For a while, there had been rumors that something was wrong with Bruce Willis. He had dementia, people whispered. He needed an earpiece on set so that others could feed lines to him, the story went. I didn’t want to believe it, but today his family announced he was retiring from acting, citing a recent diagnosis of aphasia. “As a result of this and with much consideration Bruce is stepping away from the career that has meant so much to him,” the statement read.
It’s always hard when professional tough guys succumb to illness. Cancer claimed John Wayne. Charles Bronson battled Alzheimer’s before his death. Willis will hopefully have several years ahead of him, although the long-term outlook isn’t very promising. All the same, his fans will have trouble accepting that the popular action star and beloved wiseass could be felled by a disease that will impair his ability to communicate with the world. Viewers identify with movie stars for lots of reasons, but Willis is a special case. You felt like you knew the guy — you felt like he was one of us.
Because he’s been part of so many blockbusters over the last few decades, moviegoers might have forgotten — or been too young to remember — when the idea of Bruce Willis as an action hero seemed ridiculous. The dude from Moonlighting? Wasn’t he the guy who made that bad R&B album? Who’d take him seriously? But that was actually part of his appeal: In a world of Arnolds and Slys, he was the regular guy who found himself in the midst of an action movie and had to fight (and quip) his way out of trouble. He humanized the genre, becoming a huge star who could also be a really good actor when the role required him to be. But he never seemed special while doing all that — he always just seemed like Bruce. Few men wore their celebrity so casually.
Willis grew up in a blue-collar family, and that attitude always stayed with him. But he also was someone dedicated to enjoying his life. “I’m having a ball,” he said in 2005. “One of my mottos is to live it up. 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.”
He’d been a security guard and a private eye, living with a stammer that, he discovered, went away when he started acting. Moonlighting was his breakthrough, a groundbreaking comedy-drama in which he and Cybill Shepherd portrayed detectives who solved mysteries and, eventually, fell in love. His David was sarcastic and irreverent, a hip new variation on the smart-alecks that Bill Murray played. But he was sexy and compelling, too, and the two stars had amazing chemistry. Willis won an Emmy for the role, and soon he tried his hand at movies meant to showcase his comedic skills, duds like Blind Date. But 1988’s Die Hard forever changed how we saw him.
It’s been said enough, but it bears repeating: The 1980s were overrun by macho, roided-up action stars, these inhumanly muscular individuals who looked like gods. Outside of Harrison Ford, anyone with a traditional physique wasn’t welcome. (Even Sigourney Weaver in Aliens looked super-buff.) But as John McClane, one of the greatest action heroes of the last 35 years, Willis was meant to be ordinary — just a New York cop visiting his estranged wife in Los Angeles over Christmas, hoping to win her back when some terrorists throw a wrench in his plan. Hans Gruber was a brilliant, snide villain, played by a celebrated Shakespearean actor in Alan Rickman, whereas Willis was the court jester, foiling the bad guy’s plans while getting hurt a lot and making it up as he went along. Die Hard is deservedly celebrated — it created an entire genre of close-quarters action flicks — but Willis’ normalcy was a revelation. Maybe we couldn’t defeat a bunch of terrorists singlehandedly like McClane could, but his exasperation, panic and vulnerability were a stark contrast from the heroes we saw in other blockbusters. McClane acted the way we would in such a crisis — except cooler and with better aim.
Willis starred in some misfires soon after — he’s all wrong for The Bonfire of the Vanities, Hudson Hawk is as bad as advertised, while Color of Night is a reminder that plenty of erotic thrillers are awful — but he consistently found material that played to his regular-guy strengths. His performance in Pulp Fiction as the luckless boxer Butch allowed him to deliver a more low-key version of cool than that of his more flamboyant costars. His grounded, haunted turn as James, the man chosen to go back in time and perhaps save Earth from catastrophe in 12 Monkeys, grounds that often-indulgent movie, giving it real soul and pathos. Willis did something similar for The Fifth Element, his subdued taxi driver serving as a surrogate for the audience inside that giddily over-the-top sci-fi drama. And anybody who enjoys the ludicrous (and ludicrously entertaining) Armageddon loves it in part because of Willis’ no-nonsense portrayal of the leader of an oil-drilling team who have to fly into space to stop an asteroid. His death scene would be amazingly corny if Willis didn’t sell the hell out of it — which he absolutely did.
But the next chapter of his career might end up being his most enduring. Willis had plenty of blockbusters to his credit by the time he signed up for The Sixth Sense, but this was different: a muted character study that doubled as a melancholy horror movie. “I agreed to do it very quickly,” Willis later said. “I was as surprised by the ending in the script, I think, as the audience was in the theater. … Once I knew the ending of the film and that my character was indeed dead, I had to forget about it and act as if I weren’t. I never really thought about acting as a ghost.”
The Sixth Sense has long been associated with its big twist, which can reduce the movie to one (very effective) surprise. But rewatch the 1999 Best Picture-nominee and you’re struck by its poignant story of a man so obsessed with his work — Willis’ Malcolm is a child psychologist determined to help the troubled Cole (Haley Joel Osment) — that he doesn’t even realize that he’s dead. Knowing the ending only amplifies the tragedy at the center of writer-director M. Night Shyamalan’s film as we watch Malcolm let his compulsiveness blind him from the fact that he’s lost everything. Osment and Toni Collette were both nominated, but Willis’ subdued performance holds the movie together: He’s never been so moving on screen, a regular guy trying to do a good job who is about to have his world upended.
He and Shyamalan teamed up right away for Unbreakable, a film that anticipates the superhero cinema we’ve been living with now for decades. And, again, it’s his character’s ordinariness that’s so affecting: David is just another unhappy middle-aged man who discovers he might have incredible powers. A metaphor for fatherhood and midlife malaise, Unbreakable finds David struggling to accept his destiny — a very superhero-y storyline — but the movie’s realistic treatment of that narrative makes it far more engaging and touching than so many of the comic-book movies that have come our way since. Working in the same hushed, withdrawn vein as in The Sixth Sense, Willis relied on the audience’s long, fond association with his onscreen persona, turning down the hilarity but remaining as relatable and sympathetic as always. Unbreakable is a divisive movie — lots of people hate its twist ending — but Willis is wonderful in it.
The subsequent years didn’t yield as many gems. He’s good in Moonrise Kingdom, but too often he opted for direct-to-video fare. (The rumors about dementia also included speculation that maybe he was doing paycheck gigs because he was trying to make as much money as possible for his family before his condition became too grave.) But his fun-loving public face was always welcome, and his appearances on Late Show were consistently delightful. He and David Letterman both disdain Hollywood phoniness, and so Willis would often do bits that accentuated how far removed he was from a spoiled star. He always wanted you to know he was just one of the guys — or, in one memorable segment, just one of the interns.
Willis never received an Oscar nomination, never enters into the “best actors of his generation” conversation. But for a while there, he was such a reliable presence in big-budget movies. Like a mixture of Jimmy Stewart, John Belushi and Steve McQueen, he kept action films human-sized, which only made his characters more heroic. You never thought they were indestructible — you knew they could die at any moment, even though they rarely did.
That’s what makes today’s news so difficult to absorb. Willis lived his life having a blast, approaching his performances with an unpretentiousness that made him irresistible. He was our buddy, and today we learned our buddy isn’t doing well. The news feels personal. No, not him — not Bruce.