Walter Bruce Willis (born March 19, 1955), better known as Bruce Willis, is an American actor, producer, and musician. His career began in television in the 1980s and has continued both in television and film since, including comedic, dramatic, and action roles. He is well known for the role of John McClane in the Die Hard series, which were mostly critical and uniformly financial successes. He has also appeared in over sixty films, including box office successes like Pulp Fiction, Sin City, 12 Monkeys, The Fifth Element, Armageddon, and The Sixth Sense.
Motion pictures featuring Willis have grossed US$2.64 billion to 3.05 billion at North American box offices, making him the ninth highest-grossing actor in a leading role and twelfth highest including supporting roles. He is a two-time Emmy Award-winning, Golden Globe Award-winning and four-time Saturn Award-nominated actor. Willis was married to actress Demi Moore and they had three daughters before their divorce in 2000, following thirteen years of marriage.
Willis was born in Idar-Oberstein, West Germany, the son of a Kassel-born German, Marlene, who worked in a bank, and David Willis, an American soldier. Willis is the eldest of four children: he has a sister, Florence, and a brother, David. His brother Robert died of pancreatic cancer in 2001, aged 42. After being discharged from the military in 1957, Willis’s father took his family back to Penns Grove, New Jersey, where he worked as a welder and factory worker. Willis attended Penns Grove High School in his hometown, where he encountered issues with a stutter. He was nicknamed Buck-Buck by his schoolmates. Finding it easy to express himself on stage and losing his stutter in the process, Willis began performing on stage and his high school activities were marked by such things as the drama club and student council president.
After high school, Willis took a job as a security guard at the Salem Nuclear Power Plant and also transported work crews at the DuPont Chambers Works factory in Deepwater, New Jersey.
After a stint as a private investigator (a role he would play in the television series Moonlighting as well as in the 1991 film, The Last Boy Scout), Willis returned to acting. He enrolled in the drama program at Montclair State University, where he was cast in the class production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Willis left school in his junior year and moved to New York City.
After multiple auditions, Willis made his theater debut in the off-Broadway production of Heaven and Earth. He gained more experience and exposure in Fool for Love, and in a Levi’s commercial.
Willis left New York City and headed to California to audition for several television shows. In 1984, he appeared in an episode of the TV series Miami Vice, titled “No Exit.” He auditioned for the role of David Addison Jr. of the television series Moonlighting (1985–89), while competing against 3,000 other actors for the position. The starring role, opposite Cybill Shepherd, helped to establish him as a comedic actor, with the show lasting five seasons. During the height of the show’s success, beverage maker Seagram hired Willis as the pitchman for their Golden Wine Cooler products. The advertising campaign paid the rising star between $5–7 million over two years. In spite of that, Willis chose not to renew his contract with the company when he decided to stop drinking alcohol in 1988.
One of his first major film roles was in the 1987 Blake Edwards film Blind Date with Kim Basinger and John Larroquette. Edwards would cast him again to play the real-life cowboy actor Tom Mix in Sunset. However, it was his then-unexpected turn in the film Die Hard that catapulted him to movie star status. He performed most of his own stunts in the film, and the film grossed $138,708,852 worldwide. Following his success with Die Hard, he had a supporting role in the drama In Country as Vietnam veteran Emmett Smith and also provided the voice for a talking baby in Look Who’s Talking, as well as its sequel Look Who’s Talking Too.
1980s and 1990s
In the late 1980s, Willis enjoyed moderate success as a recording artist, recording an album of pop-blues titled The Return of Bruno, which included the hit single “Respect Yourself”, promoted by a Spinal Tap-like rockumentary parody featuring scenes of him performing at famous events including Woodstock. Follow-up recordings were not as successful, though Willis has returned to the recording studio several times.
Willis acquired major personal success and pop culture influence playing John McClane in 1988’s Die Hard. This film was followed up by Die Hard 2: Die Harder in 1990 and Die Hard With a Vengeance in 1995. These first three installments in the Die Hard series grossed over US$700 million internationally and propelled Willis to the first rank of Hollywood action stars.
In the early 1990s, Willis’s career suffered a moderate slump starring in flops such as The Bonfire of the Vanities, Striking Distance, and a film he co-wrote titled Hudson Hawk, among others. He starred in a leading role in the highly sexualized thriller Color of Night (1994), which was very poorly received by critics, but has become popular on video. However, in 1994, he had a supporting role in Quentin Tarantino’s acclaimed Pulp Fiction, which gave a new boost to his career. In 1996, he was the executive producer of the cartoon Bruno the Kid which featured a CGI representation of himself.
He went on to play the lead roles in Twelve Monkeys (1995) and The Fifth Element (1997). However, by the end of the 1990s, his career had fallen into another slump with critically panned films like The Jackal, Mercury Rising, and Breakfast of Champions, saved only by the success of the Michael Bay-directed Armageddon which was the highest grossing film of 1998 worldwide. The same year his voice and likeness were featured in the PlayStation video game Apocalypse. In 1999, Willis then went on to the starring role in M. Night Shyamalan’s film, The Sixth Sense. The film was both a commercial and critical success and helped to increase interest in his acting career.