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Some Thoughts on Bruce Willis
An actor who's been defying the odds his entire life.
Last week, word broke that Bruce Willis made the tough decision to end his acting career. It came after he was diagnosed with aphasia, a neurological condition that affects one’s cognitive abilities, and makes it difficult for them to communicate.
Willis had apparently struggled with symptoms of the disease for the last few years, including on movie sets where — according to cast and crew — he sometimes appeared lost and confused, and required his lines be fed to him through an earpiece.
It’s a very unfortunate situation, and my heart goes out to Willis and his family. They have a tough road ahead.
As an admirer of the actor, or at least his contributions to the art and entertainment world (I’ve never met the guy), I figured I’d share some thoughts on the man in this week’s newsletter.
If you were a teenage boy in the mid to late 1980s, there’s a pretty good chance that you hold a special place in your heart for Willis. I know I do. After all, he played iconic New York City police detective John McClane in one of the greatest action movies ever made: Die Hard.
But I had discovered (and become a fan of) Willis before the film, when he portrayed a different kind of detective — David Addison, the wisecracking private investigator on the hit ABC comedic drama, Moonlighting.
The show was made for a bit older audience, but I watched it every week (at least for that first season or two), and thought Willis was an absolute riot. I loved his slop-along wit and brazenness, and my 13-year-old self was sometimes inclined to try and emulate it. I even remember writing a Moonlighting fan-fiction script for a school project in junior high.
As some of you may have figured out from reading my books, I — like Sean Coleman — was a childhood couch potato. And one thing I did a fair amount of back then was send fan-mail to television networks, in hopes of receiving autographed photos of some of my favorite television stars. More often than not, it worked. Sometimes the autographs were real (even personalized), and other times they were mass-printed. I can’t remember which was the case with the Moonlighting promo photo that turned up in my mailbox one day, but I do remember the message Willis wrote above his signature:
“Hey kids! Who says crime doesn’t pay?”
It cracked me up, and I think I may have even understood its meaning. Unlike co-star Cybill Shepherd, who’d been a successful actress for some time (including in major films), Willis’s fame seemed to come out of nowhere. He grew up in a blue-collar family, and formerly worked as a security guard, real-life private investigator, and bartender. Already dealing with a receding hairline, he didn’t look like a leading man, and had few acting credits to his name prior to beating out 3,000 others for a lead spot on a series that quickly became a hit. I imagine he dealt with a little bit of imposter syndrome, perhaps not truly believing that he had earned his runaway success, or that it was sustainable.
But in Willis, ABC had found lightning in a bottle. He defied the odds, coming across not just as a star, but also a regular guy — the type of person one could easily picture themself hanging out with. Advertisers took note, and Willis’s stock continued to rise.
Just between you and me, a bored teenage John Daly may or may not have once used two cassette-recorders to edit together an a cappella version of himself singing the above tune. To me, the Seagrams commercial exemplified fun: dudes hanging out on a front porch with guitars and harmonicas, with Willis over-enthusiastically singing into a bottle (and later to a dog). The actor even enjoyed a short music career after that.
But let’s get back to Die Hard and its undeniable greatness.
It’s safe to say that the 1988 movie was a defining moment for young, impressionable lovers of high-octane cinema… and also the film industry itself.
Years earlier, Harrison Ford and his swashbuckling adventures as Han Solo and Indiana Jones had set the bar high for what an action hero should be: handsome, rugged, charming, confident, and physical. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone hit their stride shortly after, and altered the mold to include a more invincible bodybuilder’s physique and, of course, killer catchphrases.
So, when a trailer for an explosive new action film called “Die Hard” hit theaters in early 1988, audiences cringed and even laughed upon seeing Willis in the lead role, wielding a gun and taking on a group of terrorists. I remember witnessing the reaction first hand, and believe me, I was as skeptical as anyone. I liked Willis and all, but an action hero? What was Hollywood thinking?
As it turned out, the creators of Die Hard did originally have a different vision for the film. The role of John McClane had been offered to Schwarzenegger, Stallone, and many other actors more closely associated with the action genre, but all had turned it down. The eventual choice of Willis was seen as a real gamble by industry professionals, especially with the film’s budget being somewhere in the ballpark of $30 million.
But we all know what happened. Willis defied the odds once again.
The film became an enormous success (grossing $140 million at the box office), and revitalized the genre behind that of vulnerable, “regular guy” heroes finding themselves up against enormous odds. It became a classic (including a holiday classic), spawned a successful franchise, and inspired a ton of imitators. It also turned Willis into a Hollywood A-Lister.
But career-wise, the momentum didn’t last. After a number of non Die Hard stinkers in the early 90s, Willis’s career began to wane a bit. Fortunately, it got a big shot in the arm with the help of an emerging director named Quentin Tarantino, who went on to rejuvinate a number of acting careers. He cast Willis in the groundbreaking (and hugely successful) Pulp Fiction, in the part of boxer Butch Coolidge.
