Willis Copes With the Glare of Celebrity

The sun didn’t set on Bruce Willis’ career with “Sunset,” the Blake Edwards film that earned Willis some well-aimed critical jabs--and a paltry $6 million at the domestic box office.

Willis is back in “Die Hard,” an action-suspense picture from 20th Century Fox that opens July 13. Will it boost him back to the promising level the “Moonlighting” star reached with his debut film, “Blind Date” (domestic gross: $40 million)? Or does another disaster loom?

The ever-so-cool Willis professes not to be worried about such matters.

“It’s not more or less important (career-wise) than any other of the films are,” Willis claimed of his third starring role, relaxing in his sparse new offices on the Fox lot. “I’m going to get work after this regardless if ‘Die Hard’ is a big hit or doesn’t do well.”


In “Die Hard,” Willis, with a pumped-up body and hard-edged demeanor, portrays New York City detective John McClane, who battles a gang of terrorists who take over a Los Angeles high-rise office building during the cop’s visit to his estranged wife’s office party.

Willis downplays any connection between “Die Hard” and “Rambo"-style movies currently in vogue (and maybe on their way out).

“No one who worked on the film thought it was a ‘Rambo'-type film,” said the bearded Willis, wearing a silver earring, faded jeans and sneakers, and playing with a gold wedding ring from his six-month marriage to actress Demi Moore, who’s expecting the couple’s first child in September.

“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 said he performed most of his own stunts, including “one of the toughest stunts I’ve ever done or ever will do.” He jumped off a 25-foot ledge into an air bag, just ahead of a 60-foot ball of flame--simulating leaping from a tall building.

Added the macho man: “I got off on doing my own stunts.”

Several bigger-name actors, including Clint Eastwood and Richard Gere, turned down the film, which is budgeted at $25 million, according to a Fox representative. But “Die Hard” director John McTiernan, who directed Schwarzenegger in “Predator,” professes to be happy with Willis. “Bruce is a tough lower-class kid, so he could easily relate to his character,” McTiernan said. “The little touches he provides as a so-called movie star are unique. Bruce knew all the crew members’ names, made up rap songs that mocked himself during the tense shooting and bulked himself up for the character. The first thing he tells you is to forget his celebrity and concentrate on making the work better.”

Willis has been dealing with the pros and cons of celebrity since “Moonlighting” shot him to instant fame and fortune four years ago. Although he says he has no use for celebrity, it got him a multimillion-dollar contract to pitch Seagram’s wine coolers. According to articles in Ad Age and the Wall Street Journal, that relationship wasn’t renewed after his much-publicized drinking exploits. The actor downplays the stories of debauchery as media sensationalism, and says it was his choice not to renew the Seagram’s contract.

“For a long time it was difficult for me to understand that writing things about celebrities in this country is a multimillion-dollar business,” said Willis. “People want to know about my personal life, but to me it’s what’s up on screen that counts.

“When I first came to L.A. and started being employed on a regular basis, I was still carrying a lot of resentments and anger around with me. There have been times when I haven’t treated myself with the respect I should have.

“But I think you would find it very irritating if you had a photographer following you from the time you leave your house to when you come home at night. Even if you’re used to a camera, you’d go nuts.

“I didn’t know how to be a celebrity. I didn’t know how to go from being a New York stage actor to the ‘star’ of a TV show or the ‘star’ of a feature film. There is no handbook. It is an on-the-job training process. I spoke to a lot of people who have been through it and their only advice was you just had to go through it yourself.

“Celebrity created a lot of fear in me. I didn’t know how to deal with it. And when you’re afraid, you don’t want anyone to know you’re afraid. I lived through--which has been overblown in the press--a ‘three-year debauchery of bachelorhood and drinking.’ The truth of the matter is I was in a four-year relationship and was only single for a brief time before I got married. But that’s what they focused on because that’s what sells magazines.”

Willis expressed these feelings without bitterness. The only visible sign of inner pain surfaced when he became flustered and stuttered--a minor affliction that became oddly endearing during a long conversation.

Has he been his own worst enemy at times?

“I really felt like the last two years I was racing. Nothing was as important as what I was going to do next . . . the next party, the next project. One day I’m doing a special with the Pointer Sisters and later that day racing over to Fox and putting on the suit and saying, ‘Maddie, darling, when are we going to get horizontal?’ I got slammed for being nothing more than an interesting character on a television show. People went crazy. I didn’t do any press. I just did my work.

“And out of that came ‘The Bad Boy of Hollywood, Bruce Willis.’ The truth was I had a close circle of friends, guys I’ve known out here for a long time, and we just hung around together and had fun together.

“Being a celebrity is like every man’s fantasy. It’s a very tempting fruit where the only restraint is one that’s self-imposed. I feel that I defy most men my age (33) to not take advantage of it to a certain degree. But this is a good opportunity to apologize to my former neighbors in Nichols Canyon for playing my music too loud. If that’s against the law in this country, then lock me up and take me to Russia. The bottom line on when I got arrested was that it was Memorial Day, 10 o’clock at night and, yes, the music was too loud.” (Charges were later dropped.)

And now?

“Demi has made me laugh at things a lot more. My life now is full of love and warmth. Genuine love from my wife, who’s been through all the tabloid traumas on her own. She tells me not to get upset because most people are going to pay more attention to the other story next to mine about the talking bear from outer space landing in Yosemite.”

Willis has two years remaining on his “Moonlighting” contract--ABC has not officially renewed the hit series--and a two-picture deal with Tri-Star for features.

Next month he joins director Norman Jewison’s “In Country,” playing a Vietnam veteran in a small Kentucky town who attempts to make his niece (Emily Lloyd, “Wish You Were Here”) understand the significance of that war to his generation.

“This is the first role I’ve played that shows a side of my past personal life that the public’s never seen. It’s important to make a movie like this that shows how the politics and passion of the ‘60s shaped our lives today,” he said.

When his “Moonlighting” contract is up, he has said publicly that he and Moore plan to move away from Hollywood, perhaps to the country, where the pace is slower and values different.

“I hope my time’s up in the celebrity spotlight. This may sound trite, but now I just want to act for fun and play a family man for real.”