Thirty-five years ago, Bruce Willis entered the Nakatomi Plaza as an ordinary guy… and staggered out as moviedom’s new favorite action hero. John McTiernan’s Die Hard blew up in theaters on July 15, 1988, establishing a new template for Hollywood action movies — one that still exists to this day — and gifting moviegoers with a bevy of immediately recognizable quotes. But the movie’s most immediate impact was Willis’s quick ascension to Hollywood’s A-list. Already a television star courtesy of the ABC hit Moonlighting, the New Jersey-born actor nabbed a then-unheard of $5 million payday for Die Hard, and he spent the next three decades reaping the rewards of that movie’s success.
Funnily enough, though, Willis didn’t spend a lot of time reflecting on the film that made him a global superstar. While the actor was front and center during Die Hard‘s pre-release promotional campaign — not to mention for each of the four sequels that followed — he rarely did extended interviews about the original movie over the ensuing 35 years. Willis’s voice is notably absent from the commentary tracks and behind the scenes featurettes that have been included on Die Hard‘s various DVD and Blu-ray releases, as well as from most of the retrospective interviews that crop up every anniversary year.
Part of that might have been due the actor’s famously combative relationship with the press, which he often accused of ginning up conflict with celebrities. “People think that if it’s written down, it must be true,” Willis told Playboy in 1996. “Somebody’s making money. It’s a really s***ty side of show business. It trades in human foibles, human tragedy, human misbehavior and humiliation. And most of it isn’t true. All they give a f*** about is selling this s*** in the stores.”
And it’s highly unlikely that we’ll ever hear Willis talk about Die Hard again. Last year, the actor retired from acting after his family disclosed that he had been diagnosed with aphasia — which affects a person’s ability to speak, write and understand language. Since then, Willis has largely stayed out of the public eye, although he has appeared in social media posts shared by his wife, Emma Heming Willis, and the three children he shares with ex-wife, Demi Moore. In fact, on the 34th anniversary of Die Hard last year, Emma shared a video of the 67-year-old star atop the Fox Plaza building, which was immortalized as the Nakatomi Plaza onscreen.
To celebrate 35 years of Die Hard, we dived into the internet archives to assemble an oral history of the movie in Willis’s own words. Welcome to the party, pals.
Forget Schwarzenegger — get me Bruce Willis!
By his own admission, Willis wasn’t 20th Century Fox’s first choice to play New Jersey cop John McClane, who hops on a plane to L.A. over Christmas hoping to patch things up with his wife, Holly, played by Bonnie Bedelia. Adapted from Roderick Thorp’s 1979 novel, Nothing Lasts Forever, the project that became Die Hard was reportedly offered to everyone from Frank Sinatra and Al Pacino to Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“I think I was the 50th choice! They went to everybody. All of those guys probably would have been great John McClanes. As it turns out, if you think about John McClane now, you can’t imagine anybody doing it but me, right? What I always say about John McClane is if he had the choice of someone else stepping up and doing what he had to do, he would let them do it. I remember right around that time, the script for Lethal Weapon came across my path and my girlfriend at the time read it and said it was way too violent. Thank God I didn’t do that one!” — Willis speaking to Entertainment Weekly in 2007
While Willis had been in a few high-profile feature films prior to Die Hard — including Blind Date opposite Kim Basinger — he was still known primarily as a television actor thanks to Moonlighting. And TV and movies were still considered separate ecosystems at that point in Hollywood. In fact, Willis initially had to reject the offer to star in Die Hard due to his Moonlighting commitments. But when his schedule opened up, the actor took the leap… and not just because of the $5 million payday.
“They just asked me to do it. I was in the middle of Moonlighting. I have to thank Cybill Shepherd for enabling me to do it. She got pregnant and they shut down Moonlighting for 12 weeks. During that time, I fit in Die Hard.” — Willis speaking to Playboy in 1996
“I’ve always made it my personal code to try something new every time. It would be easy for me now to only do roles like David Addison [in Moonlighting], because I was successful at that and people like that kind of wisecracking, charming guy. I could only do things like that for the rest of my life and be a personality rather than an actor. I don’t want to do that. It bores me.” — Willis speaking to The Washington Post in 1988
“[My salary was] an old strategy called ‘you get what you can get.’ We didn’t put a gun to anybody’s head. In a town and an industry where all this can be gone next year, you take what you can get. You get what you can. I really feel that Fox is pleased with how it all turned out. They paid me what they thought I was worth for the film, and for them.” — Willis speaking to Ed Gross in 1988
Willis also came into Die Hard with a specific take on John McClane. At a time when action heroes were mostly invulnerable muscle men like John Rambo and John Matrix, this John was going to be an average Joe who found himself in decidedly unaverage circumstances — defending the Nakatomi Plaza against a group of high-tech European robbers led by Hans Gruber, played by Alan Rickman.
“With Die Hard, I chose the role because I wanted to play against those other characters [like Rambo]. John McClane is the opposite of a superhero. He’s not invincible — he’s a very vulnerable guy. He’s capable of being afraid and making mistakes and feeling pain. I think that’s part of the reason the audience has responded so well to this film. It’s about somebody they know.” — Willis speaking to Bobbie Wygant in 1988
“Die Hard really satisfies the sense of justice for the average guy. The character that I play in this film is closer to me than anything I’ve ever done. John McClane is the kind of guy who would rather stand in the back of the crowd than shove his way to the front. He has a lot of quiet dignity.” — Willis speaking to a TV journalist in 1988
“Sly Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger movie characters are larger-than-life. But my character, even though he’s a hero, is just a regular guy. He’s an ordinary guy who’s been thrown into extraordinary circumstances. I haven’t seen a film like this in a while that has a nice build to it, nice character payoffs. This film satisfied me in a lot of masculine ways.” — Willis speaking to The Los Angeles Times in 1988
Storming the Plaza
Production on Die Hard started in November 1987 and continued until March 1988. It was a demanding shoot, but Willis made a point of participating in as much of the action as he could, including one of the movie’s signature stunts — McClane’s death-defying leap off of the roof of the Nakatomi Plaza as a fireball goes off behind him.
