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From rom-com lead to action star, Bruce Willis leaves behind an expansive career

Haley Joel Osment And Bruce Willis in <em>The Sixth Sense</em> in 1999.
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Haley Joel Osment And Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense in 1999.

Bruce Willis' family announced on Wednesday that he would be stepping away from acting after developing aphasia, a condition that makes it increasingly harder to use and understand language. This news brings an apparent end to a career in film and television that roared to life in 1985 when ABC aired the first episode of Moonlighting, which starred Willis and Cybill Shepherd as David Addison and Maddie Hayes, the bantering heads of the Blue Moon Detective Agency.

The next 35-plus years took the actor on quite a ride: the Die Hard movies, 12 Monkeys, The Fifth Element, and Armageddon. The voice of a baby in Look Who's Talking. Collaborations with decorated directors, including Wes Anderson in Moonrise Kingdom; Quentin Tarantino in Pulp Fiction; and M. Night Shyamalan in The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Glass. Not one but two famous flops that come up now and then for proposed reconsideration: Hudson Hawk and The Bonfire of the Vanities. A return to TV comedy in an Emmy-winning guest role on Friends. Ultimately, a whole series of straight-to-video thrillers and action pictures: First Kill and Hard Kill, Extraction and Reprisal.

And this isn't even close to all of it.

If there is to be no more acting for Willis, he will leave behind a list of film and TV credits that runs from the essential to the disposable; comedy and drama and action; futuristic movies and science-fiction movies and movies with big explosions, movies about tough guys and movies about sad men who are aging and aren't sure how they want that process to go. He worked with some of his generation's most ambitious directors and offered outstanding performances in several excellent films, but still wound up mocked mercilessly, over and over, by the Razzie Awards. And his career didn't happen in a straight line; it happened in phases.

The Wise-Ass

It's hard to remember sometimes, when you see his grim face staring out from endless similar-looking posters (I recently copped to seeing a shot of him that I literally mistook for Gerald Ford) that Willis became a star because he was so lively and funny. Moonlighting got attention for inventive episodes like the black-and-white one that Orson Welles introduced, or the Shakespeare one, or the one with the dance number that Stanley Donen choreographed.

But for me, it was all about the ordinary — the extraordinary — dialogue scenes, in which Shepherd and Willis would wrap their mouths around rhymes, or talk at the same time and land in the same place, or yell at each other. The writing was playful and stylized, in touch with the fact that nobody talks like that.

Moonlighting had a reputation for being a production train wreck. Still, it put a stake in the ground for television will-they/won't-they rom-coms that people still reference, even if they sometimes get the facts wrong. But in transitioning to film, while Willis could easily have steered from this success (he won an Emmy) over into the romantic comedies that were thriving in theaters, his first big success in films was a slide over to action instead — while keeping his wisecracks sharp — in Die Hard. John McClane, the New York cop he played, didn't have David Addison's goofiness, but he did have his sarcasm and his fondness for a good comeback. All that plus swinging on the fire hose, all that plus machine guns, all that plus running across broken glass.

Die Hard wasn't his first movie, but it was Willis' bridge from TV star to movie star — which, back in the late 1980s, was still a sharp divide you generally crossed and then did not go back.

Bruce Willis stars in the 1997 movie, <em>The Fifth Element</em>.
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Bruce Willis stars in the 1997 movie, The Fifth Element.
Bruce Willis in <em>Die Hard With a Vengeance</em>, out 1995.
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Bruce Willis in Die Hard With a Vengeance, out 1995.
Will Patton, Bruce Willis, Michael Clarke Duncan, Ben Affleck, and Owen Wilson in <em>Armageddon,</em> out in 1998.
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Will Patton, Bruce Willis, Michael Clarke Duncan, Ben Affleck, and Owen Wilson in Armageddon, out in 1998.

The Movie Actor

Bruce Willis' next big move, into serious movies that contended for awards, was Pulp Fiction in 1994, where he played boxer Butch Coolidge. Willis had reached for a little more prestige a few years earlier in Brian de Palma's Bonfire of the Vanities, but that hadn't panned out. Pulp Fiction did.

