Remembering Bruce Willis’s Career

 

So, there’s bad news today. Bruce Willis’s family announced to the press his retirement from acting, after a diagnosis of aphasia; who knows how bad his health is but, at 67, his career is over. In our strange age, the news came as an Instagram post by his daughter. I suppose the press is just as dead as Hollywood, so it makes sense to go to social media, but in the context, it’s one more baffling thing for the millions of fans, learning about life, the body, and mortality in the ghost world of the internet.

We are stuck with all these contradictions: It’s there in a personal post, but it’s spreading all over the world—it’s going to be recorded forever by computer memory, but it’s likely to be forgotten instantly by most people who glance at this bit of news. So, there is an end to all that — not even fame has any power over us anymore.

Willis is the last actor to have something of the combination of manly charm, comic talent, a few famous roles, working with remarkable directors and writers, and the luck that makes a star. The best we can do with an actor we admire is to enjoy his work and learn from his portrayals of character and enactments of story. If we learn about our society from the movies, we are likelier to remember and be grateful.

Our memories much more than the fantasies of the screen count now, so here are my essays on Bruce Willis:

  1. My Die Hard essay for Law&Liberty and the two podcasts I did on the movie, talking crime in American cities with Pete Spiliakos.  This was a big issue in movies from the ’70s to the early ’90s, though unheard of now. Also, redemption for police officers with C.J. Wolfe, which is a theme as timely and as absent from our cinema. This is his most famous role, the movie likeliest to be remembered 50 years hence, not to say to become a national pastime for a while, as a Christmas movie! So read up, listen to the conversations, remember the citizen-hero: Director John McTiernan gave Willis something close to immortal fame as John McClane!
  2. Next, something much stranger: my essay on 12 Monkeys on its 25th anniversary, a fascinating Terry Gilliam fantasy of a techno-tyranny emerging from biological terrorism that spoke with newfound urgency in 2020. Willis was then at the peak of his powers, playing various kinds of working-class heroes that might save decadent, too sophisticated for their own good societies…
  3. Here’s a review of one of Willis’s recent movies, Death Wish (2018), Eli Roth’s remake of the ‘70s Bronson vigilante story. Worth thinking about how much deadlier our cities are, how cowardly and cruel our liberalism, and how impotent the citizenry is. This movie is a good jolt to begin such reflections…
  4. (I also lamented the scabrous roasts that make our decadence uglier with a taste for the sordid, more desperate than excited, and which quickly becomes boring. Willis was the willing victim of such an ugly spectacle, just as his career was going down the drain. It’s one of the ugly truths about our times that we tolerate or even pay for degrading spectacles…)
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  1. LC Member
    LC
    @LidensCheng

    If you look at Willis’ career in the last 3 years, there’s something glaringly wrong. There were tons of rumors the last few years about why he would appear in these movies. Some said it was laziness, some said it was easy money (similar to other aging action stars), and others suspected it was memory problems. Unfortunately today confirmed what it was.

    • #1
  2. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Maybe he wanted to leave some wealth behind for his kids-

    • #2
  3. Retail Lawyer Member
    Retail Lawyer
    @RetailLawyer

    That manly charm and comic talent was first seen by me on that short lived but wonderful TV show, Moonlighting.  I did see Die Hard, but have not seen his other work, mostly because I’m not a fan of movies in general.

    • #3
  4. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    LC (View Comment):

    If you look at Willis’ career in the last 3 years, there’s something glaringly wrong. There were tons of rumors the last few years about why he would appear in these movies. Some said it was laziness, some said it was easy money (similar to other aging action stars), and others suspected it was memory problems. Unfortunately today confirmed what it was.

    That occurred to me today when I heard the news.

    • #4
  5. Henry Racette Member
    Henry Racette
    @HenryRacette

    I’m sorry to hear it. I hope he enjoys a long and comfortable retirement.

    We are hurting for men in Hollywood.

    • #5
  6. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    It’s an interesting thing, that manliness became blue-collar in the movies in the ’80s, which quickly became declasse, then disappeared. I’m not sure to what extent it even appeals to young audiences. Would be worth finding out…

    • #6
  7. Henry Racette Member
    Henry Racette
    @HenryRacette

    Titus Techera (View Comment):

    It’s an interesting thing, that manliness became blue-collar in the movies in the ’80s, which quickly became declasse, then disappeared. I’m not sure to what extent it even appeals to young audiences. Would be worth finding out…

    My kid brother once said of Bruce Willis that “He wears his blue collar on his sleave.”

    But we both like the guy.

    • #7
  8. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    Moonlighting was so hot during the second and third years of its run. So much so that ABC literally handed creator Glenn Gordon Caron a blank check. At its peak it was pulling in a 44 share.

