Since the 1980s, Bruce Willis has appeared in over a hundred films, often as a beloved action hero in films like Armageddon, The Fifth Element, Pulp Fiction, and the Die Hard franchise. After starting his career as an off-Broadway actor in the 1970s, Willis went on to star alongside some of the greatest performers of his generation (Meryl Streep, Paul Newman, Isabella Rossellini, the list goes on).
However, in early April, his family announced that his accomplished and storied career is coming to a close after revealing the actor was diagnosed with aphasia, a brain condition that affects language cognition. In honor of his much-deserved retirement, we’re mining his lengthy career to look back at some of his greatest and most underrated performances.
Moonlighting – David Addison Jr.
Willis fell in love with acting in high school when he found that performing on stage helped him overcome his stutter. He booked his first professional television role as the private investigator David Addison Jr. on the series Moonlighting after competing against over 3,000 other actors for the role. While he soon transitioned from television to the big screen, his performance in “Moonlighting” was the role that effectively launched his career. His five seasons opposite Cybill Shepherd earned Willis an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series and a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor in a Television Series.
The Player – Himself
Thanks to his star-making role as John McClane in Die Hard, by 1992, Willis was enough of an established actor (and had enough of a sense of humor about his new role as Hollywood’s go-to action superstar) that he was asked to play himself in Robert Altman’s movie industry takedown, The Player. Appearing in the movie-within-the-movie as the climatic hero tasked with saving Julia Roberts, Willis hilariously skewers his newfound action star cred. And in an odd twist of fate, he would reprise his role of playing himself in a film, again opposite Roberts, in Steven Soderberg’s 2004 Ocean’s Twelve.
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Twelve Monkeys – James Cole
By 1995, Willis had firmly established himself on Hollywood’s A-list with a string of hits, including three Die Hard installments, The Last Boy Scout and Pulp Fiction. The last thing anyone would expect from him was a non-linear, sci-fi arthouse film directed by a member of the Monty Python comedy troupe — but that’s exactly the type of risk he was ready to take. Twelve Monkeys stars Willis as James Cole, who in 2035 reluctantly volunteers to be sent back in time to track down the origins of a mysterious virus that wiped out nearly the entire population of earth. The beautifully unhinged film by Terry Gilliam doesn’t get the same credit as some of his other supernatural thrillers (The Sixth Sense, Sin City, Split), but it’s undoubtedly a classic in its own right — and features an Oscar-nominated performance by Brad Pitt to boot.
Unbreakable – David Dunn
After the enormous success of The Sixth Sense, Willis once again teamed up with director M. Night Shyamalan for one of his most subdued and profound performances to date in Unbreakable. Before the Hollywood superhero craze, Willis plays an ordinary man, who discovers his extraordinary powers when he is the sole survivor of a tragic train accident. Although the film received mixed reviews and was seen as a disappointment as a follow-up to “The Sixth Sense,” it has since gained a cult following and is noted as one of the first films to depict a superhero in realistic settings.
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True West – Lee
Willis not only returned to the stage as an actor for Sam Shepard’s play “True West,” but he also directed the production performed at the Company of Fools’ Liberty Theatre in Hailey, Idaho. Shepard’s 1983 play depicts a sibling rivalry between two estranged brothers attempting to write a screenplay together as they slowly lose touch with reality. Willis chose to star and direct this acclaimed revival (which was later filmed and broadcast) following the death of his own brother and his battle with pancreatic cancer.
Moonrise Kingdom – Captain Sharp
With the star-studded casts that have become the norm in Wes Anderson’s quirky, ensemble comedies, great performances can sometimes get lost in the shuffle — that, of course, is not the case for Willis’ turn as Captain Sharp in Moonrise Kingdom. Set on a fictional New England island during the summer of 1965, Willis plays a lonely, local police captain tracking down two 12-year-old runaways. Though he was called upon to flex some of his physical, action star talents in the film’s climactic chase, Willis’s pitch-perfect, dry humor wins the day in this quaint classic.
While Bruce Willis will always be remembered for his larger-than-life, action and adventure stature, his long career is also a treasure trove of aching, playful, subtle and intelligent performances worth revisiting.
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