From the hardboiled action hero of Die Hard to the spooky psychiatrist of The Sixth Sense, Willis has covered all the bases in his remarkably successful career.
Walter Bruce Willis was born on March 19th 1955 in West Germany to an American father, David Willis, and a German mother, Marlene, who worked in a bank. Bruce was the eldest of four children.
After being discharged from the military in 1957, David Willis took the family back to New Jersey and he worked as a welder and factory worker. A popular classmate, Willis was elected Student Council President and also threw himself into drama classes. This was perhaps because, tormented by a debilitating stutter, he discovered that he lost his impediment when on stage.
Rather than go to college after graduation, Willis farmed sheep in a mining village in Alabama but decided to quit after a colleague was killed on the job. After a stint as a bodyguard, Willis returned to his original passion of acting. He enrolled in a drama course at Montclair State University, where he was cast as Brick in the class production of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. Having decided where his vocation lay, Willis decided to leave school to head to New York in pursuit of more lucrative acting parts.
Willis initially took work at Café Central as a way to meet celebrities and finally made his off-Broadway debut in 1977 in Heaven And Earth. He also took uncredited roles in The First Deadly Sin, Prince Of The City and The Verdict starring Paul Newman.
Slowly the acting dream began to transpire. Willis was a hit in Sam Shephard's theatre production of Fool For Love and managed to land a role as a wife-beating gun-runner in the massive hit show Miami Vice. Alongside acting roles, Willis also appeared in the first TV ad for Levi 501 Blues plus, with a then-unknown Sharon Stone, plus another ad for Seagram’s wine coolers.
Now real stardom arrived, Willis flew to LA to audition for a part in Desperately Seeking Susan, but was rejected. While he was in town he found out what other auditions were taking place - one of which was for a new ABC show to be named Moonlighting. Willis found himself up against 3,000 other hopefuls in the race to star alongside Cybil Shepherd as the smooth, wisecracking David Addison. He managed to win over the producer, who cast him despite protests from ABC who would have preferred a well-known actor in the lead role.
Moonlighting ran from 1985 to 1989 and was an enormous success, but Willis soon got a hunger for roles beyond the world of TV. Off the back of Moonlighting, Willis starred in two films by Blake Edwards - Blind Date with Kim Basinger and Sunset - both of which were flops.
1987 was to be Willis’s year though. Firstly, Willis met his future wife, Demi Moore, at the premiere of Stakeout, and also became an unlikely international singing star with the hit record The Return Of Bruno, a collection of Motown-type material, including a cover of Respect Yourself. This was followed by a second album, If It Don't Kill You, It Just Makes You Stronger.
Willis won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for Moonlighting the same year. But the real breakthrough came when Willis took the part of Detective John McClane in the film Die Hard. The film was a word-of-mouth smash that took everyone by surprise with Willis redefining the role of the action hero.
Willis then hit big again in 1989, this time providing the voice of baby Mikey in the comedy Look Who's Talking. More box office hits followed with the sequels to Die Hard and Look Who's Talking, but then Willis's career encountered a rollercoaster period.
Willis’s next project was starring alongside Tom Hanks in Brian De Palma's adaptation of Bonfire Of The Vanities (1990), which sadly bombed with both the critics and consumer audience. Quickly Willis redeemed himself with The Last Boy Scout (1991), but then took another nosedive in Hudson Hawk (1991) which once again drew embarrassing box office takings and terrible reviews.
Willis’s career continued on an uninspiring plateau with the minor hit comedy Death Becomes Her (1992), the enjoyable but mostly ignored Striking Distance (1993), and an uncredited cameo in Loaded Weapon (1993). But the intervention of cult director Quentin Tarantino in offering Willis a part in Pulp Fiction (1994) earned him rave reviews and finally, Willis was back on track.
Rather than sit back and be content, Willis next played a man in a pink bunny-suit in Rob Reiner's North (prompting the infamous Roger Evert review "I hated, hated, hated, hated this movie") and appeared alongside Paul Newman again in the low-key Nobody's Fool, both in 1994. Success continued in 1995 with Terry Gilliam's tremendous 12 Monkeys, and once more in Die Hard With A Vengeance. A series of mediocre flicks in 1997 and 1998 saw Willis star in the films The Jackal, The Siege and Mercury Rising, the highligh of this period being the superficial sci-fi oddity The Fifth Element.
Willis took the lead in Armageddon in 1998, which went on to be a $200 million box office hit. He continued by starring in the supernatural thriller The Sixth Sense, which broke Armageddon’s box office results and was an instant success.
A stint in Friends as Jennifer Aniston’s boyfriend led not only to a second Emmy win for Outstanding Guest Actor but also to a role alongside Matthew Perry in The Whole Nine Yards (2000), for which Willis donated his fee to various charities.
The same year brought another massive screen hit for Willis with Unbreakable, working once more with Sixth Sense director M. Night Shalamayan.
While Willis’s career was undoubtedly at an all-time high, his personal life was sadly working in retrograde. After a 12 year marriage and three daughters, Willis separated from Demi Moore in 2000. The year was also tarnished by Willis losing his position as Seagrams spokesman after being caught drink driving. And then there was Planet Hollywood, which filed for bankruptcy, closed numerous branches and submitted to a major restructuring.
Returning back to music, Willis toured Europe to try and revive interest in the Planet Hollywood chain again. Attempting to spread his wings even further, Willis followed the worldwide success of Unbreakable with a string of more testing projects. A return to comedy alongside Billy Bob Thornton and Cate Blanchett in the film Bandits (2001) was followed by an appearance in a filmed stage version of Sam Shephard's True West recorded at the Liberty Theatre in Idaho, then the war film, Tears Of The Sun (2003).
Willis took just one film part in 2004 when he reprised his role as Jimmy The Tulip in a sequel to The Whole Nine Yards (The Whole Ten Yards). 2005 would see a string of new releases (as well as a tour of musical dates in Las Vegas). First came Hostage, which also saw the debut of Willis's daughter, Rumer.
Next was a role starring in Robert Rodriguez's visually stunning Sin City, based on the graphic novels of Frank Miller. This was set in a seedy, violent noir-world. Willis next moved on to Alpha Dog (2006), written and directed by Nick Cassavetes and based on the real-life story of Jesse James Hollywood.
Another film noir followed with Lucky Number Sleven (2006) followed, along with an extended cameo in Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror. Willis reprised his most iconic role, that of John McClane, in Live Free Or Die Hard (titled Die Hard 4.0 in the UK). In 2010, he united with fellow action stars Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Statham and Mickey Rourke for The Expendables, appearing in the sequel in 2012. 2010 also saw the release of Red, short for Retired & Extremely Dangerous, which in turn had a sequel in 2012.
Willis saw both extremes of critical reactions in 2012, releasing the incredibly well-received Looper and Moonrise Kingdom as well as the critically savaged fifth Die Hard film, A Good Day To Die Hard.
Next up is the second Sin City film, and a gangster tale entitled The Prince, in which Willis will co-star with Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson. After nearly 30 years of fame, Bruce Willis remains at the top of the A-list and still going strong.