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How Bruce Willis went from last-ditch casting to action icon in ‘Die Hard’

Actor Bruce Willis attends the European premiere of “Glass” in London on Jan. 9, 2019. (Henry Nicholls/Reuters)
7 min

In the search for a summer blockbuster, executives at 20th Century Fox kept asking the same question: Will someone — anyone — play the role of John McClane?

But each time they pitched the lead role for “Die Hard,” the biggest and best action-film stars of the era — Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Harrison Ford to name a few — all turned down the chance to be the New York police officer who fights a terrorist takeover at Nakatomi Plaza. Frank Sinatra also allegedly passed.

So, the studio turned to Bruce Willis, then mainly known for his work on the romantic comedy TV series “Moonlighting” and who had only starred in one other movie. Skepticism surrounding the “Die Hard” star, who had secured $5 million for the film in a deal that baffled Hollywood, had reached a point that the initial advertising campaign for the film featured only the Los Angeles skyscraper and left out Willis, according to the New York Times.

“In desperation, they went to Bruce Willis,” Steven E. de Souza, who wrote the screenplay for “Die Hard,” recounted to author Brian Abrams in “Die Hard: An Oral History,” which was published in 2016.

Willis and “Die Hard” defied the critics and became the surprise hit of 1988, grossing $140 million at the box office and scoring four Academy Award nominations. The role welcomed Willis to the party of A-listers and cemented him as one of the most bankable and relatable action-film stars Hollywood had ever seen.

“‘Die Hard’ is probably the closest I’ve come to showing what is in my heart on screen,” Willis said in a 1988 interview published in 2018 by the British tabloid Closer Weekly. “I don’t know any superheroes. I know guys who are afraid and have anxiety, and I think you know people like that, too. That’s what I wanted to play. I really wanted to be honest about the moment you go through when you think your life is about to end. I wanted to play somebody who was afraid to die.”

Fans were celebrating and thanking Willis, 67, after his family announced Thursday that the actor has been diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia (FTD), a rare type of dementia with no FDA-approved treatment or cure. Willis had retired from acting in March after he had been diagnosed with aphasia, a communication and interpretation disorder. The family said his condition had progressed to FTD, which mostly affects people between the ages of 40 and 60. About 50,000 to 60,000 people in the United States have FTD, according to the Association for Frontotemporal Degeneration.

“Bruce has always found joy in life — and has helped everyone he knows to do the same,” Willis’s family wrote in a statement posted on the association’s website. “It has meant the world to see that sense of care echoed back to him and to all of us.”

Bruce Willis has frontotemporal dementia: What are the symptoms of FTD?

His career may have turned out differently if he had not signed up for “Die Hard,” which was adapted from author Roderick Thorp’s 1979 novel, “Nothing Lasts Forever.” While the script was originally commissioned as a sequel to the 1968 thriller “The Detective,” Sinatra, who starred in the film and was 70 years old at the time, reportedly rejected the chance to play McClane. Many others did, too, including Clint Eastwood, Burt Reynolds, Al Pacino and Richard Gere.

Willis initially declined to star in “Die Hard” because of his contractual obligations on the ABC show “Moonlighting.” In a turn that perhaps changed the trajectory of Willis’s career, the show was paused after his co-star, Cybill Shepherd, became pregnant, allowing him to agree to do the movie.

“Cybill Shepherd got pregnant and they shut down the show for 11 weeks — just the right amount of time for me to run around over at Nakatomi Tower,” Willis told Entertainment Weekly in 2007, describing the confluence of events as “a miracle.”

What was perhaps even more surprising than Willis getting the role was how he was getting paid $5 million for the film — a salary that was considered reserved for a select few stars at the time. The New York Times described Willis’s $5 million payday and the effect on Hollywood as “equivalent to an earthquake” that forced the salaries of the stars to go up drastically.

“In a way, it changed the way movies were made because suddenly actors were getting 5, 10, 20 million,” actor Hart Bochner, who played Nakatomi executive Harry Ellis in “Die Hard,” told Abrams.

Leonard Goldberg, the president and chief operating officer at 20th Century Fox at the time, defended the decision to cast Willis in a movie that the studio believed had “the potential of a major film, which is a star vehicle.” Willis argued at that time that neither he nor his agent “put a gun to anybody’s head” when it came to the eyebrow-raising salary, according to Closer Weekly.

“In a town and an industry where all this can be gone next year, you take what you can get. You get what you can,” he said in the 1988 interview. “[20th Century Fox] paid me what they thought I was worth for the film, and for them.”

There was still doubt that Willis could be leading-man material with a character who, in the actor’s words, was a regular guy not in the mold of Stallone’s John Rambo or Schwarzenegger’s Terminator. Before the film was released, market research by several studios showed that audiences had a negative perception of Willis, according to the Times.

While The Washington Post’s Hal Hinson praised Willis for having the grace and bravado of a Stallone and Schwarzenegger to pull off an action movie, and being “engagingly funny, an Olympian wiseacre,” he said the film itself had failed the actor. Hinson wrote in a review that although “Die Hard” was many things, “it’s not a movie to like.”

“It gets your heart pounding, then makes you hate yourself for it,” Hinson wrote in July 1988.

From 1988: The Post reviews 'Die Hard'

The criticism didn’t concern Willis, who felt confident knowing that he still had a career ahead of him, according to a colleague, even if the movie flopped.

“I pleaded with him — ‘They’re going to laugh you off the screen. That’s a Schwarzenegger movie,’” Glenn Gordon Caron, the creator of “Moonlighting,” recalled in the 2016 oral history. “That was my perception at the time, and he said, ‘Oh, Glenn, it doesn’t matter. They’re paying me so much money that even if it doesn’t work out I’m okay.’”

As it turned out, Willis was better than okay. While the film received mixed reviews, it would be praised as one of the great action movies after “Die Hard” was reevaluated by critics years later.

Willis, who would go on to star in four “Die Hard” sequels through 2013, became a fixture in Hollywood for decades, starring in “Pulp Fiction,” “12 Monkeys,” “The Fifth Element” and “The Sixth Sense.”

As fans celebrated Willis’s work after his dementia diagnosis, a clip from the 2018 Comedy Central roast of the actor resurfaced on social media showing the actor in all his glory. Willis joked about how he had “saved the world 18 times” and was still standing.

“Nothing can keep me down,” he told the audience. “I’ve been attacked by terrorists, asteroids, film critics, music critics, restaurants critics, divorce lawyers, male-pattern baldness, and none of it — none of it — stopped me. Because I am still Bruce f------ Willis.”