Before he was an actor, Bruce Willis worked as a private investigator, a gig that would prove prophetic once he decided to try his hand at making it in Hollywood. In 1985, following guest roles on Miami Vice and The Twilight Zone, he landed his breakout role in the ABC dramedy, Moonlighting, in which he played a P.I. Nearly 40 years later, he is a bona fide movie star and has become the gold standard for action heroes.
In late March, Willis' family announced that the 67-year-old actor had been diagnosed with the neurodegenerative disease 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. "As Bruce always says, 'Live it up,' and together we plan to do just that."
His fans, meanwhile, will always be able to revisit his decades-long filmography. Willis may be best known for playing any number of wisecracking, machine gun-wielding tough guys, but never forget that he was always equally skilled at drama and comedy. Below, A.frame looks back on some of his best work.
The blockbuster that made the TV star into a leading man. The role of John McClane — a New York cop who unwittingly stumbles upon a terrorist takeover of a Los Angeles skyscraper on Christmas Eve — was originally offered to the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone before Willis was cast by director John McTiernan. Willis would go on to play the part with the perfect balance of humor and grit. Today, it would be downright impossible to imagine the forever iconic Christmas classic with anybody else in the lead role.
What do you do once you've redefined what it means to be an action star? Willis opted to play against type when he signed on to this Robert Zemeckis farce. He plays the spineless Dr. Ernest Menville, a plastic surgeon caught between two women. Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn chew the scenery, but Willis provides the comedic center to this cult classic.
The lives of two hitmen, a boxer, a gangster and his wife, and a pair of bandits intertwine in this tale of violence and redemption. Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction is one of the most influential and groundbreaking films ever made. The era-defining masterpiece stars a who's who of the biggest names in '90s cinema, including Willis, John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, Tim Roth, Amanda Plummer, Ving Rhames, Eric Stoltz, and Harvey Keitel. Willis appears as Butch Coolidge, an aging boxer who has one final fight coming up before retirement.
The neo-noir dark comedy, which won Tarantino his first Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, is widely beloved for its unforgettable dialogue, nonlinear plot, outstanding performances, and hip soundtrack — which contains a mix of surf music, pop, soul, and rock and roll.
In Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys, Willis plays James Cole, a prisoner living in an underground compound in 2035. Cole is recruited for a mission that sends him back to the 1990s to gather information about a man-made virus that killed off the vast majority of the world's population. The sci-fi thriller, co-starring Madeleine Stowe, earned two Oscar nominations, including Brad Pitt's first-ever nomination (for Best Supporting Actor).
A movie you won't find on this list is Disney's Broadway Brawler, because the rom-com (in which Willis was to star as a has-been hockey player) was scrapped before it could even finish filming. Instead, Willis committed to starring in three more projects for the studio, the first of which was Michael Bay's Armageddon. Willis starred as an oil driller sent by NASA to stop an asteroid from destroying the Earth. Co-starring Billy Bob Thornton, Ben Affleck, Liv Tyler, Owen Wilson, and Steve Buscemi, this sci-fi disaster film went on to become the highest-grossing film released in 1998.
The Sixth Sense is the movie that introduced the world to writer-director M. Night Shyamalan — and his signature surprise endings. Willis plays Malcolm Crowe, a child psychologist cased with a young patient (Haley Joel Osment) who claims to see dead people. The film's famous twist at the end only works because Willis' performance completely sells it. The thriller went on to receive six Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture.
The partnership between Willis and Shyamalan continued with Unbreakable, a riff on comic book movies in which Willis stars as David Dunn, a security guard survives a train crash without a single injury — leading him to discover that he is an unconventional sort of superhero. Co-starring Samuel L. Jackson and Robin Wright, the suspense thriller was lauded for the originality with which it told a superhero origin story.
Co-directed by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller, this 2005 neo-noir thriller successfully merges cinematic and comic aesthetics to deliver a heightened, stylized world. In a film that features a cast of over a dozen name actors, including Mickey Rourke, Clive Owen, Benicio del Toro, Jessica Alba, Rosario Dawson, Michael Clarke Duncan, and Elijah Wood, it is Willis — playing the grizzled police detective John Hartigan — who more or less introduces the viewer to this violent city with his excellent, hard-boiled narration.
After breaking out in indie flicks but before directing Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi, writer-director Rian Johnson cast Willis in this sci-fi thriller to play an assassin sent back through time to be killed by his younger self (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, donning prosthetics to look like a young Willis). Nearly 20 years after 12 Monkeys, Looper proved that Willis could still travel back in time to help deliver a sci-fi hit.
Wes Anderson is known for revealing unseen sides of our favorite stars. And with Willis being something of a master at reinvention, it's no wonder that their partnership produced such a gem. The whimsical coming-of-age comedy features Willis as a very different kind of police officer, Captain Duffy Sharp, who is searching for a pair of young runaways. That Willis didn't become a permanent fixture in Anderson's troupe is a shame, but at least we'll always have Moonrise Kingdom.