    It also has the distinction of being the single most expensive hour of series television with the 7th episode of the third season, “Atomic Shakespeare,” a send up of The Taming of the Shrew. They used two A Units for filming and the crew was on overtime for the 9-day shooting schedule resulting in a $5M tab. That would be over $12.7M adjusted for inflation.

    And, of course, the stars hated each other. Willis and co-star Cyril Sheppard didn’t talk to each other for 30 years after filming ended.

    After the lead characters consummated their relationship viewers fled in droves. ABC moved the show to Sundays, the scripts got weird and it went out with a whimper. It’s been out of circulation because the network bought short-term music licenses and it’s current owners, Disney, has no desire to revisit it. 

    • #8
  9. Dave of Barsham Member
    Dave of Barsham
    @LesserSonofBarsham

    Titus Techera (View Comment):

    Maybe he wanted to leave some wealth behind for his kids-

    Looking at it knowing the diagnosis I’d bet that’s what it is. He’s probably known for a good while now, and the clock was ticking.

    • #9
  10. James Lileks Contributor
    James Lileks
    @jameslileks

    Always liked him. Would like to visit the alternate universe where he was old enough to play Han Solo.

    • #10
  11. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    James Lileks (View Comment):

    Always liked him. Would like to visit the alternate universe where he was old enough to play Han Solo.

    Great pick!

    • #11
  12. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    EJHill (View Comment):

    Moonlighting was so hot during the second and third years of its run. So much so that ABC literally handed creator Glenn Gordon Caron a blank check. At its peak it was pulling in a 44 share.

    It also has the distinction of being the single most expensive hour of series television with the 7th episode of the third season, “Atomic Shakespeare,” a send up of The Taming of the Shrew. They used two A Units for filming and the crew was on overtime for the 9-day shooting schedule resulting in a $5M tab. That would be over $12.7M adjusted for inflation.

    And, of course, the stars hated each other. Willis and co-star Cyril Sheppard didn’t talk to each other for 30 years after filming ended.

    After the lead characters consummated their relationship viewers fled in droves. ABC moved the show to Sundays, the scripts got weird and it went out with a whimper. It’s been out of circulation because the network bought short-term music licenses and it’s current owners, Disney, has no desire to revisit it.

    That Taming of the shrew pastiche is the only thing I know about the show. After Burton & Taylor, it might be next best!

    • #12
  13. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Henry Racette (View Comment):

    Titus Techera (View Comment):

    It’s an interesting thing, that manliness became blue-collar in the movies in the ’80s, which quickly became declasse, then disappeared. I’m not sure to what extent it even appeals to young audiences. Would be worth finding out…

    My kid brother once said of Bruce Willis that “He wears his blue collar on his sleave.”

    But we both like the guy.

    Your kid brother had a good line there!

    • #13
  14. Randy Weivoda Moderator
    Randy Weivoda
    @RandyWeivoda

    EJHill (View Comment):

    Moonlighting was so hot during the second and third years of its run. So much so that ABC literally handed creator Glenn Gordon Caron a blank check. At its peak it was pulling in a 44 share.

    It also has the distinction of being the single most expensive hour of series television with the 7th episode of the third season, “Atomic Shakespeare,” a send up of The Taming of the Shrew. They used two A Units for filming and the crew was on overtime for the 9-day shooting schedule resulting in a $5M tab. That would be over $12.7M adjusted for inflation.

    And, of course, the stars hated each other. Willis and co-star Cyril Sheppard didn’t talk to each other for 30 years after filming ended.

    After the lead characters consummated their relationship viewers fled in droves. ABC moved the show to Sundays, the scripts got weird and it went out with a whimper. It’s been out of circulation because the network bought short-term music licenses and it’s current owners, Disney, has no desire to revisit it.

    Yeah, the last couple of years were so-so, but most seasons were dynamite.  The Taming of the Shrew episode was fabulous.  The combination of the clever writing and Willis’ charm were a perfect match. 

    I never watched any of the Die Hard movies.  By far, my favorite Bruce Willis movie was The Fifth Element.  I also have Bruce’s album of soul/R&B/blues music.

    • #14
  15. namlliT noD Member
    namlliT noD
    @DonTillman

    EJHill (View Comment):

    Moonlighting was so hot during the second and third years of its run. So much so that ABC literally handed creator Glenn Gordon Caron a blank check. At its peak it was pulling in a 44 share.

    It also has the distinction of being the single most expensive hour of series television with the 7th episode of the third season, “Atomic Shakespeare,” a send up of The Taming of the Shrew. They used two A Units for filming and the crew was on overtime for the 9-day shooting schedule resulting in a $5M tab. That would be over $12.7M adjusted for inflation.

    My favorite was the episode before that, “Big Man on Mulberry Street”.