The film, in fact, has to be up there with the most significant movies of its time when it comes to affecting the trajectories of its stars — think of its effect on Willis, John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson. Willis wasn't taking a straight line out of genre action movies by any means, given that he later did Armageddon, but he started to get around in self-consciously artsy, offbeat films like Luc Besson's The Fifth Element and Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys.

By this time, Willis wasn't just a movie star, he was a movie actor. He wasn't just jumping out of burning buildings, he was acting in interesting films from auteur directors like Gilliam and Besson and Tarantino.

And then he starred in The Sixth Sense.

Haley Joel Osment and Bruce Willis in <em>The Sixth Sense</em>.
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Haley Joel Osment and Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense.

Malcolm

Bruce Willis played psychologist Malcolm Crowe in M. Night Shyamalan's 1999 mystery-thriller The Sixth Sense. It was one of his closest encounters with playing an ordinary guy, despite that guy's very not-ordinary circumstances. The performance is quiet, haunted; it finds a gear that Willis had used only sporadically but would return to again and again after, especially as the invincible David Dunn in Shyamalan's features Unbreakable and Glass.

The Sixth Sense put together a lot of the successes Willis had already had in one single movie and expanded on them: it had recognition (six Oscar nominations), it had admiring reviews, and it was hugely popular — the second-place domestic grosses of the year behind The Phantom Menace. It made close to $300 million in the U.S., where Pulp Fiction — also a popular and well-regarded success — had made a little more than $100 million.

Samuel L. Jackson and Bruce Willis in the film, <em>Unbreakable</em>.
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Samuel L. Jackson and Bruce Willis in the film, Unbreakable.

The Love Machine

Bruce Willis won his second Emmy for a role he introduced the year after The Sixth Sense, the same year as Unbreakable, when he appeared on Friends as Paul, the father of Ross' significantly younger girlfriend. Paul was also Rachel's latest love interest. In an episode that brought back many memories of the sillier moments on Moonlighting, Willis played Paul as a tough guy who, alone in his room and secretly wildly insecure, danced in front of a mirror singing "Love Machine" to pump himself up. He'd done a lot of action comedy by then; it was fun to see him do silly comedy.

The first decade of the 21st century didn't bring a ton of great roles for Willis, although he did Live Free or Die Hard in 2007, going back to John McClane after more than a decade away from the franchise.

He continued, for a time, to take on occasional roles that challenged him and did some interesting things with his persona. Two were in the same year, 2012. One was the Wes Anderson movie Moonrise Kingdom, in which Willis played Captain Sharp, the sweet foster parent who ultimately creates a home for the young orphan Sam. The other was Looper, a very (very) different Rian Johnson time-travel story in which he played Joe, an aging hit man on the run from a younger version of himself.

After these roles, he disappeared mostly into the straight-to-video market, with occasional exceptions like Glass in 2019 — the last thing, I think, that I saw him in. A little more than 30 years after I developed a powerful crush on him on Moonlighting, as only a teenager can.

Misery

And one more thing: I saw Bruce Willis and Laurie Metcalf in Misery on Broadway in 2015, in a production I admit I didn't like at all. Willis, whose performance struck me as oddly flat, took a lot of flack during that production for wearing an earpiece that could be a backup in case he struggled with memorization. There were people who cast him in their own minds as a lazy Hollywood star who didn't care to learn his lines. But with the announcement of his aphasia diagnosis, I'm reminded, yet again, that it's impossible to know from the outside what people might be dealing with.

Maybe he just didn't want to learn his lines; it's certainly possible. But a variety of challenges can make people's lives harder, especially as they age. New reporting in the L.A. Times suggests at least some people were well aware of how Willis' symptoms were impairing his ability to work. There are people for whom an earpiece is a shortcut; there may be others for whom it's more like a hearing aid, or contacts, or a cane, or medication. And maybe there are people for whom it's a way to be on a set beyond when they should be on a set. You don't know unless you know.

He was one of my first favorite actors, one of the most important figures in building my love of dialogue-heavy romantic comedies. He made wildly successful blockbusters and history-making flops. It's a sad end to a long story with a lot of chapters.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.