“The biggest stunt that I’ve ever done in my life is in that film. I jumped off a building into a 25-foot fall into an airbag and they blew the roof off of the building behind me. There was this 40-foot ball of flame behind me! Had I had them show me the stunt before I did it, I probably wouldn’t have did it — I would have been too scared. But when I saw it on film, it was just spectacular.” — Willis speaking to Entertainment Tonight in 1988
“It was pretty hairy. I’ve never done a stunt quite like that and I don’t think I ever will [again]. It certainly works in the film. I like things that thrill me. I like taking risks and in my everyday life I don’t get the opportunity to ride on top of elevators, to jump off the roof and to fight. Those things don’t come up very much in my life.” — Willis speaking to Bobbie Wygant in 1988
“You see me jumping off the roof of what’s supposed to be Nakatomi Plaza. But what I really did was jump off the garage — a five-story garage. And that was the first shot that I did on the first night. And I’m up there on the roof and they’re strapping the firehose around my waist and they’re slathering me up with this stuff and I said, ‘What’s this for?’ And they said, ‘That’s so you don’t catch on fire. See those big plastic bags of gasoline over there? We’re gonna blow them up when you jump!’ When I jumped, the force of the explosion blew me out to the very edge of the air bag I was supposed to land on. And when I landed everyone came running over to me and I thought they were going to say, ‘Great job! Attaboy!’ And what they were doing is seeing if I’m alive because I almost missed the bag. Finally, I was like, ‘Why would you shoot this scene first?’ And they were like, ‘If you were killed at the end of the movie it would cost us a lot more money because we’d have to reshoot the whole thing with another actor.'” — Willis speaking to Entertainment Weekly in 2007
But Willis also enjoyed the quieter moments he got to play where John McClane’s innate vulnerability really comes through. And, like everyone in the audience, he was tickled at how the late Rickman redefined movie bad guys with his singular performance as Hans Gruber.
“It was a different way of working for me. Most of the things I’ve done have been with another actor. This film really required me to spend a lot more time in my own imagination; to imagine the people on the other side of the walkie talkie, to imagine the people outside of the building. I think I found things that I wouldn’t have normally found had I been doing scenes with actors in the same room.” — Willis speaking to a TV journalist in 1988
“Die Hard is probably the closest I’ve come to showing what is in my heart on screen. I know guys who are afraid and have anxiety, and I think you know people like that, too. That’s what I wanted to play. I really wanted to be honest about the moment you go through when you think your life is about to end. I wanted to play somebody who was afraid to die.” — Willis speaking to Ed Gross in 1988
“Any story where you have good guys versus bad guys can only be as smart as the intelligence of your baddest guy. And Alan Rickman is the best example of that. That was his first film! He’s awesome in that. When he says, ‘Unfortunately, Mr. Takagi will not be joining us for the rest of his life,’ it’s such a throwaway delivery, it’s so good. That really kind of snobbish thing that the Brits do so well in film.” — Willis speaking to Entertainment Weekly in 2007
Die Hard Forever
Some action movies need a little time to find an appreciative audience. Not Die Hard. The film was an immediate hit, grossing over $140 million worldwide and ranking among the Top 10 highest-earning films of that year. And Willis knew it was going to be a hit after early screenings had audiences cheering.
“I’ve never experienced that kind of reaction to my work. Being a part of this film is like being a part of a championship ball club. We wanted to make a film about ordinary people, people you can relate to. It’s not about a superhero, it’s not about a guy who is invincible. It’s about a guy who’s very vulnerable and I think people really respond to that.” — Willis speaking to a TV journalist in 1988
“It definitely turned out to be bigger than what I had imagined, but I knew it was good when I saw early scenes. I think John McTiernan [the director] shone. He would do things with the camera that I wouldn’t always understand. He made it really exciting — nonstop, claustrophobic.” — Willis speaking to Playboy in 1996
But the film’s success also threatened to pigeonhole Willis as “the Die Hard guy” after he’d managed to escape “the Moonlighting” guy label. Of course, that didn’t stop him from appearing in four sequels, even as they offered diminishing creative returns.
“The only time I was conscious of doing parts that were similar was after Die Hard 2, when I was about to begin The Last Boy Scout. It was about another cop or detective, a kind of down-on-his-luck guy. I thought I should come up with a different guy — a different way of breathing, of thinking, of speaking. I think I did, though it was in a similar genre.” — Willis speaking to Playboy in 1996
“It’s difficult to compete with the components of the first film. Even the new one, Live Free or Die Hard — if I was going to make an action movie today and I hadn’t done Die Hard, I would totally rip it off. The claustrophobic building, the good guys, the bad guys, the hostages, everybody’s trapped in this building, you put John McClane in all of these tight little spaces, you have him kill or beat the s*** out of everybody else, and save his wife. All the Die Hards will be judged against the first one.” — Willis speaking to Entertainment Weekly in 2007
In 2018 — four years before his aphasia diagnosis was announced — Willis offered one of his final public statements on Die Hard at a Comedy Central-hosted roast. And he seized the opportunity to settle the longest-running debate about the movie.
“Now please, listen very carefully: Die Hard is not a Christmas movie. It’s a goddamn Bruce Willis movie. So a yippee-ki-ya to all of you motherf***ers.” — Willis at the Comedy Central Roast of Bruce Willis in 2018
Die Hard is currently streaming on Hulu.
#Bruce #Willis #making #action #classic