    Maddy has a dream that takes the form of a classic Hollywood dance scene.  The music is Billy Joel’s “Big Man on Mulberry Street”, which is pretty awesome, and extended a bit with an edit.  And they got Stanley Donen, the guy behind “On the Town” and “Singing in the Rain”, to do the choreography.

    One problem; neither Cybil nor Bruce can actually dance.  So that was a bit of a challenge in the choreography department.  No matter, they pulled it off with remarkable grace.

    • #15
  16. Chris O Coolidge
    Chris O
    @ChrisO

    Instant connection, that is what I think of. Even decades later, I can easily pull him up in my head singing, “Seeeaaa-grams Golden Wine Cool-ers; Seeeaaa-grams Golden Wine Cool-ers!” 

    At first we thought he was just having a good time, sort of a rock star on TV and in film. Then he took an uncredited role in Paul Newman’s Nobody’s Fool just to be a part of it. Huh? Oh, he’s serious about this. Suddenly the Hudson Hawk debacle was forgotten, and that same year (1994) launched him to new heights as Butch in Pulp Fiction.

    David Addison, John McClane, Korben Dallas, Frank Moses, David Dunn, and on and on, these were not the same character, but they had the common presence of Bruce Willis. What was it? Calm at the center of a storm, always reachable, and nearly every time someone to root for. Characters not unlike Bruce, an ex-security guard and bartender with immense talent (and confidence) waiting to be shared. Thankfully, we got to see it.

    Thanks, Bruce. Our best thoughts to you and best wishes for your family and your health.

    • #16
  17. Chris Hutchinson Coolidge
    Chris Hutchinson
    @chrishutch13

    Moonlighting was one of my favorite shows as a teenager and made me forever like Bruce Willis regardless the movie but my favorite was definitely The Last Boy Scout. I’m also a big fan of the Look Who’s Talking movies and think his voice added a lot but can’t really count it as a “Bruce Willis” movie.

    • #17
  18. Old Bathos Moderator
    Old Bathos
    @OldBathos

    I remember when Die Hard was first released, a lot of people were skeptical that the funny guy from Moonlighting could pull off an action hero role.  Willis went beyond adequate all the way to iconic.

     

    • #18
  19. Gazpacho Grande' Coolidge
    Gazpacho Grande'
    @ChrisCampion

    Titus Techera (View Comment):

    Maybe he wanted to leave some wealth behind for his kids-

    That’s the rumor.  He knew he had a degenerative condition and was banking everything before he goes.  Which sounds a lot like what I’d do, in that same situation.

    • #19
  20. Gazpacho Grande' Coolidge
    Gazpacho Grande'
    @ChrisCampion

    Old Bathos (View Comment):

    I remember when Die Hard was first released, a lot of people were skeptical that the funny guy from Moonlighting could pull off an action hero role. Willis went beyond adequate all the way to iconic.

     

    I was one of them, and it turned out to be one of my favourite movies of all time.

    Willis is completely relatable.  That’s why even giant, bombastic flicks like Die Hard didn’t overwhelm the character.  He was at times hilarious in that movie without winking at the audience while doing it.  In other words, real.

    This is a rough ride for a guy who accomplished so much.  It ain’t right.

     

    • #20
  21. ctlaw Coolidge
    ctlaw
    @ctlaw

    Gazpacho Grande' (View Comment):

    Titus Techera (View Comment):

    Maybe he wanted to leave some wealth behind for his kids-

    That’s the rumor. He knew he had a degenerative condition and was banking everything before he goes. Which sounds a lot like what I’d do, in that same situation.

    LA Times

    • #21
  22. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    EJHill (View Comment):

    Moonlighting was so hot during the second and third years of its run. So much so that ABC literally handed creator Glenn Gordon Caron a blank check. At its peak it was pulling in a 44 share.

    It also has the distinction of being the single most expensive hour of series television with the 7th episode of the third season, “Atomic Shakespeare,” a send up of The Taming of the Shrew. They used two A Units for filming and the crew was on overtime for the 9-day shooting schedule resulting in a $5M tab. That would be over $12.7M adjusted for inflation.

    And, of course, the stars hated each other. Willis and co-star Cyril Sheppard didn’t talk to each other for 30 years after filming ended.

    After the lead characters consummated their relationship viewers fled in droves. ABC moved the show to Sundays, the scripts got weird and it went out with a whimper. It’s been out of circulation because the network bought short-term music licenses and it’s current owners, Disney, has no desire to revisit it.

    I was sad to see the demise of Moonlighting.  Regardless of their lack of off-screen affection, their chemistry on-screen was terrific.  I’m not so sure it was the consumation of the characters’ relationship as much as their absence for a season that started the show on its downward spiral.  I can’t remember for sure, but I think it was a salary dispute.  The other actor and actress (who played Herbert Viola and Miss DiPesto) didn’t quite have the umph needed to carry the show . . .