It was a perfect role for Willis, and he capitalized off the boost with a stand-out leading performance in 12 Monkeys (a great film). But his work and movies were mixed bag for a while after that, until he aligned with another emerging director, M. Night Shyamalan, for the surprise hit, 1999’s The Sixth Sense. The two had a great relationship, and Willis returned for the leading part in Shyamalan’s follow-up (and in my opinion, superior) film, 2000’s Unbreakable.
That was probably the last Willis role to really take Hollywood by storm. He of course remained busy in the industry for the next couple of decades, pumping out lots of movies, occasionally delivering some stand-out performances (like in 16 Blocks), and at times having some fun with his emblematic action-star status (like in The Expendables franchise and some more Die Hard installments). But over time, his drawing power diminished, the quality roles grew more and more elusive, and he was mostly relegated to direct-to-video status.
I was going to write that Willis’s “star had grown dimmer,” but I’m not convinced that’s actually true. What’s interesting about Willis is that despite his lowered stock, and host of bad films (especially later in his career), it’s still tough to hear his name and think of him as anything less than a bonafide Hollywood icon. Maybe it helps that many people (including me) haven’t seen much of his stuff over the last decade or so, but I think it’s more than that.
Beyond his past pop-culture importance, and the perception of him as an approachable, “regular guy” among the Hollywood elite, I think people appreciate the way he has defied odds and made comebacks throughout his career. He was no flash in the pan, but rather a staple. His lackluster work felt more like downtime than failure — downtime until the next big thing that would come along and put him back on top.
We caught a glimpse of that in M. Night Shyamalan’s 2019 film Glass, where Willis reprised his role as David Dunn from Unbreakable. Though I had some big problems with the movie itself (related to the writing), Willis was great, and all of the bad direct-to-video movies he’d been doing up until then suddenly ceased to exist.
I mentioned earlier that I’ve never met Bruce Willis. That’s mostly true, but not entirely. Years ago, we had a couple of exchanges on Twitter. Few people know that Willis was ever on the platform (his account’s still there) because he went by his alter-ego name “Bruno”, left his Twitter profile empty, and never drew attention to his account. In fact, a relative nobody like me has five times as many followers as he does. But the account was definitely his (as confirmed online by friends and colleagues), and he’d occasionally do a brief Q&A with fans.
Just two regular guys shooting the breeze. (By the way, he was probably right… but I still haven’t thrown in the towel).
Now retired from acting, and focusing on his health, it seems like an appropriate time to thank Mr. Willis for all the great television and cinematic memories he provided. It was a pleasure to be entertained by the guy, and I wish only the best for him as he enters this difficult chapter in his life.
With any luck, maybe he’ll defy the odds once again.
Have a favorite Bruce Willis memory or role? Tell me about it in an email or in the comment section below.
I realize I’m way late to the game here, since this single-season show is now over a decade old, but Life’s Too Short is an absolute riot. My wife and I stumbled across this gem of a mockumentary last week, and it's hard to watch it for 30 seconds without laughing out loud.
The show, created and written by the great Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, follows Warwick Davis, an actor with dwarfism, as he negotiates life in the entertainment industry. Davis plays himself, and though much of the premise relies on his real-life claim to fame (prominent roles in Return of the Jedi, Willow, and Leprechaun), his domestic and professional life is highly fictionalized for lots of politically incorrect laughs.
I believe it can be watched on both HBO and Amazon Prime. Trust me: you’ll love it.
Last Saturday, I had what I believe was my most successful Barnes & Noble book-signing ever. It was at the Cheyenne, Wyoming store, which has always been a good one for me, but this one blew the roof off the house. A special thanks to store manager, Colt, and the rest of the staff for making it happen.
Next Saturday, I’ll be returning to the Barnes & Noble in Westminster, Colorado. You can get the details on that event and others on my website.
Obligatory Dog Shot
The golden child.
Obligatory Text Exchange with Spouse
Have you picked up your copy of RESTITUTION?
Interested in a signed copy? You can order one (or five) here.
Already read and enjoyed it? I’d love if you could leave a review for the book on Amazon.
Few people have heard of The Lucid, a hard-rock group that formed at the beginning of the pandemic. But you may have heard of some of the bands its members came from… namely Megadeth, Sponge, and Fear Factory.
Vinnie Dombroski is the band’s front-man, and listeners will definitely notice some similarities to Sponge, though I’d say The Lucid’s sound is a bit harder. Their 2021 debut album is really good, combining some familiar elements of 90s alternative rock with some fresh-sounding metal.
It’s very much worth checking out.
That’s all for now. Thanks for reading today’s Daly Grind.
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Take care. And I’ll talk to you soon!