of Vincent Vega, which went to John Travolta, and Tarantino wanted Matt Dillon to play Butch. But Dillon was having a hard time making up his mind.

The call came later. "He said, 'I'd like you to play the part of the boxer.' And I said, 'That character is a little older.' And he said, 'Well, we'll change that.' "

"Pulp Fiction" earned raves for Willis, and a few years later, when he appeared in "The Sixth Sense," a creepy drama about dead people -- no punching or punch lines -- the choice seemed a bit daring but smart. "Pulp" also earned Willis a bundle of money. He took scale wages of $1,685 a week, instead of his usual multimillion-dollar fee, in exchange for a percentage of the profits. The film has grossed more than $200 million worldwide.

It also turned Willis into one of cinema's rarest creatures: the unabashedly bald leading man. He'd been thinning since "Moonlighting," but he was smooth as granite by the time he put on the gloves as Butch. He says he's been thanked by hairless men ever since.

Did anyone in Hollywood ever suggest, you know, a rug, or plugs, or something?

"No. And had they done so I would have told them to go -- "

We'll have to stop him there. Let's just sum it up this way: He would have declined.

He grew up in a blue-collar town called Carneys Point, N.J., not far from the Delaware Memorial Bridge. The oldest of four children, he had a confidence-sapping stutter as a kid and a reputation as a bit of a brawler. After his parents divorced, he lived with his father, a welder and pipe fitter. Willis worked for a time at a nearby DuPont chemical factory and was also a security guard at a nuclear power plant. He discovered acting at Montclair State College, where he appeared his first semester in a theatrical version of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." To his amazement, his stammer vanished onstage.

"I was 19 and I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life," he says. "At the time I didn't realize how fortunate I was."

He dropped out of college, then headed to Manhattan and a variety of odd jobs as he searched for gigs. He tended bar for years and lived in a crummy apartment in Hell's Kitchen. He lived lean, he did drugs. In 1984, he auditioned with Madonna for a role in "Desperately Seeking Susan" and when he didn't get it he flew to Los Angeles to visit a girlfriend and check out the Summer Olympics. His New York agent had an office there and he was sent on a couple of auditions. One was for "Police Academy." The other was "Moonlighting."

"It was thrilling," he says, thinking back to his early party animal days, when the show caught on. "Television makes you really famous."

Rich, too. He caroused a lot, battled with the paparazzi and bought stuff.

"Getting a '64 Corvette, that was the most responsible thing he could think to do," says Rifkin. "He was a boy. He was someone who wasn't yet clear on what his path would be."

Willis had settled enough by 1987 to marry Demi Moore, and he'd developed a sufficient allergy to L.A. to move to a small town in Idaho called Hailey. For the couple, the idea was to rear their children in an environment as close to normal as you can get when both your parents are weekly fodder for People magazine. They lived on a 48-acre estate.

It was, for Hailey, a stroke of astonishing luck. Willis spent millions renovating buildings on Main Street, opened a diner called Shorty's and refurbished a seedy bar called the Mint. If he was going to live there, he figured, he might as well spruce it up. And bring in the arts, too. Willis bought a movie theater, which he refurbished, and enticed the Company of Fools, a theater troupe formerly based in Richmond, to move to Idaho. Hailey residents -- all 6,200 or so of them -- have been treated to the work of Shakespeare, Chekhov, David Mamet and more.

"He was a wonderfully dynamic figure," says Martha Burke, a member of the Hailey City Council. "It was sort of exciting when he opened the Mint. It was an old, scary bar, and when he was done renovating it all of a sudden we looked like San Francisco."

Willis and Moore split in 2000, and he no longer calls Hailey his home.

"About a year and a half ago our kids came to us and said, 'We don't want to live in the cold weather any more,' " Willis says.

The topic of Willis's children -- Rumer, Scout and Tallulah, now all in their teens -- is about the only one that makes him glow. He calls them his favorite people in the world, then talks at length about childbirth, about the wonder of being in a delivery room and laying eyes on a newborn. He sounds humbled for a moment. There's a tone in his voice that's absent when he discusses his next movies, or his sideline as a blues harmonica player and the band's upcoming gig in Las Vegas. He sounds a lot like a man with nothing to prove.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company