    • #22
  23. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Apparently, it was a popular show & people still have fond memories 30 years later! A film critic I know also pointed to that musical scene as one of the accomplishments of the show–as for director Stanley Donen, although he’s primarily famous for musicals, he also made famous thrillers like Charade & a bunch of other good Cary Grant pictures. Never even got an Oscar nomination.

    • #23
  24. James Hageman Coolidge
    James Hageman
    @JamesHageman

    Sadly this is a real retirement, not a Tom Brady retirement.

    • #24
  25. Randy Weivoda Moderator
    Randy Weivoda
    @RandyWeivoda

    Stad (View Comment):
    The other actor and actress (who played Herbert Viola and Miss DiPesto) didn’t quite have the umph needed to carry the show . . .

    True, but they sure were a nice complement to the stars.

    • #25
  26. Gary Robbins Member
    Gary Robbins
    @GaryRobbins

    Damn.  Damn.  Damn.  In 2006, my Marilee had a massive stroke which resulted in aphasia.  I would say something to Marilee.  It would take about 5 seconds for Marilee to interpret what I had said.  Almost immediately she would know what she wanted to say back to me.  But it took about 5 more second for Marilee to make a witty remark.  My conclusion was that she was all there, but could not get the words out.  Marilee was such a smart woman.  (After the stroke, it was discovered that my Marilee had Stage 4 lung cancer; it was thought that the cancer cells helped create the stroke.  She died 100 days after her stroke.)

    If Bruce Willis has the same type of aphasia, he is still all there.  He just can’t carry on a conversation.  Damn.  Damn.  Damn.

    • #26
  27. Old Bathos Moderator
    Old Bathos
    @OldBathos

    Gary Robbins (View Comment):

    Damn. Damn. Damn. In 2006, my Marilee had a massive stroke which resulted in aphasia. I would say something to Marilee. It would take about 5 seconds for Marilee to interpret what I had said. Almost immediately she would know what she wanted to say back to me. But it took about 5 more second for Marilee to make a witty remark. My conclusion was that she was all there, but could not get the words out. Marilee was such a smart woman. (After the stroke, it was discovered that my Marilee had Stage 4 lung cancer; it was thought that the cancer cells helped create the stroke. She died 100 days after her stroke.)

    Brutal, Gary.  Sorry for your loss.

     

    • #27
  28. Chris O Coolidge
    Chris O
    @ChrisO

    namlliT noD (View Comment):

    EJHill (View Comment):

    Moonlighting was so hot during the second and third years of its run. So much so that ABC literally handed creator Glenn Gordon Caron a blank check. At its peak it was pulling in a 44 share.

    It also has the distinction of being the single most expensive hour of series television with the 7th episode of the third season, “Atomic Shakespeare,” a send up of The Taming of the Shrew. They used two A Units for filming and the crew was on overtime for the 9-day shooting schedule resulting in a $5M tab. That would be over $12.7M adjusted for inflation.

    My favorite was the episode before that, “Big Man on Mulberry Street”.

    Maddy has a dream that takes the form of a classic Hollywood dance scene. The music is Billy Joel’s “Big Man on Mulberry Street”, which is pretty awesome, and extended a bit with an edit. And they got Stanley Donen, the guy behind “On the Town” and “Singing in the Rain”, to do the choreography.

    One problem; neither Cybil nor Bruce can actually dance. So that was a bit of a challenge in the choreography department. No matter, they pulled it off with remarkable grace.

    Love the scene, and more, love that they had the creative freedom and inspiration to do it. 

    • #28
  29. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    Randy Weivoda (View Comment):

    Stad (View Comment):
    The other actor and actress (who played Herbert Viola and Miss DiPesto) didn’t quite have the umph needed to carry the show . . .

    True, but they sure were a nice complement to the stars.

    Hell yes!  They were spendid in their supporting roles . . .

    • #29
  30. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    Old Bathos (View Comment):

    Gary Robbins (View Comment):

    Damn. Damn. Damn. In 2006, my Marilee had a massive stroke which resulted in aphasia. I would say something to Marilee. It would take about 5 seconds for Marilee to interpret what I had said. Almost immediately she would know what she wanted to say back to me. But it took about 5 more second for Marilee to make a witty remark. My conclusion was that she was all there, but could not get the words out. Marilee was such a smart woman. (After the stroke, it was discovered that my Marilee had Stage 4 lung cancer; it was thought that the cancer cells helped create the stroke. She died 100 days after her stroke.)

    Brutal, Gary. Sorry for your loss.

     

    Ditto.  So sad . . .

    • #30
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