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Yes, Virginia, That <i> Was</i> Bruce Willis

It was the first day of rehearsals on the Paramount film “Nobody’s Fool” and director Robert Benton was introducing the movie’s star, Paul Newman, to Bruce Willis, who had a supporting role.

As Benton recalled, Willis told Newman, “You know, we’ve worked together before.” Newman looked puzzled and replied, “We have? I can’t remember. Where was it that we worked together?”

Willis then told him to wait and he’d prove it. The next day he arrived with a cassette, which he popped into a VCR as Newman and Benton watched. Suddenly, Newman appeared on the TV screen in a scene from his 1982 film, “The Verdict,” in which he gave a standout performance as a Boston attorney.

Then they noticed it. As Newman was giving his courtroom summation, the camera caught sight of a man seated behind him. It was Bruce Willis. He was a bit player.

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In the intervening years, Willis found fame in TV’s “Moonlighting” and went on to become one of Hollywood’s certified action stars through the “Die Hard” movies. (His next one, “Die Hard: With a Vengeance,” is due this summer.)

But in the past year, it has become increasingly common to see Willis popping up in supporting roles in smaller movies. He’s not gone so far as to play extras in courtrooms again, but he’s been avoiding major screen credit and taking drastic cuts in his usual Gargantuan fees.

In Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction,” John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson won widespread acclaim for their roles as drug world hit men, but many thought Willis--in only 22 minutes of screen time--turned in an equally intense role as Butch Coolidge, a boxer who refuses to take a dive.

In “North,” he played a guardian angel-like character who acted as a mentor of sorts to Elijah Wood, who got star billing in the Rob Reiner film.

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Willis recently spent several days filming the yet-to-be released “Four Rooms,” in which Tarantino is one of four directors doing segments.

And Willis is also about to star in a Universal picture called “Twelve Monkeys,” but while he has a leading role in that film, sources say that his up-front fee has been cut to almost nothing because the film is being made on a small budget.

In “Nobody’s Fool,” Willis’ name is listed only in the closing credits and he reportedly accepted scale of $1,400 a week--a steep cut from his normal fee of $15 million for action movies.

“You can count the number of actors who do that on the fingers of one hand,” said Benton. “I think the great thing about Bruce is that if your material interests him, he doesn’t care what the money is.”

What gives?

Willis’ agent, Arnold Rifkin, worldwide head of motion pictures for the William Morris Agency, said that in each of these cases, the actor took smaller roles because they afforded him a chance to work with people he admires, such as Newman, Tarantino, Reiner and Benton.

But others say that Willis, a stage actor by training, is trying desperately to prevent studios from categorizing him as an actor who only does action roles.

“He’s made a lot of money and I guess he now wants to be perceived as a serious actor, not just a big action star,” said one Hollywood agent.

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Some action stars have had enormous difficulties crossing over to different roles. Sylvester Stallone, for example, bombed in such comedies as “Rhinestone,” “Oscar” and “Stop! or My Mom Will Shoot.”

“If you want to get out of it,” one Hollywood observer said, “you have to do things that get offers. ‘Pulp Fiction’ was certainly a help to Willis.”

In the case of “Nobody’s Fool,” Rifkin said, the opportunity to work with Newman and Benton, a director he first worked with in “Billy Bathgate,” was enough to seal the deal no matter how much of a fee cut he had to take.

“I called Bruce and said, ‘This is not like “Billy Bathgate"--there’s no money here,’ ” Benton recalled. “I said, ‘We’re all doing this picture on the lowest possible budget.’ He said, ‘Don’t worry about that. We’ll have a good time.’ ”

In the movie, Willis plays Carl Roebuck, one of several eccentric locals in a hard-luck town that includes the late Jessica Tandy as Newman’s eighth-grade teacher who is now his landlady and Melanie Griffith as Carl’s attractive yet frustrated wife.

Benton said that he chose Willis and Griffith because he wanted characters who would “push back” when verbally shoved by Newman, who plays Sully, a 60-year-old construction worker with no steady work, no money and an estranged, dysfunctional family. Newman recently won best actor awards from the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Rifkin said Willis knew from the start that this would be Newman’s movie and he didn’t want to distract from that.

In publicity packets distributed to the news media, Willis’ photograph was not included and his name does not appear in production notes.

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